English nationalism is stronger than many nationalisms within European states. Quantitative opinion polls such as Eurobarometer have reflected this. It is not a nationalism that roars and screams but it is intense nevertheless. At some point, it had to find expression amongst its louder, more overtly expressive, less reserved Celtic neighbours. Hence the monster we call Brexit was conceived, gestated but not yet brought to term.
The Remain campaign of 2016 made hardly a nod in the direction of this powerful sentiment. They were misguided to direct their message to being only about the money. These disappointed Remainers are still misguided in clinging to the belief that all those who voted to leave the EU were economically illiterate; the cry for English sovereignty is both strong and widespread. The Remain campaign should have shown how this concern for island and continent could be best expressed within the EU.
The English are an essentially pragmatic people, resistant to revolution, reluctant to be swept away by simplistic ideas. They are more like the ancient Romans than like the ancient Greeks – more interested in what works than in neat political theories. Their last serious revolution was in the mid seventeenth century involving a civil war, the beheading of their king, uncertainty and the subsequent rule of Cromwell. Professor Mark Kishlansky in his A Monarch Transformed writes of a particularly chaotic point: ‘Those who found it easiest to gravitate to one pole or the other took the lead in forcing moderates to choose. Small groups of extremists on each side wielded disproportionate influence.’ Within a decade, English pragmatism asserted itself with the restoration of the monarchy but under modern parliamentary conditions. They were able to have their cake and eat it. They have done so ever since. Even the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was hardly revolutionary and only a little glorious. It just completed the process.
Brexit is another revolution. As in the 17th Century, it is too simplistic to divide a nation by categories of people. It is more difficult: individuals then and now have conflicting desires. Research conducted by NatCen Social Research in May-June 2016 and September-October 2016 shows that individual voters want to have something that is not on offer. Strong majorities in the UK want the free movement of goods, services and capital … but also oppose the free movement of people. That these two demands are contradictory is beyond doubt. It would only take one other EU state to oppose such a special deal for the UK.
Simple polar choices on complex issues are deeply unsatisfactory. A king either has a head or he has not. The UK is either in or out of the EU.
It took pain and ingenuity in the 17th Century to restore a way of living that had broad support. People had to think things through so that they could eventually have their cake and also eat much of it.
The British Constitution gives primacy to Parliament. A majority of members of Parliament appears to favour free movement of goods, services, capital and people with the other European states. A bare majority of voters do not. It is time for Parliament and people to converse. This should happen door-to-door, on the hustings, in media debate, through social media: that is, through an Election. Any MP worthy of the title would put his or her electoral future on the line on this fundamental issue. Their ancestors risked their lives with musket and pike. Putting your parliamentary seat on the line for what you believe is a modest ask.
The UK has many friends in Ireland. This is the first of several letters from such a friend.