Theresa May, Brexit, and the Empire

The best principled case for Brexit was always going to be the ‘internationalist’ one, painting the European Union as a protectionist cabal and a ‘white men’s club’, by contrast with the truly free trading, non-exclusive and friendly-to-everyone nation that Britain might become. That was the line taken by many of the opponents of Britain’s original entry into the Common Market (as it was then) in 1972. For at least two centuries up until then Britain had been a far more ‘international’ nation than any of her neighbours (France came closest), with her extra-European trade greatly exceeding her commerce with the European continent, and her people – emigrants, tourists, missionaries, explorers, scientific enquirers – venturing all over the globe. In this ‘wider world’ view, Europe even as a whole appeared almost parochial, and no-one in the nineteenth century would have regarded relations with it alone as meriting the term ‘internationalism’.

However, the fact that many of Britain’s relations with that wider world took the form of ‘imperialism’, implying domination, rather tarnished the idealistic aspect of this ‘outward-lookingness’ (as I called it in one of my books); with the result that a great effort was made in the early twentieth century to make it less obviously imperialistic, and therefore more genuinely ‘international’, by seeking to evolve the old Empire into a new, equal and multi-ethnic ‘Commonwealth of Nations’: a bit like a proto-UN. But of course not many people outside Britain – or even Leftists inside – could see or credit this; which is why Euroscepticism right up to the present day has often been confused with, or seen as the legacy of, the more old-fashioned or ‘Blimpish’ kind of imperialism.

Theresa May began her policy-defining talk on ‘Brexit’ today –  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/17/theresa-mays-brexit-speech-full – by appealing to this older kind of internationalism, which nowadays of course doesn’t need to carry any imperialist connotations. (No-one thinks we’re going to try to annex India again. Or America – though that might not be such a bad thing for it just now.) Unfortunately most of the press commentary seems to have ignored this part. But it’s important, and was fair enough to point out, harking back as it does to a venerable British tradition; which wasn’t an ignoble one, until it was hi-jacked by the empire builders and capitalist exploiters. – But of course the capitalist exploiters are still out there, no longer needing ‘nations’ to back them up, and indeed more internationally powerful than any single nation can be on its own; which is why I voted to ‘remain’ in this white men’s club, in the hope that it might be able to resist the behemoth collectively. I can’t see an independent Britain doing that. Which rather detracts from the idea that we can ‘regain control’.

I wonder what the Brexiteers thought of the speech? Many of them were racists. Exiting Europe certainly won’t do anything to stop the nig-nogs coming in. Indeed, May’s clear implication was that Indian doctors and students would be welcomed more than Polish plumbers. Jolly good, I say; but what about Nigel?

(I’m booked to give a paper on this in Genoa in April. These are my first thoughts.)

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2 Responses to Theresa May, Brexit, and the Empire

  1. I am not sure if you mean to suggest this, Bernard; however, this post reads as if prior to the last two hundred years of imperialism, Britain engaged in a form of internationalism characterised by “free trading” that was “non-exclusive and friendly-to-everyone”.

    My own impression is that for a long time prior to the heyday of British imperialism, traders and the well-armed state worked hand in glove; and the power of the British navy and soldiery was able to underpin asymmetric economic relations between largely English merchants and their trading ‘partners’. The theory and practice of mercantilism operated as a kind of proto-imperialism, with figures such as Drake exemplifying the combination of prosperity backed by the use of force.

    Genoa in April: that sounds good.

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    • I was referring to the post-mercantilist C19th. I acknowledge that even then ‘free’ trade was safeguarded and might even have been pushed by naval force; but that wasn’t how the Victorians were persuaded to see it. The ‘imperialism of free trade’ mainly resides in the way global capitalism can dominate weak economies even without this national backing; which is what will happen to Britain when she leaves herself more open to international capitalist pressure as a single, isolated economy without even the possibility, now, of resistance; which her membership of the EU MIGHT have have given her in time. So much for ‘winning back control’.

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