Are the English Fit to Govern Themselves?

In the long and tangled history of relations between Britain and Ireland, it has generally been the Irish who seemed troubled. British identity was fixed, solid and self-confident. Britain had, after all, imposed itself on much of the world. Ireland, on the other hand, was anguished, uncertain and divided. Brits could look across the Irish Sea with a mixture of perplexity and patronizing disdain: Why can’t the Irish settle down and stop being so obsessed with those maddening questions of nationality and identity?

So perhaps some of us in Ireland can be allowed a moment of schadenfreude as we look across the same sea and ask a similar question. Or even if we turn around the question the English so often asked about us: Are the English fit for self-government?

Consider political events in the nations’ respective capitals this week. In London, after the extraordinary British general election, Theresa May is clinging to the wreckage of her authority. If she remains as prime minister, she will do so without her Conservative Party’s holding a parliamentary majority and by permission of a small party from Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, that trades on a backward expression of British and Protestant identity. In Dublin, on the other hand, another minority government has just acquired a new prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who is 38, half-Indian and gay.

The big deal about Mr. Varadkar’s election as “taoiseach,” the Irish name for the position of prime minister, is that it’s no big deal. He is the new leader of what is traditionally the most conservative of the Irish political parties, Fine Gael, long a bastion of Catholic moral values. But neither his sexuality nor his ethnicity is an issue for most people. People like him or dislike him to the extent that they like or dislike his party and the minority government it leads. The rest is just personal detail, interesting but of minor significance.

This is as it should be — though it has taken Irish society a long time and much suffering to get to this point. It learned the hard way, by making all the mistakes. When it was founded in 1922, the Irish state adopted a monolithic notion of identity, built on the twin pillars of nationalism and Catholicism. Irish society locked itself into a theocratic state, in which the Catholic Church had far too much power. The country struggled to find a place in the global economy. And it had to deal with the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland and all its deadly consequences of unresolved anxieties about history and identity.

Ireland took a long time to come to terms with these problems, but they have been more or less settled through an open economy, membership in the European Union and the Belfast Agreement of 1998 that ended the Troubles and, in the process, redefined Irish identity as flexible and plural. As a consequence, Ireland’s relationship with Britain has been more amicable and apparently serene than at any time in modern history.

Then along came Brexit, an upheaval powered above all by English nationalism. The problem with English nationalism is not that it exists but that it is incoherent, inarticulate and immature. This underground torrent has always been there, but it was buried for centuries beneath two powerful constructs: the British Empire and the United Kingdom. With the empire gone and the union under strain from rival nationalist movements in Scotland and Northern Ireland, English nationalism has flooded to the surface with great destructive force.

Raw nationalism has a characteristic turn of mind: It defines itself by what it is not. The Irish nationalism of my youth did this by defining Ireland as the anti-England. Likewise, the English nationalism that emerged with the demand for Brexit defines Englishness by what it is against: immigrants and the European Union. We Irish had to learn by our mistakes that this way of thinking is worse than useless. But English nationalism is hardly inclined to heed the Irish experience. It wants to make all the old mistakes before learning anything.

This is why Mrs. May’s election campaign was so disastrous. The only story it had to tell was negative: She would protect the borders from immigrants and take Britain out of the European Union. Within these big nullities, she offered no concrete detail and no credible sense of what a post-Brexit Britain would actually look like. What Mrs. May found out is that if you put a big “no” at the heart of your politics, you end up with a big nothing, a vacuum of authority.

Britain is discovering what Ireland had to face up to a long time ago: You can’t govern a modern democracy by defining only what it isn’t.

It seems oddly fitting therefore that Brexit, which was supposed to be about “taking back control” from Brussels, has actually given a great deal of control to a Northern Irish party that no one in Britain votes for. Fitting because the Democratic Unionist Party on which Mrs. May now depends for her slim majority is like a ghost from Britain’s own past: tribally sectarian, animated by flag-waving chauvinism and militantly Protestant (which, according to its theology, means opposing same-sex marriage and abortion and favoring the teaching of creationism in schools).

Most British voters look at this party and recoil in horror at the thought that it now has power over them. But when you unleash the forces of nationalism, you should not be too surprised to find yourself at the mercy of expressions of identity you thought were safely confined to the history books.

Mr. Varadkar, a prime minister who embodies the very different sense of identity that has evolved in Ireland, might like to savor the ironies, but he can’t. Before he rose to be leader of the only country that has a land border with Britain, Mr. Varadkar was a doctor. Faced with a neighbor going through a nervous breakdown, he will need his best bedside manner.

Fintan O’Toole is a columnist for The Irish Times.

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