Capital E Nationalism versus little e (and €) capitalism

To be a big player in Europe, England needs to be a big nation. Britain cannot fulfill that role because it is not a nation, but an empty shell.

I remember with fondness a TV ad from a few years back (but I genuinely can’t remember the product it was advertising!) in which a small girl was asked by a schoolteacher, “What is the capital of England?” The girl pondered for a minute and said “E”. This humorous episode was followed by another in similar vein, in which a boy wondered if the sea was caused by someone leaving the tap running.

These are two images which, in retrospect, seem apt metaphors for our present-day national, financial and EU crises. These days, London scarcely feels like a capital of an entity that might be called ‘England’ or even the ‘United Kingdom’. A capital of international capital it certainly is, however; and David Cameron has scored multiple opinion-poll points in seeking to insulate the City from the impending Euro deluge. This is not so much defending the ‘national interest’ as insuring that our national interest rate remains at a level where we can go on borrowing from the City to pay back the City: keeping ourselves just about afloat (or keeping just ourselves afloat) as the Continent slips below the waterline of a euro debt caused by someone conveniently forgetting to turn off the tap of lending.

London and the UK as a whole do indeed seem to have taken on the character of an “offshore centre taking capital away from the rest of Europe”, as President Sarkozy is reported to have said to David Cameron at the summit meeting of 8/9 December. But have London and the UK also lost their moorings in any sort of grounded reality that one might know as ‘England’; let alone in the financial and political reality of a looming euro and EU meltdown?

Notwithstanding the disconnect between the City and the real (English) national interest, Europhile media and politicians have generally taken the view that David Cameron’s ‘veto’ of an as yet non-existent treaty was driven by and spoke to an ‘English’ point of view. Commentators have referred to an upsurge of ‘English nationalism’ in right-wing Tory ranks and have castigated the ‘Little Englander’ thinking behind resurgent euroscepticism. In so doing, they forget the original use of the term ‘Little Englander’, during the Second Boer War, to refer to people who were opposed to the very imperialist British-nationalist attitudes for which europhiles now criticise eurosceptics.

One example of this sort of critique is a recent article by David Marquand, who is a former chief advisor to Roy Jenkins when he was the President of the European Commission. Marquand characterises the resurgent post-summit euroscepticism as a peculiarly English, rather than British, phenomenon, arguing that it has been transformed from ‘scepticism’ to ‘phobia’: a visceral, in-the-gut reaction of hostility rather than rational, constructive-critical engagement. Marquand compares this ‘English’ europhobia with the supposedly more europhile and euro-integrationist sentiment prevalent in Scotland and Wales. And yet, despite the fact that Scottish and Welsh nationalists have for decades invoked the promise of closer ties with Brussels and the EU as a whole as one of their strongest arguments for separation from England, Marquand still feels entitled to blame English europhobia for potentially driving the Scots and the Welsh out of the UK.. And Marquand’s stance also ignores the evidence from opinion polls that Scots are just as eurosceptic as the English, if not more so: one recent ComRes survey found that 41% of Scots polled would vote for full withdrawal from the EU in a referendum on the issue, compared with between 35% and 40% in different parts of England.

Speaking as a genuine English nationalist, I view the misrepresentation of Tory euroscepticism as an English-nationalist position with a combination of bemusement and dismay. For example, Brian Walker writing in the Slugger O’Toole blog – normally a fairly rational voice of Northern Irish unionism – uncritically reproduces this (anti-)English-nationalist meme when he says: “The Financial Times (£) is alone today among UK national papers in spotting how the English nationalism of extreme Tory eurosceptics feeds Scottish separatism”. Walker goes on to quote Phillip Stephens from the same FT article: “Much of the Conservative party now speaks the language of English nationalism – driven to fury by Europe and increasingly driven out by the voters from Britain’s Celtic fringes”. In a later article, the same Brian Walker wonders why “the English political class . . . are less interested in the future of the British Union than the European one?”.

I wonder who Brian Walker regards as constituting the ‘English political class’. I wasn’t aware that such an entity existed. And no, Messrs Walker and Stephens, the Conservative Party precisely does NOT speak the language of English nationalism: Conservative politicians neither refer to nor speak in the name of ‘England’, nor do they talk of the ‘English national interest’; they talk only of ‘standing up for Britain’ and the ‘British national interest’. ‘England’ is banished from the discourse of the British polity in every way, other than as one of the choicest terms of insult in the dictionary; e.g. ‘Little Englander’ itself.

It is, however, true that Tory euroscepticism articulates a certain English attitude towards the EU project, albeit that the sentiment is articulated in ‘British’ terms. As Gareth Young pointed out in Our Kingdomearlier this month, a recent YouGov survey suggested that those who identify preferentially as English (as opposed to British) are more likely to be hostile to the UK’s membership of the EU. There is undoubtedly an insular streak in the English character, which veers towards isolationism in moments of national and European crisis. And there was more than a hint of the Dunkirk and Battle of Britain spirit in the England-based, UK popular press’s account of the Cameron veto moment – the Sun, for instance, depicting the PM in the guise of Churchill holding up a cigar-less ‘V’ sign, as if to say, ‘FU to the FU (Fiscal Union): we survived on our own through the dark days at the start of the War, so we can withstand the euro meltdown and German fiscal neo-imperialism by looking after our own interests now, too’.

This is ‘English’ nationalism, yes, but it’s English British nationalism: the British nationalism that appeals to those English people who still make little distinction between England and Britain, and view Britain / the United Kingdom as providing the strongest guarantee of England’s freedoms, security and prosperity. This attitude is perhaps worthy of the designation ‘little englander’ nationalism in the pejorative sense in which it is used nowadays; but we should write it with a lower-case ‘e’ to differentiate it from Little Englander (capital ‘E’) nationalism in the correct, historical sense of the term as reclaimed by contemporary English nationalists.

The little-englander (lower-case) mentality embodies a petty-minded pursuit of national-British economic self-interest, viewed as being best served by making Britain, and in particular London, a ‘safe haven’ of supposedly sound finance (i.e. somewhere for debt-business as usual), removed from the euro shipwreck: London as the capital of capital if not of England. This would in fact more aptly be termed ‘Little Britisher’ nationalism – at least if we are to pay any heed whatsoever to the actual terms in which it articulates itself.

By contrast, Little-Englander (capital ‘E’) nationalism in the true sense would be more aptly described as embodying a ‘Big Englander’ perspective. Domestically, Big-E nationalism is primarily a political project embodying the aspiration for England to be free to govern its own affairs. This means freedom from the UK state, and from the global corporatism and finance it has bought and borrowed into, just as much as it means freedom from real or imagined subservience to the EU. So yes, in this sense, real English nationalists – as opposed to Tory eurosceptics / europhobes inappropriately tarred with that brush – would in a sense not care, or perhaps care only relatively, if the UK’s departure from the EU were to bring about a break-up of the Union. But this is only because English self-governance is the primary goal, and if it takes either the UK’s departure from the EU or the break-up of the UK, or both, to achieve that aim, then so be it. But English self-rule is far from being the primary goal, or a publicly articulated goal in any case, of Tory eurosceptics – although one suspects that many of that breed would indeed privately not be overly concerned about the UK breaking up if it meant the Tories could exercise virtually perpetual control over English affairs, which is in fact far from being an inevitable or even likely consequence of English devolution or independence, whatever English-nationalists’ detractors might say.

In the international perspective, I think that Big E nationalism, in my conception of it, is consistent with more constructive engagement with the EU than the little-englander / Little-Britisher mentality exemplified by Cameron’s cowardly flight into the ‘British national interest’. An autonomous, confident England is and could be a big player on the European stage. Indeed, it is arguable that what the EU is missing in its present moment of crisis is leadership and support from England as a great European nation, which has been prepared in the past to stand by Europe and come to its rescue in its hour of need just as much as it has taken refuge from Europe in times of peril: the Dunkirk moment turning out ultimately to be a prelude to the Normandy landings. Now as then, the destinies and freedoms of England and Europe are intertwined, and we cannot mount a sustainable defence of England’s national interest in isolation from Europe.

What form would a more constructive, statesman-like, Big-Englander engagement towards the EU and response to the euro crisis have taken at the summit and in its wake? Certainly, a great leader like Churchill, conscious that now was the moment to demonstrate the greatness of the English nation in the face of a crisis threatening the prosperity and security of the whole continent of which England is a part, would engage positively and forcefully in negotiations with his European partners – and not run out of the room brandishing, well, nothing: not even the ultimately worthless agreement that a Chamberlain brought back from Munich in 1938.

We may disagree that the present treaty proposed by the Germans is up to the job of saving the euro, or even that saving the euro – at least in its present form – is worth doing at all. But then we should at least stay the course and press what I will insist on calling the English case, whatever that might have been if England had actually been at the table, and set out an English plan for saving the eurozone economies from their impending shipwreck. But if we want to shape the solution, we also have to be willing to be part of it: if we want to be an influential European power, playing a leading role in creating Europe’s economic and political future, then we have also to assume the responsibilities that go with it, and put our own economic security and national interests on the line for the greater good from which we can ultimately only benefit in terms of economic opportunity and political stature among our European partners.

The ‘we’ I am referring to here is England: to be a big player in Europe, we need (England) to be a big nation. Britain cannot be that big nation, because it fundamentally is not a nation, either ontologically (i.e. in terms of its self-identity) or politically. England is the big nation at the heart of Britain; but the British state and establishment has expunged England from its conception of itself, and is therefore no longer able or willing to act as the political expression of the English nation that it once was. Britain has become a de-anglicised, empty shell whose mission and purpose have narrowed down to an almost idolatrous pursuit of wealth for its own sake and to defence of ‘its’ short-term financial interests, which are fundamentally identified with those of the City of London and of corporate finance.

I’m not sure what we, as England, would or could have thrown into the negotiation with our European partners if we had been present at the table. Maybe we could have proposed that the Bank of England stand alongside the European Central Bank (ECB) to guarantee the outstanding sovereign debt of EU states, on the condition that the ECB start acting like a true reserve bank and be prepared to print money if necessary to prevent a total meltdown of the banking system and the euro. This would be a huge risk, but imagine the leverage and status this would give to England among her EU partners, including the power to drive a hard bargain and insist that other EU countries implement the so-called ‘fiscal prudence’ that the coalition government has made its hallmark! Plus it would mean that England would provide an invaluable counterweight to Germany and provide reassurance to smaller European nations that their democratic freedoms would not be mortgaged to German fiscal and EU political domination.

But no such reassurance has been received. England was not present at the table, only a mean-spirited and cowardly Britain whose ‘leader’ – unworthy though he was of that title – could think only of placating his friends in the City and his stroppier colleagues in Parliament, and of avoiding anything that might put either the UK’s financial credibility or his own political credibility at risk. Heaven forbid that Cameron should concede that the UK might have to make sacrifices to help its European friends, out of enlightened – as opposed to narrow – self-interest, and that the British people might have to be given the opportunity to approve or disapprove of yet another EU treaty, at the risk that the government’s view might be resoundingly defeated! If capital – financial and political – was to be made out of rejecting further European integration, even if this was being undertaken primarily out of desperation to save the eurozone economy, then Cameron was the man to make it!

This is not Little Englander nationalism. This is bigoted, Little-Britisher, short-termist self-interest. England was not at the party: either the European or the Conservative one! A true Little-Englander response would have been ‘Big E’ in both senses: England acting big, as a great nation, towards that other ‘E’ – Europe – which is bigger than merely the EU and the euro but risks being dragged down by their looming demise. England is a European nation, and its destiny is tied up with Europe. It’s the Little-Britishers, on the other hand, that are holding on to their imperial dreams of global (financial) domination and sailing off into the small-e ether of their financial petty-mindedness.

We needed capital E nationalism, not little e (and €) capitalism.

This piece was originally posted on the blog Britology Watch.

About the author

David Rickard is a freelance researcher and writer, and is the author of the 'English-nationalist' blogs 'Britology Watch' and 'National Conversation For England'.