Brexit as a new wave of open British patriotism?

In the chapter of Watching the English titled “Humour Rules,” author Kate Fox goes into detail about what she calls “The Importance of Not Being Earnest,” especially in relation to matters of national pride. Considering the results of the recent referendum vote in the UK, I found this subject particularly interesting, as I feel as if the winning party displayed blatant violations of this rule throughout their campaign. At as an American looking into the whole ordeal, it seemed as if the pro-Brexit voting population was largely motivated by an emotionally charged sense of patriotism promoted by politicians like Boris Johnson. I even heard many people describe Brexit as the UK’s chance to break away from a large, controlling, oppressive force and assert its independence, as the United States did to Britain in 1776. Yet according to Kate Fox, the British have a rather closeted sense of patriotism that really only shines through in brief periods of “cultural remission” like royal events. In the words of Fox, “the sentimental patriotism of leaders and the portentous earnestness of writers…and other public figures of all nations are treated with equal derision and disdain by the English, who can spot the slightest hint of self-importance at twenty paces, even on a grainy television picture and in a language we don’t understand.” If this is true, then how did the pro-Brexit group win the vote? How were politicians like Johnson able to convince the masses to make such a drastic decision with overtly patriotic sentiments? Is Britain in the process of cultivating its own sense of patriotism, or did pro-Brexit voters truly believe that leaving the EU would bring them genuine economic benefits (despite the fact that there still is no actual plan to bring about these benefits)?

  • I’ve tended to disagree with Fox’s claims about closeted British patriotism since I read that chapter. You’re definitely right in that the Pro-Brexit forces were able to tap into an innate sense of national pride and patriotism during the referendum campaign. I recall reading about a delightfully patriotic escapade in which UKIP leader Nigel Farage led a flotilla of fishing boats up the Thames River while loudly leading the fleet in a cheering rendition of “Rule Britannia” the nationalistic oratorio by Thomas Arne, one of Britain’s most patriotic anthems.

    While certainly, patriotism played a role in the VoteLeave campaign’s ultimate victory, I don’t necessarily think that it was the primary motivation for most voters. Sure, many people can still remember the glory days of the British Empire and yes, the slogan “Take Back Control” caught on, but I think the motivations for leaving were as economic and political as they were patriotic in nature. Remember those fishermen? EU regulations placed quotas on their catches and partitioned much of the North Sea to the Norwegians which has hurt the industry tremendously. Coal miners have essentially gone extinct due in part to the environmental regulations placed on them by Brussels.

    Perhaps the most obvious reason was to regain control of immigration and national borders. Whether or not anti-immigration sentiment had some patriotic or nativist motivations for some, there is a strong economic argument to be made that a net immigration of 300,000 per year is not economically sustainable. People were worried about the influx of workers taking British jobs. It’s a theme we see in our own country.

    So, while patriotic rhetoric certainly emerged in the referendum campaign and indeed has become more prevalent in the wake of the Brexit victory, it seems to me that patriotic speak, while having some of its own merit, may simply be a means of effectively channeling the varying socio-economic frustrations of the people.


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