The myth of Brexit as imperial nostalgia

The myth it fuels is not that empire can return, but that it hardly mattered in the first place

January 07, 2019
Newspaper covers in the wake of the 2016 referendum
Newspaper covers in the wake of the 2016 referendum

In the days and weeks after the Brexit vote, headlines like “The Empire Strikes Back” became a theme of international commentary. For the New York Times, the vote to Leave marked “England’s Last Gasp of Empire,” the diseased reaction of a nation “sickened by nostalgia,” while the Washington Post diagnosed “nostalgia for empire” as a “cornerstone of nationalist politics.” Writers of the calibre of David Olusaga, Onni Gust, Dane Kennedy, Gary Younge and Marc-William Palen saw in Brexit a case-study in “postcolonial melancholia,” driven by “a nostalgic yearning for lost colonies—and the wealth and global influence that came with them.”

The Brexit debate spoke to deep-rooted ideas about history, identity and loss, none of which could be easily disentangled from Britain’s imperial past. Yet the emphasis on imperial nostalgia, as a core engine of the Leave vote, has been overstated. The Leave campaign brought together a remarkably broad coalition, stretching from George Galloway on the radical left to Nigel Farage on the radical right. Its 17.4m voters constituted the largest electoral alliance ever constructed in Britain, and it would not be difficult, amidst such a cacophony of discordant voices, to find some extolling the merits of empire. Yet we should be wary of erecting this into a general theory, for four key reasons.

First, it carries an obvious polemical charge. The appeal to “imperial nostalgia” marks out the Leave vote as a psychological disorder: a pathology to be diagnosed, rather than an argument with which to engage. It is deployed almost exclusively by Remainers (of whom I am one), whose interests it clearly serves. In the absence of compelling evidence, beyond vague appeals to “Global Britain” and civil-service jokes about “Empire 2.0,” we should be wary of arguments that play so directly to our own political preferences.

Second, such accounts suggest, at least implicitly, that it is only Leave voters who are haunted by the ghosts of Empire. As such, they reduce postcolonialism to something that happens to other people. Yet if we are to take seriously the continuing power of empire, we need a closer attention to its impact across the European debate.

As Roy Jenkins grumbled in the 1960s, ministers frequently combined an enthusiasm for the European project with “an attachment to imperial commitments worthy of… Joseph Chamberlain, Kitchener of Khartoum and George Nathaniel Curzon.” For the Labour Foreign Secretary, George Brown, Europe offered a new platform for British leadership: a “European bloc which would have same power and influence in the world” as the former Empire. The Daily Mail celebrated accession in 1971 with the headline, “Now we can lead Europe!,” while the Sun told readers that membership offered “an unrepeatable opportunity for a nation that lost an empire to gain a Continent.”

The idea that Britain should lead the EU—widely deployed in 2016—has as strong an imperial heritage as the aspiration to leave it; and in loading membership with unrealistic aspirations, it may have contributed to disillusionment with the European experience. By contrast, the anti-colonial left tended to be hostile to membership, and the idea that Brexit marks a liberation from Britain’s own colonial status—however perverse—has a long history in Eurosceptic thought.

Third, such accounts often conflate nostalgia for Empire with enthusiasm for the Commonwealth. Yet the two ideas carry different political charges and appeal to different cohorts. To take an obvious example: Black and Asian voters often feel a strong affinity with the Commonwealth, but they are not, as a rule, nostalgic for Empire. Appeals to the Commonwealth could invoke very different visions, some centring on the white “Dominions,” others on the multiracial states of the global south. More recently, terms such as “the Anglosphere” have gained currency: an idea with a long history in imperial thought, but one that always served as a futurist project—an alternative to the empire as it actually existed.

Finally, we need a sharper distinction between nostalgia and amnesia: between the longing for empire and the forgetting of Britain’s imperial past. The two are not mutually exclusive: it is probably only possible to be nostalgic for empire if you forget most of its history. Yet there is a difference between the selective remembering of empire and its elimination from the historical record.

In Eurosceptic readings of history, the dominant memory is not of empire but of “our island story”: of plucky “little Britain,” standing alone against overpowering odds. It’s the story of Dunkirk, of Sir Francis Drake, and of Britain fighting “alone” in 1940—a story that reduces empire to an expression of British power, rather than its source. The myth it fuels is not that empire can return, but that it hardly mattered in the first place: that Britain can flex its muscles on the world stage without the sinews of imperial power. For Boris Johnson, the task of Brexit is “not to build a new empire, heaven forfend,” but “to rediscover some of the dynamism of these bearded Victorians,” as if the two were unconnected.

Like Freddy Krueger, Brexit has many fathers—and empire is etched deep in its DNA. Yet the emphasis on “imperial nostalgia” has rendered empire both too large and too small, erecting it into a totalising explanation for one half of the voting public and ignoring it altogether for the other. If, as Afua Hirsch has written, “the ghosts of the British Empire are everywhere in modern Britain,” we need a keener understanding of how those legacies work, based on a greater attention to Remain voters; a more disaggregated approach to the forms and modes of the imperial connection; and a shift in emphasis from nostalgia to amnesia. Above all, if we are to be analysts of Brexit, in a commentariat that overwhelmingly backs the other side, we need to interrogate our own assumptions and resist the temptation to project solely onto Leave voters irrational and pathological motives. For in the words of a famous horror movie: if the ghosts of empire really do haunt Brexit, it cannot only be Leave voters who “see dead people.”

Robert Saunders is a Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain (2018)