Musing on possible historical precedents for our present political situation (in Britain) – as any historian must, even those of us who don’t give much credence to ‘historical parallels’: we are what we are, after all, not what we were – it seems to me that the crisis over ‘imperialism’ at the turn of the twentieth century might be worth considering for comparison. Then too we had a great split in the ranks of the more ‘progressive’ party of the time – the Liberals – between Liberal Imperialists (Blairites) and ‘Pro-Boers’ (Corbynites); which also affected, though to a lesser extent, the infant Labour Party; with the governing Conservatives also losing a few members to the anti- or less-imperialist Radicals; and, of course, Ireland playing a big role. The debate then too could be quite vicious, with taunts of ‘treason’ being flung across the Commons at the government’s critics; savage popular demonstrations – called ‘Mafeking’ – in favour of imperialism; a vicious ‘yellow’ press (mainly the new-born Daily Mail) stoking the hatred for all it was worth; and ‘Little Englanders’ (like Corbyn?) portrayed in the most demeaning ways. (I’ve used this contemporary cartoon before; but here goes.)
One could go further. ‘Brexitism’ shares a few other common characteristics with turn-of-the-century imperialism. By their opponents, each was widely seen as being favoured or even pushed by capitalists. ‘Remainers’, like the anti-imperialists of that earlier time, have tended to be more Europeanist, internationalist, and critical of finance capitalism. And both came at times of (relative) economic depression.
But it’s not a comfortable fit – I can’t, for example, think of a close equivalent of Boris or Nigel in the 1900s (plenty for Cameron, perhaps; for Rees-Mogg one would have to go back further) – and so should not be used to teach any historical ‘lessons’. For those who are tempted to do so, it may be worth pointing out that the Conservatives’ imperialism did them no good in the medium term, losing as they did the election of 1906, and probably helping to boost the Labour vote both then and in 1910.
Just before then, however, one of the effects of this great turn-of-the-century row was to put a temporary stop to any ‘progressive’ domestic legislation, which had to wait until the furore was over to get back on to the Parliamentary rails again. That’s another parallel. In fact this has been a result of most great ‘foreign policy’ issues in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and looks likely to have the same effect today. Both the imperialists in the early 1900s, and Boris today, tried to link their causes to that of domestic progress; but it didn’t work in the Radical-Imperialist Joseph Chamberlain’s case, and might not in ‘One Nation’ Boris’s. On most occasions the rise of foreign policy issues to the surface of politics has harmed Labour grievously. In the 1900s this was supposed to be due to working-class ‘jingoism’; and working-class anti-Europeanism is alleged to be doing the same today, thus provoking the suspicion that this may be the deep-laid motive and cause behind it. Brexit was simply a financiers’ ‘plot’ to enable the final triumph of ‘Thatcherism’. Look at the ‘coincidence’ of its coming up on the very eve of a new EU law to block ‘tax havens’. That’s what some are saying. Say it too loud, however, and you can be accused of being a ‘conspiracy theorist’, or even an anti-semite.
So there are tenuous precedents in Britain’s political past. For what it’s worth, however, I still think the more pertinent parallel to be drawn is with the rise of nationalism and Fascism in 1930s Europe. But that bears comparison with the rise of ultra-imperialism around 1900, too. There may be a historical pattern here.