James Marriott muses on patriotism in The Times today. Really he’s reflecting on the time when we Brits stopped knowing who we were. About the time sex was invented on these islands and the Beatles released their first LP.
We’d noticed the decline of Empire obviously but we didn’t realise that this also meant the decline of Britain. Some of us still don’t. Only the Empire defined Britain. Back here we had a couple of centuries during which the component part countries did what they had always done and their peoples remained resolutely English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish.
The English used “English” and “British” interchangeably and preferred their Englishness to be signalled with the Union Flag rather than the flag of St George. The Celts stayed robustly independent, celebrated their patron saints (whilst the English ignored theirs) and only became British when they were abroad on some Imperial adventure. The Scots were particularly good at this being proudly British when ruling the natives in some colonial outpost but distinctively Scottish back home.
But once the Empire was dead or dying there was no need really for the artificial construct that was “Britishness”. We were told to find a post Imperial “role” and it was suggested to us, not unreasonably, that that should be in Europe. We did, and now we don’t.
As a major, active and commited European nation the U.K. might have held together. But once we chucked that away there really was nothing to hold us together. British cultural icons from the flag to the anthem – even to the Monarch – just look like antiquated symbols of history.
The Empire was the glue and without it there’s nothing to unite us. Devolved governments in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff formalised the dissolution of the Kingdom and now all that is left is to complete the job. The Irish, if they can stop bickering, will all rediscover their Irishness where (in the North) they need to. The Scots have a return to proper independent statehood within their grasp. And the Welsh , arguably the most culturally distinctive of them all with a strong foundation provided by their language, should have few problems in restoring their independence.
The United Kingdom has outlived its usefulness. The Commonwealth is another hangover from Empire that will fade away. As, no doubt, will the preposterous anachronism of free and independent countries that were once Imperial possessions having the British monarch as Head of State.
There can be no new Pax Brittanica in these islands. The Kingdom is not United. History is often decided by accidents rather than by design. Brexit was the accident that pushed us apart and there is no going back. The prospects for Celts to regain their historic identity as well as being modern and European is too attractive to them – they won’t let it slip from their grasp. And then it will be for Little England to put its Union Flags away and decide what it wants to be.