As Big Ben (doesn’t) count down to ‘Brexit Day’ on 31 January, Otto English considers how Britain fell into the grip of a petty nationalism, warned against by the world’s greatest physicist.
In October 1929, during an unsettling interview with the fascist journalist George Viereck in the Saturday Evening Post, Albert Einstein was asked if he considered himself to be a German or a Jew.
“It is quite possible to be both,” the great physicist replied. “I look upon myself as a man. Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
Einstein was then on the board of the International Committee of Intellectual Cooperation at the League of Nations in Geneva. The ICIC sought to be a hub of global academic collaboration that transcended the limitations of mere nation states and Einstein embodied its idealism. Here was a man, internationalist in outlook and comfortable in his identity, who had no time for the trifles of petty jingoism. His view of nationalism seems ever more pertinent.
There is of course a clear distinction between nationalism and patriotism. The latter, meaning devotion to where you live and pride in your state, is a noble trait. Nationalism, by contrast, is a blind faith in your nation’s exceptionalism. It is cult-like, self-deceptive, ignorant and dangerous.
Nationalists imagine themselves unique by dint of the fluke of their place of birth. They believe their country to be better and their culture superior to all else. It is possible to be both patriotic and internationalist but, if you are a nationalist, then you are that and that alone. It’s a hollow state of mind; a vacant dogma and, when given its chance to shine, this emptiness shows.
And so to Brexit.
The Bell Tolls
As the clock ticks down to our departure from the EU, the devotees of this destructive cult have been confronted with a dilemma. How to celebrate this phoney liberation in a way that makes it look like it matters?
Some of the work has been done already.
Three million Brexit Day 50 pence pieces, with the words “peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations” are set to be released on 31 January. On the same day, the Prime Minister will be the first person to receive one as he holds a gimmicky Cabinet meeting in the north of England.
Nationalists love totemic nonsense and there’s plenty more to come.
2020 will see the return of the ‘iconic’ blue passport. Nigel Farage spent much of the EU referendum campaign in 2016 trotting about the place, producing an old-fashioned cardboard one from his breast pocket and declaring that we could have these back if only we left.
As with his obsession with the tiny British fishing industry, this was palpable bollocks. The shape and design of passports has nothing to do with the EU and is decided by the International Civil Aviation Authority, based in Montreal. Sure, the burgundy colour was adopted by accord between European Community countries in 1988, but not all EU countries have abided by it. The UK could easily have changed the colour without Brexit happening.
In another nod to Ladybird libertarian notions of what constitutes ‘victory’, a set of Brexit stamps will also be released. But, given that nobody sends letters any more, these are likely to be as swiftly forgotten as the premiership of Theresa May.
If you’re a Brexiter longing to celebrate and all of this sounds like a damp squib then fear not.
There are the ‘independence parties’ to look forward to, with the largest of these set to take place in Parliament Square. There’s just one problem. The nation’s most iconic clock is out of action and so, for weeks, the ‘Stand Up 4 Brexit’ group’s Big Ben Must Bong for Brexit campaign has appealed for donations to fund the projected £500,000 cost of ringing it. Incredibly, despite Mark Francois fronting up the effort, the cash hasn’t exactly been forthcoming and matters weren’t helped when the Prime Minister’s Office said that private donations would most likely not be accepted.
With a week to go, even hardened Brexiters are now conceding that the bells won’t ring. But, despite that, the GoFundMe page remains live and as, of the time of writing, has raised £272,000 and climbing.
Perhaps the money will be donated to fund the Leave Means Leave Brexit knees-up instead. This rally in Parliament Square “will be a huge opportunity for the public to commemorate” leaving the EU – in an optimistic email to supporters Richard Tice, the group’s chairman, has promised that “the world will be watching and listening”. One organisation that has already promised to attend is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s former outfit, the English Defence League (EDL), which is planning to have an ‘old skool’ reunion on the night.
Meanwhile, some MPs have decided to take celebrations into their own hands. Andrea Jenkyns has tried – and apparently failed – to get Morley town hall to ring its bells at 11pm on 31 January and, in a nuanced attempt at rapprochement with our neighbours, the newly elected Conservative MP for Dover, Natalie Elphicke, plans to hang a banner saying “We love the UK” on the iconic white cliffs.
I have appealed on Twitter for further examples of visible Brexit Day celebrations but, so far, have only managed to discover a fish and chip dinner in Lowestoft and an event in Scarborough where local Elvis impersonator Danny Wilde will sing songs during a commemorative Sunday lunch.
Celebrations to Come
Of course, if this was really Britain’s day of liberation, then celebrations would be unbridled. That everything is so muted suggests that, four years on from the EU Referendum, people are rightly sick of the whole thing and couldn’t care less any more.
That this advanced country, with hundreds of years of parliamentary democracy under its belt, should be indulging in such humiliating stupidity demonstrates Einstein’s point: Great Britain has fallen prey to a petty-minded, child-like nationalism that has infected us all.
Still, don’t lose hope party lovers because, sooner or later, there will be something to celebrate.
Our child-prince Prime Minister has promised to “Get Brexit Done” and, as we stumble forward beyond 31 January and as the full meaningless of that pledge becomes apparent, I think we will all look forward to the celebration on the night of his predictable downfall.