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Fintan O’Toole: English nationalism is too naive to know its own limits


What has brought the UK to the point of openly declaring its intention to break international law is not just English nationalism. It is the strangely contradictory nature of that nationalism. It is the motive force of a genuine political revolution. Yet it dare not speak its own name. It will not acknowledge itself and thus does not know itself. It is everywhere and nowhere, shaping the whole course of Brexit, but itself barely articulated. Because it cannot even admit its own existence, its limits cannot be mapped and its consequences cannot be weighed.

The big problem with English nationalism is that it is naïve. Because it has been buried for centuries under two layers of disguise – the United Kingdom and the British Empire – it has no knowledge of what, through bitter experience over those bloody years, most of the rest of us have had to discover about nationalism. What other countries (Ireland very much included) have learned the hard way is that nationalism is petrol: a combustible political fuel that can drive you forward or, if you do not control it, drive you off a cliff.

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