Brexit and the British Empire

This was the paper I delivered in Genoa last week, lightly edited, and without the powerpoint pics – which added to the fun. Hence its longer-than-average length. (It ran for fifty minutes.) The conference, or ‘Festival’, had ‘Empires’ as its theme. Professor Donald Sassoon, at whose invitation I was there, had suggested that I call my talk ‘L’impero britannico: costruito quasi per caso?’; which, if it means what I think it does (I have no Italian), fitted in well with my somewhat unconventional view of the British Empire: which is that it wasn’t quite as big a ‘deal’ as it’s often thought to be.

But because we in Britain seem to be obsessed with the subject of ‘Brexit’ just now, and because some commentators appear to think that our desire to get out of the EU might have something to do with our past imperial pretensions – I read a letter in the Financial Times by a Cambridge Professor Emeritus of German just the other day, in fact, which said almost exactly this (; this whole letter is largely nonsense as history, incidentally) – I thought I’d talk about that too. Before then, however, I tried to explain, to a foreign and non-expert audience, remember, and in a deliberately provocative way – though I’d stand broadly by everything written here – how, in my view, the British Empire came to be. Much of what follows summarises the argument of my last book, British Imperial. We’ll see that this has a bearing on the ‘Brexit’ issue; a discussion of which will form the latter part of this post. Much of that has also been aired before, on this blog. So, sorry for the repetition; but here goes.


The British Empire, it seems to me, is much misunderstood. By that I don’t mean that it has been treated necessarily unfairly – I’m not going to launch into a defence of British imperialism here – but that most people have simply got it wrong. It wasn’t how it looked.

Here’s what I take to be the prevalent perception of the old British Empire, both at the time and in historical retrospect. – It was a great powerful super-state, dating back four hundred years (one commentator recently claimed a thousand: that would take us back to Cnut), and ruling over about a quarter of the world: the areas that were coloured in red on the world maps hanging up in (allegedly) every British schoolroom. It either ‘civilized’ or ‘exploited’ – according to your point of view – its many millions of subjects. It was a source of pride for most Britons, all of them puffed up with it like the famous ‘John Bull’ representation of the English national character. It was arrogant and racist, or else – again, the alternative reading – insufferably patronising towards its ‘inferior’ subjects, who needed Britain’s strong and enlightened hand to keep them on the right tracks. Many Britons liked to compare it with the ancient Roman Empire; especially the upper classes, who were taught about virtually nothing else – apart from rugby and homosexuality – in their ‘Public’ (that is, elite private) schools. The British Empire however was even better than the Roman, because bigger and less tyrannical. Gosh! thought the upper classes; what a terrific achievement by all those brave Britons over all those years! Conversely, for old reactionaries at the present day: what a humiliating come-down, to have sunk from being this world-wide Empire to a mere second-rank nation like other nations – like Italy, for pity’s sake! – and reduced to joining a Union with them, on equal terms! That, of course, is the link with Brexit, which I’ll be coming back to.

In fact the British Empire was much less than this, and less than it was made to appear by all those red-besplattered world maps – which, incidentally, didn’t start appearing in British schoolrooms until the 20th century. Its 16th century ‘origins’, so-called, consisted of a few tiny trading and farming settlements on the eastern coast of North America, all started by private enterprise, and not by the British state. They were called ‘colonies’ from the Latin ‘colore’, to cultivate (simply that), and most of them failed. That was because Spain and Portugal (with the help of your own Christopher Columbus) had bagged all the richest bits of the Americas, the South and middle: the ones with the gold. Virginia, Massachusetts and the rest were merely the left-overs: the bones and bits of gristle that you’d pass down to your dog after a meal. That may have been an advantage in one way, because it meant that the British settlers – by the side of dozens of others: there were German, French, even Swedish ‘colonies’ in North America too – had to work hard for a living, actually cultivating the soil. That, it could be argued, made them more self-reliant than the Spaniards, less in need of an ‘imperial’ superstructure to guide them and enforce their rule. And in fact the British colonies in America were always essentially free and independent, even before their Declaration of Independence in 1776. American independence made little difference, except to enable the new American Republic to kick off an ‘imperialistic’ career of its own. That started with the colonisation of the American West at the brutal expense of the indigenous population, and ended (we hope) with America’s adventures in the Middle East in our own century. So far as the British Empire is concerned, that’s when most of North America drops out of the story.

What remained over on that side of the Atlantic were, first of all, Canada, which the Americans tried to conquer in 1812 but failed. That was because the Canadians didn’t much like the ‘Yankees’, and felt free enough under Britain’s very mild overlordship. This is why the two countries are so very different today, and why so many Americans, apparently, now want to emigrate there, to get away from Trump. Secondly, there were the Caribbean islands, or ‘West Indies’, as they were more often called. They were the product of private commercial enterprise too, and very valuable – mainly sugar. But they carried the great moral disadvantage of being worked with slave labour, captured in and shipped over from Africa, with the help there of Moslem Arab slave-traders. (It’s well-known that Islam isn’t innocent of slavery.) That started off as a private enterprise, too. (Before we blame European state imperialism for everything, we should consider the part played by capitalism in all this. They weren’t always in harness.) Slavery was always a problem in Britain, where the anti-slavery movement started, and which was the first significant nation to outlaw it permanently – in 1807 (the slave trade) and 1833 (slavery itself). Thereafter the West Indian islands remained colonies, ruled autocratically and with some cruelty, until the 1960s. I wouldn’t like to say whether this was to their overall benefit or not – we should need to speculate on what would have become of them without the British – except to say that it introduced them to cricket, which makes up for a lot. (The spread of cricket, in fact, is just about the only justification I can think of for British imperialism.)

(Incidentally: it’s interesting that cricket took such a hold in the Empire, and not much outside it; whereas that other British-invented game, football, has spread everywhere – even here. That’s because cricket is a subtle and sophisticated game, to my mind almost one of the fine arts (you have Leonardo da Vinci, we have Ian Botham); which requires a long period of tutelage or colonial rule to bed it in. Football, being simpler, can simply be ‘picked up’.)


OK, that’s the westward bit of the British Empire. Now to turn the globe around, and deal with the eastern bits.

India was the ‘greatest’ part of the Empire in many ways: the richest, the most populous, the most colourful, and the most romantic. A common name for it was ‘the jewel in Britain’s crown’. It was so fantastic, so much more impressive than the other colonies, in fact, that it was never called that, a ‘colony’, but an ‘Empire’ in its own right. Queen Victoria was simply Queen of the rest of British colonies, and of Britain, but ‘Indiæ Imperatrix’, Empress of India; or ‘Ind. Imp.’ on our coins. Like most of the rest of Britain’s colonial possessions it began as a string of coastal trading stations, belonging to the ‘British East India Company’: another private enterprise but with a monopoly of British trade granted (in 1601) by the Crown, and competing with ‘East India Companies’ from other European countries, mainly the Netherlands, France and Sweden. The bulk of India at the time was already in the hands of another foreign empire, the Mughal, whose understandable resentment of the British East India Company, as well as France’s rivalry, gave rise to clashes, atrocities on all sides, and eventually – after the Napoleonic Wars – British dominance. Yet again, it wasn’t dominance by the British state, exactly, but by this great British capitalist company – by now genuinely ‘global’ in its activities: the first great independent ‘multinational’, if you like. It had its own civil service, and its own army, even, which at one stage was bigger and better than the rather pathetic British one.

(If I can digress for a moment: Britain has never, at least until recently, been a great military power. Most of her army’s great achievements have been either heroic failures and defeats: the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, the battle of Rorke’s Drift in Africa… and so on. We’ve always been brave losers. Our Navy is something else.)

In order to trade with India the Company found it had to rule parts of it too, on order to get the Indians to pay their bills (basically); either directly or with the collaboration of local Maharajas and Princes. Unfortunately many of the civil servants they sent out to rule India were devout Christians, who believed God had sent them there to raise the Indians to the ‘light’; which most of the latter resented. They had their own indigenous religions – Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism – after all. British insensitivity over this in the end provoked a massive ‘Mutiny’ – in effect a national rebellion – in 1857: a really nasty affair. Britain put it down, but as a result took political control of India out of the hands of the Company, and vested it directly in the British government. Thereafter Britain stopped trying to Christianise or ‘civilize’ the Indians, and concentrated on more practical things, like building railways and planting forests, which an unimaginative but down-to-earth people like the British were better at. (A disproportionate number of them, incidentally, were from Scotland. Don’t believe the Scots when they tell you they are an oppressed colonial minority. They have always been more imperialist than the English.)

It was still far from an entirely satisfactory relationship. You will find Indians today who remember the ‘raj’, as the British period of their history is called, kindly: and not only because we gave them cricket, which they are now rather better at than we are. But British rule also had some appalling aspects, including massacres, famines which might have been prevented by the government but weren’t, and some appallingly arrogant and racist attitudes among many of the Brits who lived there, as traders or administrators, most of whom were upper class and ‘Public’ school-educated. On the other hand, even this was not consistent, with many Brits warming to Indian culture during their time there, cultivating Indian friendships, actively supporting Gandhi and his Independence movement, and even electing to stay on in India after its achievement of Independence in 1947. It was probably these who prepared the ground for the deep friendships between our peoples that continued long afterwards.

The British Empire acquired other colonies in the East, of course, but most of them connected to India in some way – through the East India Company, or planting naval stations in order for the British Navy to defend India, or started off by merchants and planters in a similar fashion. Hong Kong was taken after one of the wars fought between Britain and the Company over the latter’s export of Indian opium into China, which the Chinese authorities wanted to stop: pretty reasonably, one would have thought; but Britain argued that the great overriding moral principle of free trade overrode the dangers that opium was doing to Chinese minds. In my view this was one of the greatest crimes perpetuated under the British Empire; but, again, with capitalism – a Scottish business, Jardine and Matheson, as it happens – mainly to blame.


Right: that’s the West and the East. – Turning to the South: tropical and southern Africa came into the greedy purview of British capitalists after the 1840s, when a way was found to inoculate Europeans from malaria, which had killed off up to 90% of them before then. It was then that the famous ‘scramble’ for Africa started, among a number of European nations, including Italy, and coming to a head in the 1880s. Britain, France and the King of the Belgians were the main ‘winners’ here, although Britain didn’t regard it as much of a win because she didn’t really want to annex and rule any African countries, only to be allowed to trade freely with them. That was because ruling was expensive, and meant levying taxes either at home or on the Africans to pay for it, which might provoke both sets of people to rebellion (and did). It was also because of another related factor, which is vital to understanding the nature of the British Empire in the 19th century. This will become relevant to the ‘Brexit’ debate later on.

For the fact is that, although many people today regard the extension of any country’s commerce as inherently ‘imperialistic’ – see the way MacDonalds is often seen as a manifestation of American ‘informal’ imperialism – in the 19th century foreign trade was invariably seen, not just as different from imperialism, but as its opposite. This goes back to the great original Scottish philosopher of the ‘free market’, Adam Smith; and to the influential English politician Richard Cobden, who stated, and genuinely believed, that the spread of free trade around the world would eventually bring down national boundaries, destroy empires, and abolish wars: with everyone in the world living peacefully together in a kind of international utopia, simply as one anothers’ customers. (The American ‘Neo-Cons’ in the 1990s professed something similar.) Of course, whatever theoretical sense this might make, it’s practical nonsense, for reasons I haven’t room to go into here. The point is, however, that the Victorian British believed it, and consequently saw all their country’s foreign dealings in that light. All they wanted to do was to exchange goods with foreigners freely – that is, duty-free. Whenever they annexed a customer’s territory it was only because that customer – like the Chinese with opium – resisted this. So the British Empire was their fault. Furthermore: when Britain did annex a colony she made sure it permitted every country to trade with it, not just Britain; which by her way of thinking made it less of a colony – not really ‘imperialism’ at all. Yes, I know; this was naive, and indeed rather silly, and it might only have been a pretence, a hypocritical way of making herself feel more virtuous than the ‘genuine’ imperialists: those who wanted to annex territory for the sake of it. Still, this innocent delusion was always there. By definition, as a free trading country, Britain couldn’t be ‘imperialist’. I’ve called this ‘Empire denial’.

This delusion even extended into Britain’s most imperialistic period, from roughly 1880 to 1914. That was the period of the infamous ‘Boer War’ (in South Africa); and of what is called ‘jingoism’ – rowdy popular celebrations of colonial military victories (what there were of them), which define most people’s images of British imperialism today. I’ve a couple of things to say about that, which may alter the accepted image of it; and again will bear on the question of Brexit.

The first is that this relatively short period of British history is the only one in which ‘imperialism’ played any significant part in British domestic history. A number of historians – they call themselves ‘post-colonial theorists’ – will try to persuade you otherwise: that in fact imperialist sentiment was always deeply embedded in British society, years before this (back to Shakespeare, even), but has been covered up. But that’s just guesswork. Secondly: even this period was arguably less imperialistic than it is usually thought to have been. Yes, the imperialists made a lot of noise then; and there were a number of really fierce ideological imperialists around. But by and large the great majority of the populace was immune to them – which was why the imperialists felt they needed to shout so loudly – and pretty relaxed, to put it mildly, about their Empire. As for ‘Jingoism’, you’ll notice in most contemporary pictures of Jingo demos that most of the demonstrators look upper class, with top hats, and so on. (For more evidence of this generally, you’ll have to read my book The Absent-Minded Imperialists.) Thirdly, this was also the period when the political philosophy of anti-imperialism was born, in 1901 with a book called Imperialism a Study by JA Hobson; which in the long run was – and remains still – far more influential than anything ever written by an imperialist. It’s where Lenin got his ‘Marxist’ theory of imperialism from. – Of course there had been people before who objected to the empires that ruled them – the American revolutionaries, for example – but not to imperialism per se. Hobson was virtually the first. This, it seems to me, was just as notable a contribution of this period of British imperial history as was the imperialism itself. Britain wasn’t the first imperial nation in history; but she could claim to have been the first anti-imperial one.


Which takes us, now, into the 20th century; when the British Empire transformed itself fundamentally. One of the reasons for that was the scrapes it had got into at the very end of the previous century, with the not-so-great British Army taking 21/2 years to defeat a rabble of Dutch peasants in South Africa (the Boer War), and so Britain calling a halt to virtually all imperial expansion after that. (In 1904 one Captain Younghusband, quite off his own bat, announced that he had annexed Tibet for the British Empire; only for the Government to tell him not to be a silly boy and to give it back again.) Another reason was that imperial rivalry between Britain and Germany was being widely blamed for the outbreak of the First World War, which took much of the shine off imperialism. Whether or not that explanation was justified, it highlighted one indubitable fact: that her Empire was becoming increasingly a source of weakness diplomatically, draining away Britain’s military, and provoking other powers. Many imperialists saw this, and agitated for ways of strengthening the Empire. One was to unite it more closely into an imperial federation or Zollverein. Another was to put Britain on to more of a war footing, with military conscription and the like – they could start with the new Baden-Powell Boy Scouts. A third, rather adventurous solution, was to see whether the USA, with all her resources, might like to come back into the British Empire again. (That was seriously mooted.) These all failed.

One of the results of the First World war, however, was that Britain acquired even more territories, mainly from the defeated Ottoman and German empires. But they were mainly a further burden to her – especially the thankless territory of Palestine, with her troops having to keep the Arabs and Zionists apart from each other, and being shot at from both sides as a result. Even then she was careful not to call them ‘colonies’, but rather League of Nations ‘Mandates’ – a new term. At the same time she claimed to regard all her existing colonies as de facto ‘mandates’ – that is, countries she was simply looking after until they achieved independence, which she maintained (or pretended) had been her real purpose for her Empire all along; – and replaced the name ‘Empire’ by ‘Commonwealth’, which sounded cuddlier. As well as this, and around now (this is between the Wars), Japan and Italy were embarking on a new wave of the older-fashioned type of imperialism, which further put the British against the whole thing. By the time of the Second World War, most Britons regarded the ‘Commonwealth’ less as an Empire than as a kind of proto United Nations, liberal, equal, and destined for self-rule, with the old settlement colonies of Australia, New Zealand and Canada – which had never been genuinely ruled, or imperialised, by the British, which is why I’ve not said much about them here – as its template. That’s how ‘imperial history’ was taught in schools, for instance. (I’m old enough to remember.) The battles were all missed out, the anti-slavery movement was taught but not the slavery itself, and the impression was given that the Commonwealth was a kind of gentlemen’s club whose members had all asked to join.

The result of all this, to cut a long story short, is that when the time came for Britain to relinquish the directly-ruled parts of her empire – because of her own post-War weakness, colonial nationalist pressure and the rise to Great Power status of the USA and the USSR, both of them ideologically anti-imperialist (though of course not genuinely so) – no-one in Britain much cared. I remember this too, from my early days. There was a tiny ‘League of Empire Loyalists’ founded to try to reverse the irreversible, but that was mainly the butt of jokes. But as each colony ripened and fell off the imperial tree, one by one, with the Government pretending it had liberated them voluntarily, out of the kindness of its heart, most Britons took it in their stride. There was none of the domestic upheaval that her decolonisation inflicted on France. There was the Suez crisis, yes, but most of the country was against Eden’s government – the clear aggressor – over that. There was also a fluttering of resistance among extreme Right-wing Conservatives as ‘white’ Rhodesia was turned, painfully, into ‘black’ Zimbabwe. But that was it. It was only the reactionary upper classes who cared.

As, in my view, it had been during most of the lifetime of the Empire. The latter was really their thing, fitting in with their view of their class role, drummed into them in their Public schools, as ‘natural’ leaders and rulers of men. [At this point in the lecture I showed them that notorious photo of the Bullingdon Club, with David Cameron lording it in the centre.] The other classes of British society didn’t have this. Most of them regarded themselves, historically, as descended from the victims and enemies of the ancient aristocracy – or the ‘Norman Yoke’, as it was called, based on the notion that the latter were descended from a foreign – Norman-French, and ultimately Scandinavian (Cnut) – class of imperialist oppressors forced on them in the 11th century. (There was some truth in that.) The British middle classes prized freedom from rule, or independence, as their main principle of life, which it was their function, as a class, to extend. This explained their devotion to free trade. It also explains their support, in the main, for decolonisation. Because they were so dominant a class in British society, economically at least, it is their liberalism rather than imperialism that must stand as the ‘dominant discourse’ (as it’s called) in British society from the early 1800s-on.

That put them instinctively and constitutionally against the Empire. Empire represented authority, rule, and hierarchy, all of which they disapproved of. It was also a drag on the trade that many of them were engaged in: to have to pay towards ruling the Empire money that would be better left – as Gladstone is supposed to have said – ‘fructifying in the pockets of the people’: i.e. invested in the economy. The political working classes objected for much the same reason; and also because, as people at the bottom of the pile in Britain, they tended to sympathise with those at the bottoms of their piles in the colonies.

Which, however, bred an irony. Like it or not, it was largely in pursuance of the middle classes’ commercial enterprise that the Empire had come about. But they didn’t want to govern it, anti-government as they were. Which left only the more ruling-friendly upper and upper-middle classes to do the job. So it was they who became the active imperialists: the colonial governors, in their silly uniforms and plumed hats – they loved ceremony – or the ‘DOs’ (District Officers) in their khaki shorts and sun-helmets, and with their cut-glass upper-class accents; teaching the natives how to play cricket, dispensing justice impartially (they felt), but cracking down on disobedience; sipping their gins and tonics at sundown (the quinine in the tonic a prophylactic against malaria: well, that was their excuse, anyway); with their wives loyally supporting them; and feeling – genuinely – that they were doing a good job. Every now and again they found themselves in conflict with the middle-class commercial men: over economic ‘developments’, like plantations, for example, that would threaten the traditional village-based native societies they felt they needed to protect. (It’s a myth, by the way, to think that the British Empire tried to Anglicise its subjects. Its dominant administrative philosophy was called ‘Indirect Rule; or ‘ruling the native on native lines.’) Generally they won, and their wards remained as they were: happy and stagnant.

Unless, that is, there were lots of white settlers around. For it was the settlers who caused most of the trouble and the atrocities in nearly every nation’s colonies in every age: in Rhodesia, for example, and Kenya, and America, and Australia, and North and South Africa, and including Libya, right up to Israel on the West Bank today. It’s important to grasp this, because it suggests that not all ‘imperialists’ are the same. That’s because their functions can vary, and their attitudes towards the ‘natives’ largely depend on this. Missionaries can be culturally insensitive but are rarely racist – otherwise what’s the point in trying to convert the heathen?; colonial rulers treat their subjects kindly if they are docile; small-time traders, interested only in exchange, treat them (and cheat them) as equals; but only settlers, because they need the natives’ land and labour, are literally racist, in order to justify their making the natives work for them. Imperialism shouldn’t be equated with racism per se. That’s another miscomprehension. As it happens, the most racist people in Europe were the least imperialist – because they didn’t think anything could be done with ‘inferior’ breeds. In Britain, the least racist people were those (apart from ex-settlers) who had had experience of Africa or India or whatever; and the most racist nations – going by their schoolbooks (I’ve compared English with Swedish) – those that didn’t have colonies at all. In fact it could be that one of the effects of colonialism was to encourage empathy rather than race hostility for other peoples. But I’m not sure.

(In one way that empathy may have run quite deep. Britons’ motives for travelling to places like India and Africa varied widely, with commercial profit, release from poverty in Britain, and scientific inquisitiveness being probably the leading ones; but sex being another, if we are to believe the argument of one leading imperial historian, Ronald Hyam: who suggests that one of the appeals of these places is that they were more sexually liberated than Britain, which meant that Britons could indulge in sexual practices there that they couldn’t at home. Gay relationships were the main one; but even heterosexual opportunities were often more open in places like India and Africa than they were in an English town or village. So, painfully repressed as they were in Victorian Britain, middle-class English men – mainly men, but also some feisty women – went abroad to indulge their carnal passions; and then found themselves annexing and ruling the countries where they took their pleasures. I’ve called this the ‘surplus sex-urges’ theory of imperialism (after Hobson’s ‘surplus capital’ theory). A student of mine invented the term ‘the swollen gonads theory’. You can take your pick.)


And now, at last, to Brexit. As I promised.

As I imagine you’re aware, last summer the British people voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. I for one very much regret that. [Nb. I made no effort in my lecture to be ‘even-handed’ over this.] Speaking personally, I feel it has robbed me of one of my most important ‘national identities’ – as a ‘European’. Many other Europeans simply can’t understand it. A lot of them think the Empire must have something to do with it. The idea is this: that we were so puffed up with imperial pride from the days when we used to rule a quarter of the world, or, alternatively, so resentful of the fact that we had been brought down so low since that time, that we couldn’t abide the idea of being just an ordinary nation, in harness with other ordinary nations.

OK, there may be something in this. There is still a residuum of straight xenophobia in Britain – bloody Frogs, or Krauts, or Wops; together with a few diehard imperialists in right-wing and upper-class circles. Some of the latter have recently put forward schemes to resurrect, if not the Empire, then at least the old English-speaking Commonwealth, by means of commercial treaties and the like, which clearly harp back to the good – or bad – old days. (More of this in a moment.) Aside from that, one or two politicians and historians – most famously Niall Ferguson – have been trying to resurrect the reputation of the old Empire, and get us to feel some retrospective pride in it again. But Ferguson – Empire. How Britain Made the World, is the title of one of his books – is in a tiny minority among British imperial historians; and is really only notable as standing out from the rest. If you took him more seriously, however, as some do, you would get another view of the British. The Empire – it would run – is an essential part of their history. They can’t get over it. – That’s the easy, and might even seem the obvious, explanation. It’s the one favoured by my Swedish friends, for example. But it represents – at best – only a small part of the truth.

What I’ve said in this talk so far should have raised a few doubts about it. If, as I’ve suggested, the British were never all that interested in their empire, any initial regrets at the loss of it surely won’t have lasted through until now. That loss is almost never expressed openly; although that may be due to fear of its provoking ‘politically correct’ ridicule. It may be different, still, with upper-class Britons, and especially the Monty Python-esque ones: men like Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (known as ‘Boris’) and Nigel Farage. You must have come across them: both Public school products, and very silly people; indeed, they actually cultivate their silliness, quite deliberately – they think it makes them somehow acceptable. They clearly miss the Empire terrifically. (Johnson has said of the Empire that ‘the problem is’ – this is a quote’ – ‘not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.’) Johnson and Farage, of course, were the ones who spearheaded Brexit, and gave the movement much of its flavour and taste. – But there is only a limited number of these eccentrics in British society today, whatever you might gather from the common stereotypes of us; and Brexit needed more than the likes of them to succeed.

Here’s where the real key to the puzzle of Brexit lies. – The thing we need to realise about it is that the main issue behind it was neither the old Empire; nor even Europe. For the great majority of people who voted ‘Yes’ (to Brexit) in the referendum on June 23rd last year, whatever their silly cheerleaders thought, it was mainly an excuse to land a blow on the British political establishment, for entirely different reasons. ‘Austerity’ was one. The ruling classes’ perceived alienation from ‘ordinary people’, especially in the depressed North of England, was another. Our Parliamentary voting system – ‘First Past the Post’ – was largely responsible for that, very rarely permitting the real state of opinion in Britain to be reflected in Parliament. This is the reason for the low turnout in British elections: people think there’s no point in voting. Then, along came the Referendum, in which people’s votes would be directly reflected in the result, for almost the first time; which gave them a rare opportunity to punish the ‘establishment’ for all their woes and disappointments. That; coupled with some unease over Eastern European immigration: ‘bloody Poles. Coming over here and mending things’ in the words of one of our best stand-up comedians. This highly unstable mixture was then stirred up by our proto-Fascist tabloid Press, and diverted by grossly misleading propaganda from the Brexit side: its notorious ‘battle bus’, for example, making a promise (£350 million a week for the NHS) that was broken the moment the Brexit side won. Lastly, there was Prime Minister David Cameron’s criminally foolish decisions: firstly to hold a referendum at all in such uncertain and divisive times; secondly, to make the result dependent on a simple majority of votes – it is normal for plebiscites on such existential questions to call for a loaded majority – say 60:40; and thirdly, to make it final, with no chance to reconsider, and no effective role for Parliament, in what is supposed to be a parliamentary, not a plebicitary democracy. All this did the trick. Cameron was responsible for that, under pressure from his own party’s genuinely Europhobic right-wingers, because, with the upper-class self-confidence he had imbibed at Eton, he was sure he could persuade the ‘lower orders’ over to his side. He seems to have been totally unaware of the widespread discontent among those lower orders, which was what in the end stymied him, and his career; and also, in my view, stymied Britain, by separating us from our lovely neighbours and friends. In other words: except in the minds of its silly, reactionary leaders, Brexit had nothing at all to do with the Empire, and very little to do, even, with the EU.

Nor will our new situation as a newly independent people pushing bravely out into the wider world have very much to do with our imperial history; except in the befuddled minds of Johnson and Farage. They seem to be putting their faith in the renewal of new commercial ties with the old Commonwealth, by which they mean the ‘white’ Commonwealth – Australia, Canada, and so on: our ‘real friends’, as Boris Johnson recently called them: obviously because they come from our ‘racial’ stock and used to ‘belong’ to us. In fact the Commonwealth never accounted for the majority of Britain’s trade, even at the Empire’s height. And today there’s no way it will be able to compensate us for the 60% of our trade we could lose by cutting ourselves off from the common European trading area. So Farage and Johnson are being exceedingly impractical, I think, if they believe that a resurrection of the old Commonwealth will help us out.

In any case, the main threat to our and to any nation’s sovereignty has never been ‘Brussels’, but international global capitalism, as it always has been since the days of the East India Company. That was my main reason for voting ‘Remain’ in the referendum last June. The last time we held a referendum on Europe, in 1975, I have to confess that I voted to leave. I was persuaded by the argument made then that Europe was a very racially-exclusive club, of white-skinned people only, as compared with the glorious multi-racial, multi-cultural and non-imperialist Commonwealth. Now however is different. For a start Britain is more entwined with Europe, and it’s obviously more difficult to separate after 40 years of entanglement than after only a few months. Secondly, with the main imminent danger to democracy coming from an international capitalism that seeks to override it – I’m thinking here of measures like ‘TTIP’, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – any country is far more likely to be able to resist its demands in co-operation with others, than on its own. My hope for the EU was that it might have protected us from this to a degree: if your and our socialists could get together. Thirdly, look at the views on race (and gender) of the men (all men) who led us out of Europe. I really don’t believe that Farage’s and Johnson’s post-imperial vision of a new globally trading Britain is as genuinely internationalist and multiracial as mine was as (I admit) an old ‘Commonwealth’ man; with their racist emphasis on white-skinned ex-colonies – ‘our real friends’ – over ‘bloody foreigners’ like you. That – and my love of ‘bloody foreigners’ – including my present Swedish partner – persuaded me to vote ‘Remain’ this time.

And I really do think that, as fond as they are of ‘Aussies’ and Canadians and cricket and the rest, most Brits are pretty pro-European too. The Scots certainly are; they voted to remain in the EU, and may well split off from Britain after Brexit takes effect. We’ve always regarded Continental Europeans as superior to us – and to all our ‘white Commonwealth’ friends – in a number of important ways: the arts in particular, which we never used to be very good at; obviously cooking (!); and football now. The Continent has influenced us immeasurably, just as we (I hope) have influenced you in some ways. Europe really is a community; and I’m achingly sorry to leave it. Which is why I’m currently applying for Swedish (dual) citizenship, to allow me back in.

So far as the Empire is concerned: it had almost nothing to do with it, except in the minds of some of the clowns who ran the Brexit campaign, who are not at all typical. To sum up: we Britons never rated our Empire as highly as we are assumed to have done. We didn’t actually build it – it was indeed ‘costruito quasi per caso’. We reconciled ourselves to its ‘decline and fall’ pretty rapidly after it came to an end. Very few people hanker after it now – most schools teach that it was a rather embarrassing thing on the whole. And – lastly – the reasons for the triumph of Brexit last June were mainly accidental, deriving from general discontent in the country at austerity; a desire to give a bloody nose to the ‘out of touch’ political Establishment (or the ‘Westminster Bubble’); the lies of the Brexit campaign and of our deplorable press (those ‘straight bananas’); and the arrogant foolishness of our Old Etonian Prime Minister.

So: from world-wide empire to ‘Little England’ – soon without Scotland, even – in a single generation. That’s ironic, to say the least, in view of the leading Brexiters’ rarely stated – it sounds too Trumpish – but obvious ambition to ‘make Britain great again’. Even your genuinely great Roman Empire took more time to decline and fall than that.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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4 Responses to Brexit and the British Empire

  1. Alan says:

    You misrepresent Adam Smith. If you read Wealth you’ll find the he clearly states that the realization of the ideal of free trade was Utopian. Much of the book is taken up with explaining why that is the case.
    See a discussion of Smith on the realities of global trade see: Muthu, Sankar. “Adam Smith’s Critique of International Trading Companies Theorizing ‘Globalization’ in the Age of Enlightenment.” Political Theory 36, no. 2 (April 1, 2008): 185–212.

    “Don’t believe the Scots when they tell you they are an oppressed colonial minority.” Yes, well I think most Scots are well aware of the role, often out-sized, Scots played in the British Empire and I suspect most Scots have been rather better at coming to terms with that history and moving on than some. I think a difference here is that as a minority within the larger UK we have a rather different relationship and experience. Look no further than Brexit, an English nationalist project. With the empire gone there is no common project that hold’s the union together. The logic of the Brexit project is not that Scotland will be let go but that it will be reduced to an English shire. The EU is seen by many Scots as a bulwark against this sort of English domination. We have not missed how England has had to take account of a small country like the Republic of Ireland when it has had the backing of the EU and how our own interests and concerns have been blatantly disregarded during the Brexit negotiations. There’s a genuine fear that if Brexit happens what power was granted through devolution will be taken back. And many of us doubt that another independence referendum will be granted even if there is an electoral mandate for one (as currently exists).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent (and depressing!) read. Not sure though about the ‘befuddled’ minds of Johnson and Farage. They may, indeed believe, in their quasi-racist utterances, that we can establish economic alternatives with Canada etc, but I strongly suspect that their fundamental reason is simply the removal of the controls and safeguards enacted in EU regulations. Or am I missing a point? (Ps. My Great Grandfather was French, do you think I could apply for Dual French Nationality!!).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. John Field says:

    Your broad strokes paint the historical picture quite nicely, I think. No subterfuge of falsely-claimed academic ‘detachment’ here! Opinionated? Of course, and justifications for opining laid out for the audience. In totality, an exemplary job of light, amusing work. In reading, I can picture where the illustrations fit. (And Niall Ferguson fancies himself J. R. Seeley reincarnated, I’d say.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Andrew Rosthorn says:

    Pin sharp. A revelation. Needs to be caught in amber and discovered fifty years from now by baffled sixth-formers and historians.

    Liked by 1 person

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