Letter to the London Review of Books, 18 May 2018

David Edgar makes the suggestion that Anthony Barnett is a Chestertonian English nationalist. This seems to me to be another case of the left only being willing to see nationalism as pastoral and reactionary, and not understanding its own basis in it. I think we should read Barnett differently. One of his key points is that Scotland, including its deprived working class, voted Remain because post-devolution nationalist politics includes the possibility of serious domestic reform. England, by contrast, is stuck with only the undemocratic leftovers of an imperial state, its politics still motivated by illusions of grandeur. Barnett suggests that Brexit is a display of inchoate rage at the absence of legitimate democratic power in London. To ignore the implications of this point – that the nature of the British state matters – is bonkers. I don’t share the New Left view of the British state as antique and imperial, but its nature and capabilities and democratic legitimacy – and the ways in which they have changed – are critical issues for the left and cannot be wished away. For example, there is a good chance that Brexit will collapse even sooner than Barnett predicts, as a result of the inability of the Anglo-British state to face up to the realities Brexit will impose. If that happens there will indeed be a specifically English crisis of major proportions.

David Edgerton
London NW1