Brexit and the Empire

I’ve mentioned before that I was asked to revise my The Lion’s Share for a 6th edition, but that I couldn’t face the prospect of going back to my old sick: So Routledge found me a young American scholar to do the job for me, with my just adding a final ‘Epilogue’. Unfortunately he has had to pull out. So I asked Routledge if they could reissue the book unrevised (I don’t think it needs it), but with my still providing that new Epilogue. They’ve said yes, but want a short proposal for their committee. So here’s what I’ve sent them.


Since the fifth edition of this book was published, Britain has passed through – is still passing through, as I write – one of her major national crises; one that will determine her very identity for decades to come. Strictly speaking, and at first glance, Brexit had little to do with the Empire. It all happened a few years after British imperialism as it is usually understood had come to an end. It involved Europe alone, not the colonies or ex-colonies. But it cannot be left out of any up-to-date history of British imperialism – imperialism, note; The Lion’s Share was never a history of just the British Empire – for a number of reasons.

The first is that it can be regarded as a fitting end-point of Britain’s imperial career, when the historian can say with some finality that the imperial story was over, and so the book on it (my book!) can be closed. After dealing with the loss of her formal empire in a constructive and dignified way, by engaging co-operatively with one of the major potential successor superpowers to hers, she decided to cut her political and economic ties with Europe and return again to a position of isolation. Except ‘return’ is perhaps a misleading term, as she never had been isolated from the European continent in the whole of her history – I’m hoping to publish a book of essays shortly arguing this – and in any case not as isolated as she ran the risk of becoming after Brexit. Brexit therefore could be said to mark the end of Britain’s long history as an international and internationalist nation, which her ‘imperial phase’ was an aspect of.

Not only that, but it threatened to turn the imperial tables on her entirely, by pushing her into the situation of a colony of another empire, America’s, by making her dependent on the USA economically – with the demands the latter would make on her in exchange for a trade deal – and also diplomatically; a trend, of course, that had started when Blair followed America into her war with Iraq. This was in spite of the ‘Brexiteers’’ claim that Brexit would wrest back Britain’s ‘control’ in the world, and even their portrayal of the EU as an ‘Empire’ that she was ‘liberating’ herself from; which rested on an entirely erroneous and simplistic understanding of ‘imperialism’; as the main text of this book has shown. (I imagine they weren’t given it to read at Eton.)

Which brings me to my second reason for wishing to round the book off with a consideration of the Brexit process. One of the explanations widely given for Britain’s long suspicion and ultimate rejection of her formal European connexion, especially by foreign critics (I can supply quotes), is that her people still hankered after the glory that the Empire had been supposed to give their forebears; and in some cases even had dreams of reviving it. The rhetoric of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg may give some credence to this, in view of their prominence in the ‘Leave’ campaign; giving rise again to suspicions about the History they were taught at their common alma mater. (I may contact Eton’s History masters to ask!) This nostalgic, ‘imperial’ way of thinking probably goes wider than them, but not much wider than the (nouveaux) upper and public school-educated classes they represent. I think I can show that for ‘ordinary’ Brexit voters the Empire played a very much lesser part, as it always had. (See my The Absent-Minded Imperialists.) The Empire’s relevance here is not that its decline genuinely lay behind Eurosceptic feeling generally, but that it may have done so among certain members of the political elite, and that it was used as an explanation and hence as a way of demeaning Britain by European critics.

In much the same way, the old Empire is very often quarried for explanations as to why present-day Britons are so ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic’; despite the unlikelihood of their being significantly more so than other nationalities, and without bringing on to the other side of the account some of the more positive legacies that the imperial age may have left to Britain: like, I would say, the internationalism that was always an essential element of it. That’s quite apart from its (highly contested) effects on the wider world.

Obviously, the chapter will also need to offer a narrative of the Brexit process, continuing in the style of the previous chapters. Equally obviously, that won’t be possible until we know how Brexit turns out. (If it ever does.)

Lastly, the chapter will offer some final thoughts on ‘imperialism’ generally.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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1 Response to Brexit and the Empire

  1. Tony says:

    Well Bernard, I hope they include it all, they certainly should. The sub-text of much Brexit argument has revealed the neo-imperialist mindset of its supporters mixed with deluded ideas of Britain’s current economic state and trading weakness. The arrogance, nostalgia, and ‘gung-ho’ attitudes are all reminiscent of some of the worst aspects of British colonialism

    Liked by 1 person

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