Chasing Imperial Virility with Enoch Powell and Oliver’s Army

This week saw the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of the Union, on January 16 1707. The past 24 hours (never mind the previous 312 years) has put such a strain on the Union that it seems at breaking point. The slow draining of the last residual respect not just for Westminster but from the processes and institutions of politics in general is a sign of a society broken by failed promises. This damage threatens to effect and disable political discourse in Scotland as well as wider Britain as the public sphere just becomes even more toxic and more frightened.

The ugly face of a proto-English fascism was on display on Newsnight:

Seriously. “It’s a plot”…I wonder if David Davis likes being in the same ignorant thought as Enoch Powell? #Newsnight

— Liam McKee (@LiamMcKee) January 17, 2019

and on BBC Question Time a snarling baying audience cheered the prospect of a No Deal Brexit that is uniformly thought to mean economic chaos:

As we begin the end of colonial Britain, it’s no surprise that it’s post-colonial writers who are the most articulate describers of the collapse.

The Indian writer Pankaj Mishra (the author of “Age of Anger: A History of the Present”) observed the parallels between British misrule of empire and their Brexit behaviour. He writes of how Louis Mountbatten, described as a “mendacious, intellectually limited hustler,” came to preside, as the last British viceroy of India, over the destiny of some 400 million people. The malign incompetence of the Brexiteers he suggests was precisely prefigured during Britain’s exit from India in 1947, most strikingly in the lack of orderly preparation.

Mishra suggests that this is partition — the British Empire’s ruinous exit strategy — coming home. He writes: “In a grotesque irony, borders imposed in 1921 on Ireland, England’s first colony, have proved to be the biggest stumbling block for the English Brexiteers chasing imperial virility. Moreover, Britain itself faces the prospect of partition if Brexit, a primarily English demand, is achieved and Scottish nationalists renew their call for independence. It is a measure of English Brexiteers’ political acumen that they were initially oblivious to the volatile Irish question and contemptuous of the Scottish one.”

The Irish writer Fintan O’Toole describes the “the rise of a sensationally self-indulgent and clownish ruling class” and suggests that Brexit has popped the lid off the existing system with its “the profound regional inequalities within England; the generational divergence of values and aspirations; the undermining of the welfare state and its promise of shared citizenship …and contempt for the poor and vulnerable”.

Brexit is he argues: “the projection outwards of an inner turmoil. An archaic political system had carried on even while its foundations in a collective sense of belonging were crumbling. Brexit in one way alone has done a real service: it has forced the old system to play out its death throes in public. The spectacle is ugly, but at least it shows that a fissiparous four-nation state cannot be governed without radical social and constitutional change.”

But why given such extremism and such dysfunctional institutions — is polling for Scottish independence not soaring? And how should we respond to the Brexit crisis and the rise of a newly emboldened far-right English nationalism?

Writing in the Scotsman Joyce McMillan has warned against the idea of an immediate Scottish independence referendum as some (many) have been calling for. She writes:

“For now the chances of achieving a peaceful and consensual untangling of the Union are close to zero; and if it cannot be done by agreement and consent, then I suspect the vast majority of Scots would rather wait until it can, just as they waited patiently through the Thatcher years for the return of the Scottish Parliament, finally achieved by constitutional means in 1999 without a pane of glass broken, and with the overwhelming support of 75 per cent of the people.”

The article was lauded by Iain Macwhirter and others and caused apoplexy amongst the nationalist faithful.

But the choice isn’t between do-nothing inertia and bold action as it’s been framed. McMillan’s is quite right to suggest that lessons need to be learnt from the Catalan experience, and advocates of “demanding a referendum” have to actually spell out a) how this would be achieved b) how it would be won.

But equally, McMillan isn’t treating like with like.

Independence isn’t Devolution.

The British state didn’t lose anything through the devolution process.

It’s just not the same.

The values of consensus, peacefulness and liberal harmony are valuable and worthwhile but it may be naive to think we are still in that space.

Her vision of “the big picture of where we would like Scotland and the other countries of these islands to be in 25 years’ time; and … the final aim of a peaceful confederation of countries living in a mutually respectful economic and trading union, with open borders and close social and cultural links” may be an aspiration, and a good one, but it may not be achievable.

If the England/Britain Thing is intent on self-harm and intoxicated by Empire Revival we can’t be part of that. We can’t wait around for it all to pan-out just like it did in the 1980 and 1990s (at huge economic cost).

The Labour Party doesn’t exist in the form it did then — and the Liberals have disappeared off the political map. The establishment consensus that created the devolution settlement are scattered and buried and the conditions that made that possible don’t exist. Neither does the pre-devolution, pre-indyref, pre-Brexit belief in politics, the benign nature of the British state or the belief in power being patiently handed down by rational consensual forces.

That idea — which seems central to McMillan’s folk-memory — seem from another world.

If it’s incumbent on the nationalist movement to do better than just “indyref now!” without strategy or innovation or self-reflection, it’s also incumbent on social democrats to do better than to argue for a ‘softly-softly’ re-tread of the 1980s.

Our relations have changed dramatically. We are now in the grip of “a sensationally self-indulgent and clownish ruling class” — that was not fully manifest in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Originally published at on January 18, 2019.



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