Everyone knows, don’t they? that the ‘Great’ in ‘Great Britain’ refers historically to the fact that it comprises a union of four separate nations, rather than just ‘England’. It has nothing to do with ‘greatness’ in the boastful sense: ‘make America great again’. At Eton, however, they don’t appear to teach this. Both of the silliest members of our ‘Brexit’ gang – Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg – were educated there, and each of them seems to be obsessed with the idea of making ‘Britain great again’ in exactly that misleading sense. Which may be felt to be ironic, if one of the effects of Brexit, in view of the Scots’ opposition to it in the 2017 referendum, is to break up the Union, leaving England (plus Wales, too small to cope on her own, and Northern Ireland, too bigoted) dangerously isolated, and ‘Great’ Britain, properly understood, no more.
Brexit can be seen as a fitting end to the ‘great’ British project in other ways: if, that is, one still wants to insist, after reading my recent book British Imperial. What the Empire Wasn’t (or the earlier one subtitled Delusions of Grandeur), that ‘we’ – previous generations of Brits – ever were the powerful people we thought we were. The flaws in the Empire were obvious, and seriously damaging to the country, for a hundred years before the whole thing came crashing to the ground. Britain’s economic supremacy in the nineteenth century was based on her manufacturing industry and her trade, which began waning from the 1870s onwards, and finally collapsed – as a result of globalisation ridden by Thatcher – a hundred years later. The Empire, partly accumulated (as I’ve argued) as a desperate effort to reverse that decline, was not really a symptom of ‘greatness’ (in our Old Etonians’ sense), but of weakness.
Which is why very few Britons, apart from the usual suspects – mainly Colonel Blimps, white settler-colonialists, and ex-imperial consuls – bothered very much at all about its decline and fall. Compared to what happened in France, for example, British decolonisation provoked no serious domestic reaction – most of what reaction there was, like over the Suez crisis, was cheering it on – from people who didn’t generally see or care about ‘greatness’ in these terms. Those who felt ‘pride’ in their country chose other measures of national achievement: like, in particular, Britain’s ‘standing alone’ against the Nazi menace in the early years of the War, and the ‘welfare state’ created after it. Size and power were not important, and – to the extent that Britain ever had them – are still not greatly missed today.
Diminished as we were, and overshadowed by global forces we had no hope of controlling or even influencing on our own, we decided in the 1960s to pool our resources and national strengths in the larger project which was the ‘Common Market’, later the EU; which was a sensible decision, and one that maximised our remaining world influence and prestige, in co-operation with our neighbours. Then came (or perhaps won’t, if we come to our senses in the next year or two!) Brexit. That can’t make Britain ‘great’. There seems to be very little chance, if any, of our retaining our national reputation, or our prosperity, or even our independence in a realistic sense – taking account, that is, of our new dependency on the world market and on America’s terms of trade – without the protection that comes (or could do) as part of a community of nations. Brexit means taking the ‘great’, or what there is left of it, in Boris’s and Jacob’s sense, out of Britain. If only they could see that. – Or perhaps they do, and are really wanting to make Britain something else.