Opinion | Boris Johnson Might Break Up the U.K. That’s a Good Thing.


Freed from the grip of the decayed British nation and British state, England could finally be done with its delusions of grandeur. Fanciful beliefs about British importance in the world would crumble. England would be only around the eighth-largest economy in the world. And it would probably have to give up its nuclear weapons — the United Kingdom’s nuclear submarine base is in Scotland.

England need not be, as many fear, a rump United Kingdom, parochial, perhaps even irredentist. Less cocksure and more understanding of its real place in the world, it may soon rethink its hostility to the European Union. Scotland suffered a process of deindustrialization similar to northern England’s and Wales’s — but it voted to remain. As the writer Anthony Barnett and others suggest, a progressive English nation, on the model of the Scottish one, could emerge. This England might have an ordinary democratic nationalism that understands its own aspirations and those of others.

The idea of breaking up the union isn’t quite as outrageous as it might seem. The “United Kingdom” is neither ancient nor stable. Before 1945, “national” Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English identities were for many not local varieties of national Britishness but part of something much bigger: an imperial identity.

British World War II propaganda explained that the United Kingdom was just one equal element of a British Commonwealth of Nations that, along with India and the colonies, made up “the British Empire.” It was the empire that fought the war, not the United Kingdom. Soldiers died for “king and country” — but that country had no name. No one died for “the United Kingdom.”

After 1945, “Britain” — a national United Kingdom — was one of many post-imperial constructions that emerged from the ashes of the British Empire. From then into the 1970s, the United Kingdom existed as a coherent economic, political and ideological unit, distinct from the rest of the world. There was a national British economy, a national British Army and a national British politics dominated by two national, unionist parties. It was a brief period of British nationhood. In fact, it was the only one. This national United Kingdom was broken up economically starting in the 1970s by the closely related processes of globalization and deepening economic integration with Europe.

It is this decaying British nationalism, a leftover from the 1970s, that is now disrupting the union, not the self-conscious Scottish, Irish and Welsh versions. Strong in England but weak elsewhere, with the exception of a handful of hard-core unionists in Northern Ireland, this British nationalism manifested itself in the calls for Brexit, from before the 2016 referendum and up to today. The Brexiteers wrongly believe that independence from the European Union will make the United Kingdom great again.

But Brexit and the delusions of the United Kingdom’s grandeur that go with it are the politics of the aged, of those who remember that brief experience of a united, national United Kingdom. The young people of England, like those in the rest of Britain, overwhelmingly supported remaining in the European Union. They also understand we need liberation from the practices of Westminster and Whitehall, not Brussels, and from the self-defeating rage of the old.



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