The Rise of the Little Englander

Originally published 31st August 2013

“I thought about patriotism. I wished I had been born early enough to have been called a Little Englander. It was a term of sneering abuse, but I should be delighted to accept it as a description of myself. That little sounds the right note of affection. It is little England I love. And I considered how much I disliked Big Englanders, whom I saw as red-faced, staring, loud-voiced fellows, wanting to go and boss everybody about all over the world, and being surprised and pained and saying ‘Bad show!’ if some blighters refused to fag for them. They are patriots to a man. I wish their patriotism began at home.”

— J.B. Priestley
English Journey, 1934

“Disgrace, you’re a disgrace” shouted Michael Gove at the Tory and Lib Dem rebels who refused to fag for David Cameron by supporting the Government motion on Syria. The rebels were, however, merely reflecting public opinion in England and the UK as a whole. Tory attack dogs on Twitter have denounced them as ‘Little Englanders’ and ‘Pacifists’ – as if those were bad things – and opined that Britain’s standing in the World has been damaged.

In actual fact those Little Englander rebels may have helped save Britain. Scottish MPs overwhelmingly voted against the Government motion and it is highly probable that the Yes Campaign would have benefited if Scotland had been dragooned into a war by English MPs.

One anonymous senior minister, quoted by Mark D’Arcy, reacted by claiming that “The Commons has decided it wants this country to be Belgium,” blaming a rise in UKIP-style Little Englandism (but not ‘Little Scotlandism’). George Osborne worried that the vote could put a strain on Britain’s special relationship with the US and suggested we might search our souls:

“I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system, be that a big open and trading nation that I’d like us to be or whether we turn our back on that. I understand the deep scepticism that my colleagues in parliament and many members of the public have about British involvement in Syria. I hope this doesn’t become the moment where we turn our back on the world’s problems.”

Paddy Ashdown said that the rebellion “diminishes our country hugely” and has “smashed our relationship with the United States”.

I could quote more in a similar vein from red-faced, loud-voiced fellows who’re worried about Britain’s standing in the World, but you get the general drift. David Cameron has now been written off as broken, weakened and lacking authority but we shall give him credit for arguing his case before Parliament, attempting to build consensus but accepting Parliament’s decision and the mood of the people with magnanimity:

“It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion, it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.”

The ability of Britain to continue to “punch above its weight” on the World stage rests not only on the will of Parliament but also on the continued existence of Britain. The rebels may be the advance guard of a Little England populism that mirrors the non-interventionist instincts of Scottish and Welsh nationalism. If so then it is an irony that this Little England-English nationalism has prevented Big Englanders from bombing Syria against the will of Scottish MPs and in doing so saved the Union.

Little England will watch from a sidelined, diminished Britain as America and France strut the world stage. Our Prime Minister will beat the drum over Gibraltar and reaffirm the ‘special relationship’ but there will be no disguising the fact that one of the supposed raison d’etres of the Union – the ability to punch above our weight – will have taken a rabbit punch.