Brexit and the British Empire

Working on a new edition (the 6th!) of The Lion’s Share. A young American historian has been signed up to revise the existing text, but I’ll be contributing a chapter on ‘Brexit and the Empire’. At first glance there seems little to connect them, apart from Boris’s wet dreams about an ‘independent’ Britain being free, together with her white Commonwealth ‘daughters’, to bestride the world again; but of course if you delve beneath the surface there are bound to be more imperial traces there. About half a dozen have already occurred to me. If anyone has any other ideas please let me know. If I haven’t thought of them already, you’ll get an acknowledgment in a footnote. I may pre-publish an early version of the chapter on this site.

You’ll have noticed, non-British readers, that the inmates have finally taken over the asylum here. Just like in the USA. It’s a tricky task for the historian, to take account of the ‘madness’ factor – although of course we can rationalise it. We always do. – And it made a mockery of All Fools’ Day. No-one could think of anything that had happened yesterday that was sillier.

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7 Responses to Brexit and the British Empire

  1. The neo-Whiggish Imperial historiography of Niall Ferguson, in books such as Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), must also count as a factor in animating the spirit of the Brexiteers.

    “How Britain Made the Modern World”: it is hard to imagine self-flattery of a higher order. I am amused by this triumphalist opening of Ferguson’s best seller: “Once there was an Empire that governed roughly a quarter of the world’s population …. How an archipelago of rainy islands off the north-west coast of Europe came to rule the world is one of the fundamental questions …. of world history.” The leap from ruling a “quarter of the world’s population” to ruling the whole “world” involves a rhetorical sleight of hand, which surely incites the hyperbole of the Boris Johnsons in their expressions of optimism for a Britain unbound from the strictures of the EU.

    Ferguson goes on to write that the “British Empire is long dead; only flotsam and jetsam now remain”. However, his own Whiggery is one of those floating objects, and so is the overblown hyper-patriotism of the Leave campaign. The spirit of Brexit is an anachronistic artefact of the British Empire.

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    • Thanks Philip, especially of reminding me of Ferguson; who once wrote me a nasty letter after I mentioned one of his books unfavourably.

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      • I noticed that, rather absurdly, he wrote 400 pages about the British Empire without mentioning anything you wrote.

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      • I examined a PhD thesis with him in Oxford years ago – before Empire. He told me he’d been asked to do a TV series and write a book about the Empire, and also said (if I remember rightly) that he knew nothing about imperial history, and thought I ought to be doing it. Not that I’d have wanted to. My ventures into TV haven’t been that impressive. And I don’t have the shape of face that fits as well as his does on to a TV screen. (Mine’s more Portrait than Landscape.)

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  2. Tony Judge says:

    The Tory Imperialists before and during the 1st World War, notably Leo Amery and Arthur Steel-Maitland, were concerned about renewing the Empire with patriotic appeals to the working class through the British Worker’s League and their side-kick in it, Victor Fisher, its secretary. They wanted an imperial federation with which to oppose the European threat of an expansive Germany taking British markets, and a weak and vacillating France. A few echoes of the views of Boris Johnson, Rees Mogg and Dr Fox, with their assurances about new trading relationships with ex-imperial ‘partners’ such as Australia and Canada to replace the EU. To read the editorials of the BWL’s ‘British Worker’ is to recognise populist sentiments similar to the Leave campaign and its false promises to the working class, who of course will be the main victims of the economic consequences of Brexit.

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  3. Phil says:

    If you trace the rhetoric of empire back to its beginning, you get to Henry VIII’s problems with Rome and the Act in Restraint of Appeals of 1533 (“This realm of England is an empire”). It’s an interesting exercise to think about ’empire’ in those terms – not as metropolis-and-colonies but, simply, as a realm whose sovereign has no earthly feudal superior. I read somewhere that John Dee had a hand in the wording, and (if true) that’s not entirely surprising. There’s something magical, or even sacred, about that assertion, particularly if you (that is, Tudor you) try to read it back into history: if England is an empire, would that mean that England had always been an empire? (Back to Alfred the Great? Back to King Arthur? Back to when Brutus defeated Gog and Magog and founded New Troy?) Would it mean that England was, somehow, inherently an empire? Because if that was the case we could do anything…

    It’s not about imperialism strictly speaking, but I think this sense of unique, divine election runs deep in English-as-in-British nationalism, and comes very close to the surface when people start harking back to the good old days of World War II – we came through that, didn’t we? Of course we did! We always come through – and we always will come through! For those of us blessed, or cursed, with a more contingent sense of where we happen to have been born and grown up, it all looks a bit like a nightmare from which one would like to wake up, even if it is a heroic nightmare.

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    • Very interesting – thanks. I’ll mull this over. It looks a bit like American exceptionalism, but more spiritual. Do other countries have similar self-images? China? Some Germans? Superior swedes?…

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