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Back to Little England?

The United Kingdom's bid to withdraw from the European Union is typically characterized as a dramatic manifestation of British nationalism. In fact, it has almost nothing to do with Britain, and everything to do with English national identity, which has been wandering in the wilderness ever since the fall of Pax Britannica.

MILAN – Future historians may come to describe Brexit as the defining moment of a nationalist wave that swept away the postwar liberal international order. Yet their task will be complicated by the fact that Brexit is not, in fact, a manifestation of British nationalism. To the contrary, it is precisely the lack of a proper British nationalism that has pushed the United Kingdom to the brink of disintegration.

Over the centuries, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish national identities have developed as reactions against stifling English imperialism. Before creating an overseas empire – first in North America and the Caribbean, then in India and Southeast Asia – the English built a land empire, by expanding from the south of the British Isles to the northwest. Thus, while the “outer empire” allowed for the convergence of the UK’s different national identities around a common British identity, the “inner empire” was decidedly English.

Still, for centuries the British Empire generated wealth, supplied raw materials, and created globe-spanning professional opportunities for all inhabitants of the British Isles. Its “civilizing” mission created a sense of collective meaning, as well as a narrative of uninterrupted democratic and economic progress.