No, Brexit Is Not Really About Making Britain Imperial Again
Britain remains roiled by a struggle, both political and cultural, to leave the European Union. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated in London this weekend for a second referendum; more than 5 million signed a petition demanding that Brexit be scrapped entirely. Prime Minister Theresa May, her face more deeply etched with exhaustion every day, stands firm on her plan to exit.
The country is an object of amazement and pity on the part of foreigners. Amazement that a country often seen at home and abroad as hosting a political system of bureaucratic sophistication and political moderation should be in apparent crisis. Pity that it should apparently have taken leave of its senses by voting, in June 2016, to leave the European Union — and is making such a mess of the process.
That process was initiated by a pro-Brexit majority of only 52 percent in the 2016 referendum. The country was split almost equally, and though Brexiteers came from all classes and areas, the “remainers” were disproportionately drawn from the ranks of politicians, senior civil servants, business executives, academics, media people, Londoners — “the establishment.” The Ashcroft poll taken a few days after the 2016 vote showed that managers and professional-class workers (who make up 27 percent of the British labor force) voted 57 percent to 43 percent to remain. Every other class voted to leave.
And now Brexiteers suspect the remainers of scorn — with some justice. The Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins told the BBC that the referendum result constituted “a slender majority of an ignorant and misled public.” Research by the Cambridge University sociologist Noah Carl showed, however, that there was no significant difference between remainers and Brexiteers on knowledge of the E.U.
Why should a sensible nation so wound itself? One popular explanation is that the British still harbor nostalgia for a lost empire and the status it gave. A century ago, it was the largest empire the world has known, with 23 percent of the global population and 24 percent of the world’s land mass. And its zenith came only in the 1920s, even after its loss of the American colonies and the independence of the larger part of the island of Ireland.
Yet though the empire does resonate still in Britain — as others do in France, Russia, Spain and Turkey — nostalgia, in reality, seems to have little to do with Brexit.
The past magnificence and the present shrinkage of Britain would appear to make the ascription of imperial longing as a prime Brexit motivation a matter of obvious common sense — not requiring proof. Scottish nationalists — though their ancestors benefited, proportionately, far more than the English from positions high and low in the imperial service — are the leading proponents of this theory. The prominent Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh refers to “the imperialist baggage of the UK state.” The nationalist politician Michael Russell, in London this week to give a speech in favor of Scottish secession, which I attended, spoke of Britain’s “acting as an imperial policeman in post-imperial countries” — a reference to interventions in Iraq and Libya.
The Irish columnist and essayist Fintan O’Toole, in his 2018 book, “Heroic Failure,” seeks understanding of a “neighbor (who) is going mad” — and argues that Britain has been in thrall to a popular novel, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” whose sadomasochistic themes chime with the fact that Brexiteers “cannot resist the ‘sweet agonizing torture’ of playing submissive to Brussels Dominant.” The 17 million British citizens who voted to leave are, by implication, fools who drank too deeply of a “toxic cocktail” of anti-Europeanism — men and women of little will of their own.
Bobby McDonagh, the former Irish ambassador to Britain, sees Brexiteers protecting sovereignty like the Gollum creature in “The Lord of the Rings,” desperately seeking the magic ring that was taken from him: “We wants it. We needs it. Must have the precious.” He claims that the Irish do not have “xenophobia on anything like the scale … in the UK.” Yet in its November 2018 report, the E.U. Agency for Fundamental Rights ranked Ireland second-worst among E.U. states for violence against black people. The United Kingdom was second best, after Portugal.
In The Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor wrote of Britain’s “delusions of Empire” and “fantasy of Britain’s past”; his father, Shashi Tharoor, a former senior U.N. official and Indian government minister, last year published “Inglorious Empire,” a robust attack on all the works of the British in India — including the implantation of parliamentary democracy.
Indian and Irish commentators have some grounds for schadenfreude (even if scattergun in its deployment and unwise in clasping it), given the terror, repression and neglect the British visited on them up to the early 20th century. American ones, perhaps less — independence needed a bloody war, to be sure, but we’ve had a special relationship since then, have we not?
Polls do show that many British voters, especially older generations, remain proud of the empire. But there is little evidence that imperial nostalgia played a large part in the Brexit vote: In 1975, when many more citizens were alive who remembered the British Empire’s glories, a referendum on membership in the European Economic Community — the E.U.’s forerunner — yielded a 2-to-1 result in favor. In 2016, the main reason given by “leave” voters was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK” — a vote to empower a democratically elected Parliament, not one to try to reconquer lost dominions.
Empire is treated even less like an unalloyed gift of the British to a grateful world now than it was in 1975. The Oxford geographer Daniel Dorling and fellow Oxford professor Sally Tomlinson write in “Rule Britannia” that the teaching of the empire in schools is “stuck in a mythical past.” But it isn’t: The most recent study of such teaching in 2016, by education professor Terry Haydn, finds “a balanced approach, examining positive and negative historical sources, opinion and commentary.”
What has changed in the past 44 years is a steady growth in English nationalism — itself largely prompted by the demand by the Scottish National Party, the dominant party in Scotland, for “Independence in Europe” and, thus, the breakup of the United Kingdom. Sir John Curtice, don of the British pollsters, wrote that by the end of the first decade of the 2000s, he saw “the first sign, perhaps, that a form of English nationalism was beginning to emerge among the general public.”
A draft law — “A New Act of Union” — produced by a cross-party group chaired by Britain’s most powerful aristocrat now focuses attention on power being centered in Westminster, at once more familiar and more controllable than the European capital in Brussels, with a largely powerless Parliament. As England seeks to be a nation within a union of nations, the E.U. appears increasingly irrelevant to many English voters.
The movement against the E.U. meshes with the growing disillusion with globalization, in which the E.U. is seen as an enthusiastic participant. The Harvard economist Dani Rodrik writes that states that choose integration into supranational government must give up democracy at the level of the nation-state — a dilemma that has been increasingly brought home to all European states. Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky wrote this week that “a United States of Europe is beyond practical politics. … Voters have to internalize a sense of possession over their politics, and this sentiment of ownership and obligation grows organically, not prescriptively.”
Remainers, unwilling to attack ordinary Brexiteers, concentrate their fire on their political leaders: A favorite target is the wealthy, patrician, posh-voiced, three-piece-suited Jacob Rees-Mogg, a member of Parliament and a successful investment banker. Yet Rees-Mogg’s economics are the opposite of imperialist. In a rousing speech in January 2018, he said that “Britain’s success as a nation … has been translated through free trade and free markets and has allowed people to come together to meet each other’s needs in voluntary exchange. … Our best days lie before us.” Free trade and free markets hate the controls of empire: Rees-Mogg poses Britain as a market-oriented, technologically smart, future success story — its “best days” defined by the market, not the Royal Navy.
Rees-Mogg is hardly representative of the people of Britain. Yet the polls show that those who voted to leave the E.U. remain optimistic about a free-trade policy — a large-scale survey in 2018 found that “66% of Leavers expect the benefits of an independent UK trade policy to more than outweigh any costs of Brexit. … The optimism of Leavers remains almost identical (indeed, if anything slightly higher) to when the same question was asked in 2017.”
Britain’s Brexiting quest is not for empire. Whatever the opinions people hold on Britain’s past, it appears nowhere in their calculations about the future. And it is to the future that Brexiteers look now — rightly, or wrongly, seeing it as a place of freedom and opportunity.
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