On Monday morning, the Foreign Secretary Rt. Hon. Boris Johnson MP was asked on BBC radio what the British Government’s vision of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would look like, should the UK leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union. In a garbled answer about the power of technology to facilitate frictionless trade, he put forward this analogy:
There is no border between Camden and Westminster, but when I was mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people travelling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks whatever.
He was presumbaly referring to London’s Congestion Charge. Journalists and social media users spent the rest of the morning mocking this wholly inappropriate analogy with the centuries old troubles in Ireland.
All this made me think about one of my favourite books, The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesteron. In that story, written in 1904 but set in 1984, a whimsical king named Auberon Quin (appointed by lottery, the population having long since given up on both democracy and hereditary monarchy) decrees that each London Borough becomes its own city state. He sets about creating coats of arms and other heraldic items for each.
Along the way he unwittingly inspires a sincere, fervent patriotism for Notting Hill in a young boy named Adam Wayne. When the boy grows up to be provost of the titular locality, his pride for the idea of his City State, above all else, leads him to reject an infrastructure project proposed by the other West London provosts. A great battle ensues, with the soliders of Balham, Battersea, North Kensington, South Kensington and West Kensington all arrayed against the upstart forces of Notting Hill.
The book ends with two ghostly voices, presumed to be those of Quin and Wayne, discussing whether it was worth taking a stand for something that was essentially a joke. Its a lovely, thoughtful passage:
And the doom of failure that lies on all human systems does not in real fact affect them any more than the worms of the inevitable grave affect a children’s game in a meadow. Notting Hill has fallen; Notting Hill has died. But that is not the tremendous issue. Notting Hill has lived.
More here. There are other passages within The Napoleon of Notting Hill that deal with the idea of patriotism, including an encounter with the deposed president of Nicaragua.
Apparently the book was an inspiration to the Irish revolutionary Michael Collins.
The book paints patriotism as a noble calling. But the current political turmoil—Brexit in the UK and rising nationalisms elsewhere—force us to think once again of the essential jest at the heart of Auberon Quin’s decree. The flags of the boroughs are his invention. They are a modern innovation created for short term political lulz. Their rich histories are a fiction, and Quin is surprised by the idea that anyone could or should pay fealty to them.
It is not difficult to see parallels in the real world. Many states have essentially arbitrary borders, imposed upon the people who live there by people who did not. Distinct nations of people find themselves apportioned into other countries, where they are persecuted as minorities. And of course sometimes there are wars over the arbitrary borders.
Meanwhile, the rulers of countries like Turkey and Poland place so much value in the myth that their country is righteous and inevitable, that they draw up legislation to officially deny their participation in historical genocide.
The United Kingdom is by no means immune to this tendency to distort our own self image. I think we place too much emphasis on what the artist Paul Watson calls Deep England, a vision of rural life perpetuated by reactionaries who are keen to avoid the busy, hybrid reality of our urban areas and the moral complexity of our history.
Deep England is Tolkien’s Shire (without the Nazgûl), Midsomer (without the Murders), and a hundred other locales, none of them real.
And while it doesn’t exist, and has never existed, it is a powerfully enticing auto-stereotype, but for many—particularly many who live in urban and suburban areas, and especially, but not exclusively, on the political right wing—it is a vision of how things were and should always be.
A time when our population was somehow ‘pure’ and our values somehow better than they are now. This fabrication is one that has been perpetrated upon us for hundreds of years:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for her self
I don’t remember whether anyone from the Leave campaign cited these lines from Richard II during the referendum of 2016, but it would not surprise me if they had. In recent months, British Exceptionalism has become a significant part of the Brexiteer rhetoric. Like Adam Wayne in the Napoleon of Notting Hill, they have dragged us onto a battlefield of sorts, happy to sacrifice us in homage to something that never existed.
The image above is from the Notting Hill Carnival. A different sort of pageantry. I am reminded that festivals and events that celebrate the newer aspects to our culture, especially those practices predominantly by ethnic minorities, are often subject to a backlash from the reactionary Right. This is unsurprising: the presence of such cultural practices challenge the Deep England auto-stereotype.
A final thought: Its interesting and depressing that when historians point out that our history is actually far more complex, that our empire was immoral, or that our military and political heroes were flawed… they are vilified as unpatriotic, ‘politically correct’ revisionists seeking to change history. But revision and reinterpretation are good things. These historians do not deleting our history, but adding layers to to it. I see this as a good and healthy thing. Beware anyone who claims that history is simple.
I find that I have been writing about this sort of thing for years.