Alex King formerly worked in Parliament for the Policy Research Unit, and is now a public affairs consultant.
When Sir Charles Napier, a 19th Century British general, gained control of the province of Sindh in south eastern Pakistan, he supposedly sent a message back to London consisting of just one word to relay his triumph: ‘Peccavi’, or ‘I have sinned’. Although likely apocryphal, the story now serves to demonstrate how some on the Remain side of the Brexit campaign have come to view those who voted Leave – as sinners who are not only unrepentant, but who all along were simply aiming to realise a long dampened desire, to re-stake Britain’s claim to imperial power and splendour.
The thinking goes that the Brexit vote was the last charge of a group of people who have not yet reconciled themselves to the end of empire, and who refuse to acknowledge that Britain is just an insignificant archipelago at the northern tip of Europe. These are the people who close their ears when they hear mention of the word ‘Suez’, who are still upset that we didn’t send gunboats into Hong Kong harbour in 1997, and view Trident as the political equivalent of Viagra. They refuse to admit that Britain is a declining force in world affairs, and indulge in mad dreams that it can once again rule the world. Dreams of a glorious past that could be lived again have blinded them to the bleak reality, that Britain’s heyday as a world power is over and never coming back.
This line of thinking has come to the fore in recent weeks, as commentators seek to explain why those who voted leave could still possibly want to leave the EU even after they’ve been warned about the apparent damage it will do. Ryan Heath believes that “Brexit is the story of a proud former imperial power undergoing a mid-life crisis” and “a way for Britain to feel big again”, while Gary Younge thinks that “An image was conjured of Britain striding out of the EU in top hat and tails…towards a glorious past.” Fintan O’Toole was even more explicit, writing that a crucial reason for Brexit was the idea of the UK’s “vertiginous fall from ‘heart of Empire’ to ‘occupied colony’.”
These ideas have been present in British politics for many years. Each time Britain suffers a failure of any kind on the international stage, the same quote from Dean Acheson, President Truman’s Secretary of State, is gleefully trotted out, that ‘Britain has lost an empire and not found a role’. A large chunk of Remainers believe that the people in charge of Brexit sold implicit visions of Britain striding the world stage again, and people who for it voted swallowed it whole. What we are seeing, according to this analysis, is nothing less than the forlorn hope of a fallen empire.
In his article, Younge goes on to quote what Kristian Jensen, the Danish finance minister, said last year, that “There are two kinds of European nations…There are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realised they are small nations”, and notes that “This is Britain’s most public and painful reckoning with its size and influence in its post-colonial state”. O’ Toole reckons that “in the imperial imagination, there are only two states: dominant and submissive, coloniser and colonised.” When you have a post-colonial hammer, it turns out everything is an imperial nail.
Such ideas are patronising and wholly unpersuasive to anyone who actually voted Leave. A pitch that tells all those who voted Leave for a better future that all they wanted was to replay Britannia’s greatest hits is unlikely to be much of a goer. But, most importantly, they’re also wrong.
The last throw of the dice to try and cling on as an imperial power was in fact the decision to join the EEC, the EU’s forerunner. Even as the ‘wind of change’ was blowing through Africa, Harold Macmillan was advocating Britain’s membership of the EEC as a way of ensuring unity in the pursuit of “strength in the struggle for freedom.” As Macmillan said when announcing the Government’s intention to join the EEC in 1961, “This is a political as well as an economic issue. Although the Treaty of Rome is concerned with economic matters it has an important political objective, namely, to promote unity and stability in Europe which is so essential a factor in the struggle for freedom and progress throughout the world.”
The hope was that through the EEC, Britain would become greater than the sum of its parts, and continue playing its natural role as a global superpower, the leading actor in a theatre of nations. Acheson himself, in the same speech at West Point in 1962 where he questioned Britain’s future, said that our application to join the Common Market was a ‘decisive turning point’ for modern Europe, and that a successful application would mean a “step forward of vast importance will have been taken” towards increasing European strength.
This is the strange contradiction at the heart of the latest attempts to see empire at the heart of everything Britain does. Leaving the EU is apparently an attempt to relive such heady days, yet we would be leaving the very institution we joined to prolong our imperial adventure, while being consistently told that doing so would deprive us of weight and influence.
The thinking seems to be that Britain’s futile attempt to increase its power by striking out alone is laughable, anachronistic and the product of imperial fantasy, but don’t worry, if you stay in the EU you can still do it properly (and morally) as part of a group of former empire builders! When it comes to imperial ambition, apparently only teamwork makes the dream work. It is also quite galling to be accused of seeking a return to empire by proponents of an institution that consistently seeks all the trappings of empire, whether that is a national anthem, a star spangled banner, or greater common defence capabilities (read: an army).
This is not the time or the place to conduct an in depth analysis of precisely what motivated millions of Leave voters to decide to vote to leave the EU. Some will indeed have voted for it out of a misplaced notion of the UK’s place in the world, or because they believe Britain needs a more global outlook. Others will have voted for it for the very opposite reason, out of a desire to stop the world and be left alone. But tired and complacent ideas suggesting it was for one last imperial jolly need to be consigned to the dustbin of Brexit analyses.