The Little Englanders are gaining


The real problem is continental drift: Brussels, the capital of the European Union, is getting further and further away from England. Or at least that is British Prime Minister David Cameron’s line.

Cameron made his long awaited speech promising a referendum on continued British membership in the European Union on Jan. 23, and he placed the blame squarely on plate tectonics: “People are increasingly frustrated that decisions taken further and further away from them mean their living standards are slashed through enforced austerity or their taxes are used to bail out governments on the other side of the continent.”

The “frustrated” people in question are English, of course. Hostility to the EU is mainly an English thing, but that matters a lot in the United Kingdom, where 55 million of the 65 million people live in England.

The Scottish nationalists seeking separation from England in their own referendum take the opposite tack. They promise the Scottish electorate that leaving the U.K. would not mean leaving the EU (although in fact Scotland would probably have to re-apply for membership). Scottish politicians have to promise to stay in the EU, because otherwise very few Scottish voters would say “yes” to independence. But England is different.

The “Little Englander” glories in the notion of England being unencumbered by foreign ties and commitments.

It’s the kind of nationalism that Americans call “isolationism,” and the phrase is now used to describe strongly nationalist, even xenophobic people on the right of English politics. Those people, always present in significant numbers within Cameron’s Conservative Party, have now won the internal party debate.

Every Conservative leader has had to deal with these people. They always managed to contain them in the past, because the EU is Britain’s biggest trading partner, and it is obviously in Britain’s interest to belong to the organization that makes the rules for Europe’s “single market.”

What has changed is that the long recession and relatively high immigration of recent years have increased the popularity of the extreme right in England.

That doesn’t mean that populist demagogues and neofascists are about to win power in the U.K. Far from it: They’d be lucky to get 10 percent of the vote. But it does mean that the Conservatives are losing their more rightwing supporters to the anti-EU, anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party.

UKIP could never win an election in Britain, but it could easily steal enough votes from the Conservatives to make them lose the next election.

So there has been mounting panic in the Conservative Party, and not just among its instinctively anti-EU members.

Cameron’s promise of a referendum on EU membership is first and foremost an attempt to steal UKIP’s thunder and win back the defecting Conservative voters. He doesn’t really want to leave the EU, but he really does want to win the election that is due in 2015.

His reluctance to be the man who took Britain out of the EU was evident in the way he hedged around his referendum promise. The referendum would not take place until after the next election, and only if the Conservative Party won enough seats in 2015 to form a government on its own. (Its current coalition partner, the Liberal Democratic Party, opposes the whole idea).

Cameron says he will spend the next two years renegotiating the terms of Britain’s EU membership to “repatriate” many powers from Brussels to London, and to make various changes in the way the EU is run.

Then, if he is satisfied with the outcome, he will support EU membership in the election and in the subsequent referendum, which will be held by 2017. But he had no satisfactory answer to the hard questions that followed his speech.

What if the 26 other EU members choose not to waste months in talks on changing Britain’s relationship with the EU?

What if they do negotiate but refuse to tie themselves up in knots just to ease Cameron’s local political problems?

Would he support continued EU membership in the promised referendum if he didn’t have a “new deal” to offer the voters?

He would not answer those questions.

There is much that could be done to improve the accountability and efficiency of the EU, but it is not helpful to open a negotiation with 26 other governments by standing at the exit door and threatening to leave if you do not get your way.

The time may well come when Cameron has to answer those questions, and he probably does not know himself which way he would jump.

So for the next four years, all those foreign companies that have been using the U.K. as a convenient, English-speaking center to produce goods and services for the European market will be re-thinking their investment strategies.

If the U.K. may leave the EU by 2017, is this really the right place to put their money? It will probably be a long dry season for the British economy.

How did an allegedly grownup country talk itself into this position?

It’s an attitude that was summed up in an apocryphal English newspaper headline of the 1930s: “Fog in (the English) Channel; Continent Cut Off.”

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

  • Sandy Miller

    Good article but let down by comments about Scotland, to state that Scotland if it left the UK would have to reapply for EU membership is simply daft on two counts. It is our intention to end the union and without Scotland there is no union. No matter what the legal niceties it is difficult to believe the EU would make life difficult for Scotland. We are the EUs only source of oil and the biggest source of wind and tidal power.

    • Sandy, your living in fantasy land. Without Scotland, the UK goes on with Northern Ireland. Scotland and England are not two equal members in a united kingdomSSSS’ of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The treaty of 1707 created great Britain as one country not two countries. The next act of union in 1800 joined the single country of Great Britain to Ireland. This act did not join Scotland and England to Ireland, but Great Britain to Ireland. So the united Kingdom (singular) of Great Britain and Ireland was created in 1800 not 1707. So if Scotland leaves then the union continues with the rest of the UK and northern Ireland. And as for EU membership, ofcourse Scotland would have to reapply. There are only 28 member states seats in the EU and Scotland is not one of those 28. In order to attain a seat Scotland like any new member state, would need to re-apply. And you talk about oil…. etc. So are you suggesting that Scotland should hand over her oil and other resources in order to get in the EU? because that is what you are implying when you put those things on the table as bargaining chips.

  • braqueish

    Gwynne Dyer is wrong in several respects. Current opinion across the EU as a whole shows that only 30% of its citizens view the project favourably. Increasing centralisation of power within the European bureaucracy without democracy is a tendency which, in the end, will spell its demise. To be critical of such a tendency is neither a left nor right wing thing — as “No” referendum results in France, Ireland and Holland have showed.

    The proposed solution to the deeply problematic Euro currency crisis which involves stripping national governments of their power to manage their own budgets may well be the last straw for the people of a continent with such high unemployment and deep social discontent.

    The writer also perpetuates the untruth that leaving the EU would strip Britain of the ability to influence regulation affecting trade. Most of that regulation is set by supra-national bodies of the UN and WTO to which the EU is signatory. Far from losing influence the UK would gain it as an independent nation state rather than one of 27 represented by the EU.

    Leaving the EU would not affect Britain’s trading status because she would almost certainly opt to remain in the European Economic Area and so benefit from the single market — as do successful Norway and Switzerland. However, as an independent nation the UK would be free to establish bilateral trade agreements with Japan, China, Brazil, India and emergent Commonwealth countries. This is more likely to increase prosperity and growth than not.

    The current situation in Europe is an existential crisis, as the response from many commentators across the zone to the British Prime Minister’s speech has shown. It may be that this is the beginning of the end of “ever closer union” and that Britain is more in tune with the people of Europe than the EU leadership or Gwynne Dyer.

  • Strange that the original meaning of the phrase “little Englanders” has been missed out. Originally “little Englander” was used by the British establishment as an insult to those English who didn’t support the British imperial project or at least who stood against further expansion of the British empire. The original meaning couldn’t be further from the modern twisted meaning of the phrase. Being a little Englander was a moral standpoint against the British empire. I’d argue that rather than being xenophobic the modern little Englander is also taking a moral stand point – these days however it’s to do with wanting independence for England. Independence from the UK and the EU.

    And why should the English want to be part of either? Neither the EU or the UK recognise England as a nation or English as a nationality. Both have done their best to break England up into arbitrary regions that have nothing to do with English history. This has been done without either consultation or consent.

    The author seems to forget that no-one in England/UK has voted for a federal European Union. When we last had any say on the project – decades ago – it was billed as a purely economic arrangement. The mission has creeped so far that the EU we have now doesn’t even resemble the Common Market our parents voted on.

    That dishonesty in itself is enough to warrant getting out of the EU as far as I’m concerned. There are countless other reason besides. Personally, as a proud little Englander I don’t want to live in anyone’s empire either the British empire or the EU empire. I want to live in a small peaceful, prosperous nation called England.

    Final point. This para “What has changed is that the long recession and relatively high immigration of recent years have increased the popularity of the extreme
    right in England.” is absolute nonsense and must be challenged.

    It’s true that England has undergone “relatively high immigration”. Immigration into England as relative to immigration into Japan is astronomic. 4 million into the UK in the last 10 years, about 98% of which have settled in England. That is on the back of 40 years of mass immigration also mainly into England. And of course we have no idea how many illegal immigrants have come. The white English are now the minority in English cities like London, Birmingham, Leicester and many others.

    Despite the unprecedented scale of immigration into England there has been no surge in support for the “extreme right”. The British National Party for example has lost support to the point of collapse for example.