England not Britain is driving the Brexit referendum

Anthony Barnett writes: Less than a month before the vote and polls suggest the outcome of the referendum might be Brexit. Why? I want to point the finger at my own kind: the progressive, well-educated, middle class, Europe-loving, opinion makers, 91% of whom, if you are Guardian-readers like me want to stay in the EU. Yes, my kin and kind, it is your fault that a Brexit result you so abhor is even possible. Like a bad cyclist who stares at the large, wild-looking dog they are trying to avoid and therefore steers into it, the English nation that alarms you so much is now giving you a well deserved bite up the bum. You should have befriended it.

Whatever the result of the referendum, whether it is a healthy majority for Remain, a narrow one, or a vote to Leave, the heart of the matter is that England has to have its own parliament. What the referendum reveals is that England both monopolises and is imprisoned by British Westminster and its culture of ‘to the victor the spoils’. To escape from this England is embracing Brexit because no other solution is on offer. It may be intimidated into remaining in the EU through fear of the economic consequences. But England’s frustrated desire for democracy has turned it against the EU rather than the real culprit, the British state.

Although a long fruitless succession of calls for England to ‘awake’ should warn off any further attempts, mine has three parts, each in a different tone. First, sociological, showing that England is the force behind the referendum. Second, subjective, highlighting the nature of Englishness. Third, political, arguing that action has to be taken to represent England fairly in all its glorious polyphony.

A recent ICM online poll has England showing Remain 43% with Leave on 44% and undecided 12%. Telephone polls have shown a significant lead for Remain, which the betting says is still the likely outcome on 23rd June. The reason that I’m bothering with an uncertain statistic is that this one allows comparison with Scotland where there is certainty. North of the border the same poll shows Remain is on 59% and Leave 28%, also with 12% undecided. The majority for Remain in Scotland is already more than twice as large as the ‘don’t knows’. This is reflected in its politicians. In Edinburgh Allan Little reports for the BBC, “It is striking how little high-profile support there is for Brexit in Scotland… During a debate in the Holyrood chamber last week, only eight of the 129 MSPs voted to leave the EU”. In England’s Westminster there was no such debate – a significant failure of nerve.

With the Remain lead unassailable, the Scottish nation has made up its mind. It is England that has yet to decide. The present uncertainty is not a question of how ‘Britain’ will vote. Leave or Remain is an English question. [Continue reading…]

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