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By Jason Michael
Last night, BBC Newsnight released the latest instalment of its State of the Union series, an episode now available on YouTube – ‘Will Brexit lead to the break-up of the union?’ Previous instalments have focused on public opinion in Scotland, Wales, and the six counties in the north of Ireland. Last night’s episode took an in-depth look at the thoughts and opinions of ordinary people in various parts of England. To say that some of these opinions have caused something of a stir north of the border would be an understatement to say the least. In Grantham in Lincolnshire, an area that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, a small group of older voters enjoying the refreshments of a local beer festival were asked for their thoughts on the break-up of the United Kingdom.
Thanks to the efforts of the BBC in Scotland, Scottish people are quite ignorant of English opinions on British identity, unionism, and the potential dissolution of the UK. The average viewer in Scotland hears very little of what is happening below the surface in English politics, as the propagandistic nature of the state broadcaster operates to keep people in Scotland thinking internally – about the dangers of ‘nationalism’ and about the Westminster construct of the Scottish National Party as an incompetent and divisive administration in Edinburgh. What Newsnight inadvertently gave Scottish people last night was a disturbing insight into how England ticks; how it sees itself and what it thinks of the other nations in the union.
🏴 Little England: A disturbing insight into how middle England sees Scotland, Wales, and the six counties, an… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) November 13, 2019
Asked his thoughts on Scotland, Wales, and the six counties leaving the union, one man said: “They can’t go, because they wouldn’t be able to finance themselves. They are only little bits of Britain. So, how can they go?” Another, sipping his pint, added: “If the United Kingdom finishes, the world will be finished in any case. So, it doesn’t matter.” Pressed on what he meant by this surprising statement, he explained that he was very proud to be English, proud to be British, and proud to be part of the United Kingdom. At this point in the conversation another man asked from across the table:
Who conquered half the world?!
This was when the fun began. Scots have always been aware of this opinion – this soft-headed and nostalgic oversimplification of Britain’s imperial adventures and the drink sodden mis-remembering of the plucky Blitz spirit of the ‘Little Englander,’ but to hear it spoken so openly, and unchallenged, by ordinary and rather sensible looking auld fellas over a quiet pint was deeply shocking. This ‘We won the war’ and ‘We conquered the world’ attitude wasn’t being chanted by skinheads in black bomber jackets parading through Luton – an image with which we are familiar and ready to dismiss as fringe, thuggish, and mental. This was coming from people just like us; ordinary, everyday folk who look and dress like us. Their banality and the matter-of-fact-ness with which they aired such sentiments brought it home to us that this is ordinary in much of England, this image of Britishness and this casual sense of English superiority over and against Scotland, Wales, and the north of Ireland is mother’s milk opinion in Brexit-voting England.
Honestly, we didn’t think they thought like that – not really, and not so ordinarily. We had our suspicions, but we had no way of knowing just how idiotic and wonderfully deluded the opinion of the average Englishman is. Boasting of empire and the conquest of half the world, taking pride in something analogous to robbing half the houses on Highfield Road, is a special kind of craziness. It betrays the ignorance at the heart of England’s memory of empire, an obnoxious and dark period of British history in which thoughts of racial supremacism led to genocide, ethnic cleansing, murder, rape, and theft on a scale unprecedented in the entire history of human civilization. That in 2019 a group of otherwise well-informed men in England can think of this as benign – even beneficial – and a reason for national pride leaves us completely lost for words.
Unrepentant Nazi war criminals and neo-Nazis at least know – or have a fair inkling – what the rest of the world thinks of them and their poisonous opinions. These guys were something else. Without a hint of irony or malice, they presented the most depraved, the most twisted, and evil toxin in their past as a thing to be celebrated, as a thing to justify England’s place in the world and its right to hold sway over these other – these lesser – “bits of Britain.”
The thing about saying crap like "We conquered half the world," is that it comes so damn close to realising half the world hates you.—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) November 13, 2019
Seeing this and knowing this changes things. It reframes the constitutional debate within the union. Now we can appreciate that this sense of entitlement isn’t isolated to the halls of Eton, Oxbridge, and the splendid country piles of the British establishment. Imperialism and the belief in the right to dominate pervades English society, it has sunk deep into the soil of the English imagination, and has shaped how the dominant nation of the union understands its place at the top of the union settlement. In a word, removing the establishment won’t rid us of this ugliness – this is fundamental to England’s self-understanding, and it is here to stay. This is precisely what viewers in Scotland recognised when they watched the show last night, and through the day today it has been repeated and discussed ad nauseam on social media.
Our reduced status as nothing but little bits of Britain isn’t something we are likely to forget. This was real fly-on-the-wall stuff – an English interviewer interviewing real salt of the earth people in middle England talking among friends. Ordinarily, we would not have been given access to this conversation. Let’s face it, it’s not exactly the sort of discussion you have in the company of outsiders – and that is what it made us; outsiders. Nothing at all wrong with this. In fact, it is something which should encourage us – we are not English! Their ‘Britain’ isn’t our Britain. To the Scots, the Welsh, and the unionists in the six counties Britain is a club in which we have membership. In England Britain is a sphere of influence, a wider territory of control, a little empire, an extension of the real nation – England. As a union it’s a sham. We are the spouse who sees a partnership, England the domineering overlord who sees the wedding band as a token of free domestic labour.
How will we be able to finance ourselves after a divorce? Surely, we are nothing without England! Thankfully little Ireland – a country of 5 million – has already answered that question for us. Once it was nothing but a little bit of Britain, subject to the routine humiliation and violence of British imperialism. Now it is standing proud; dictating terms to little England and daily reminding it of its diminished place in the world. Listening to that conversation last night convinced us that Britain is over. England will do just fine without us, and – more importantly – we will do just fine without it.
Will Brexit lead to the break-up of the union? – BBC Newsnight