Brexit was not a rejection of British decline, but of British successby Ian Dunt / September 22, 2017 / Leave a comment
Martin Amis was on Radio 4’s Today programme this week, ostensibly to support Remain. He didn’t do a very good job of it. Brexit, he said, was above all “a denial of decline.” Britain had to stop thinking that it was “a weight on the world stage.”
It is incredibly tiresome to hear someone wallow in their country losing importance, especially when they’re phoning it in from their home in the US. As far as campaign strategies go, telling people their country is rubbish is never particularly effective. It also has the considerable disadvantage of being false.
This type of thinking has been typical on parts of the liberal left for years. We’re endlessly told that Britain never got over the loss of empire, that it is still lost nostalgic for the days when we used to hold the world to ransom at the end of a gunboat.
Oddly enough, it’s this argument itself which seems dated. For anyone my age (I was born in the early 80s), Britain has not been in a state of perpetual decline at all. The empire was packed up and put away long before I was born. The industrial unrest of the 70s was something parents talked about. Throughout my lifetime, Britain has actually been growing stronger, wealthier and more influential.
In economic terms, access to the single market and customs union turned it from the sick man of Europe to a moderate economic success story—arguably the world’s financial capital, and still, despite all the sense of industrial decline, a manufacturer of products which people want to buy. The Falklands showed a country with an independent military capacity and a willingness to engage if necessary. There were successful British-led interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, which were no less important just because of the foolishness of the military misadventures which followed them.
But Britain’s advance was not primarily financial or military. It was cultural. In music, sports, and art, Britain was a world leader. Hardly anyone on the planet would not have some contact with a UK cultural product on an average day, whether it was through the Premier League, or Dizzee Rascal, or Harry Potter, or any other number of expressions of the British personality. Sometimes that British influence came through an American delivery system, like in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Sometimes it was undiluted, like James Bond. But either way, the reach was vast.
You get a sense of the globalisation of British culture by the evolution of something like Doctor Who. What was a thoroughly domestic children’s programme when I was growing up became a global phenomenon. But throughout it maintained a fundamentally British character. What kind of American hero spends every episode running away from things? It remains eccentric, a bit cheap, witty, and profoundly tolerant. The only big change is that it is now a part of the childhood of kids around the world, rather than just at home.
At home, we recalibrated the martial discipline and stiff-upper lip of the past into something ironic and reassuring. The night of the proms became oddly flamboyant. The Union Jack came back into fashion, this time drenched in neon, fag-lit, Britpop cosmopolitanism.
Britain became genuinely multicultural—and not just in the sense of people living different lives in the same country, like olive oil and vinegar, but something more profound. Look at the way Cockney was replaced by Multicultural London English, a combination of elements indigenous to London and those from the Indian subcontinent, Africa, and the Caribbean. That is the melting pot taking place on the ground, in lived reality. It is multiculturalism as point of fact, not as political project.
Brexit was not a rejection of British decline, but of British success. Post-Empire Britain had started to come into its own and communicate its ideas to the rest of the world, not least with the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. June 2016 saw it cut off at the knees by misty-eyed imperial fantasists.
You don’t counter that but wallowing in a national decline which took place half a century ago. You counter it by making the case for free, open, post-empire Britain. If Remain wins—and even now, in the depths of Article 50, it is still perfectly possible that it can—it will be because it expresses itself as a patriotic movement.
To retreat into a dated form of self-hating British liberalism is to admit defeat. No-one will vote for that, nor should they.