The myth it fuels is not that empire can return, but that it hardly mattered in the first placeby Robert Saunders / January 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…