My PhD research was done under the supervision of the late, dear RE (‘Robbie’) Robinson – DSO, DFC: he’d been a bomber pilot in the War – who first (I think) coined the term ‘free trade imperialism’ to describe Britain’s effective control over countries which weren’t formally administered by her. It was also called ‘informal’ or ‘soft’ power. Argentina in the nineteenth century was one of the prime examples, but there were many others. Later the idea was further extended to describe any relationship between Britain and a formally independent country – economic, cultural, or what have you – which could be seen to be one-sided; to the advantage, that is, of Britain. Eventually the ‘one-sidedness’ dropped out of it. McDonalds (the eateries) were painted as manifestations of ‘American imperialism’: as if their dreadful burgers were forced on us. That I think is when it went too far. But the main point was and still is valid: that a nation can be, at least to an extent, under the effective control of another, without that control’s being registered by means of boundary lines, colours on the map, constitutional convention, or even the claim of ‘sovereignty’.
Which of course brings us on (or back) to Brexit. One of the main arguments made in support of Brexit – and it may have been a genuine motive behind the Brexit vote, more important say than ‘immigration’ or ‘£350 million more a week for the NHS’ – was that it would ‘take back control’ of Britain’s affairs from what some saw as a quasi-colonial dependence on ‘Brussels’: back, that is, into the hands of Britain’s own democracy. Hence the spelled-out name of ‘UKIP’ – the United Kingdom Independence Party – and Nigel Farage’s reception of the result of the 2016 referendum as marking her ‘Independence Day’: which seemed superficially attractive. (Unlike most countries, including her own ex-colonies, Britain has never had an Independence Day. It’s a serious lack; a bit like not having a birthday.) But of course it also reflected a very superficial idea of ‘independence’, and indeed of ‘sovereignty’: to think that these could be secured merely by cutting one’s country away from its alliances.
We’re beginning to learn now that, in Britain’s case, this is unlikely. Formal ‘independence’, rather than the pooled sovereignty we had with the EU, can only make us less able to make our own decisions, and in that sense less ‘free’. The example which is being highlighted just now is any commercial agreement we are likely to get with the USA, in order to compensate for those lost European ones; which apparently can only be made by subordinating our food standards to hers (‘chlorinated chicken’, and all that). Vulnerability to American competition in the healthcare field is another example. These will, in an important way, make us more reliant on America than we ever were on the European Union. How is that ‘taking back control’?
My second book, The Lion’s Share (1975), was subtitled A History of British Imperialism, rather than of the British Empire, in order to emphasise the difference between the two things; and to encourage scepticism towards those old maps of the ‘Empire’ which coloured only the formal bits of it in red, thus failing to indicate the true extent of British influence and control in the world. It’s the same error in reverse that leads ‘Leavers’ to place far more emphasis on Britain’s formal situation after Brexit – the idea of ‘sovereignty’ – than it deserves.
But that’s a common failing of most people, and with regard to their view of many other things – ‘democracy’, for example: to confuse the formal with the real. That’s why we need historians, political scientists and other ‘experts’ (sorry, Michael Gove), to delve beneath appearances. Robbie, peace be unto him, showed me that.