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Brexit and Empire: Nostalgia for a Nation that Never Was is Driving Britain over a Cliff

With the likely next Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, praising Britain today as the ‘Greatest Place on Earth’ all the unlearned lessons of Empire are coming back to haunt us.

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall meets polo teams during a tour of India and Sri Lanka. Photo: PA Images

BREXIT AND EMPIRENostalgia for a Nation that Never Was is Driving Britain over a Cliff

With the likely next Prime Minister Boris Johnson praising Britain as the “greatest place on Earth”, all the unlearned lessons of Empire are coming back to haunt us

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When did the British Empire end? Not that long ago.

Take Kenya, which has only been an independent country for 56 years, or Uganda’s freedom from British rule that happened only a year before in 1962. 

It was only in 1997 that the British handed back control of Hong Kong to China. The recent pro-democracy protests on the island, and the UK’s tricky position in upholding its ‘one country, two systems’ pledge, is testament to how the legacy of Empire is very much alive in Britain and the world today.

By choosing a Brexit that refuses to recognise we were never just an autonomous nation-state… we are condemned to an impossible search for a past that never was.

Except, no one seems keen to speak much about it.  

Empire is not a marginal part of British history; it is our national story. But, a lack of public debate and education on why it happened, what it meant, how it was carried out, and how it has shaped Britain and its former colonies, is leaving the door open to a nostalgic, fantasised idea of Empire being weaponised in order to sow division. 

Brexit and Empire

The story of Brexit is, in many ways, the story of Empire; of an unscrutinised past – the symbolism of which some wish to return to, without taking into account its realities.

That a number of Brexiteers have colonial links in their backgrounds is certainly interesting. Arron Banks, for example, who bankrolled the Leave.EU campaign, grew up in South Africa where his father owned sugar estates. His colleague Andy Wigmore is half Belizean and claimed Belizean citizenship in 1998. While former Conservative-turned-UKIP MP Douglas Carswell was raised in Uganda, and the ex-UKIP leader Henry Bolton was born in Kenya, Matthew Richardson, former UKIP secretary, was brought up for a time in Zimbabwe. 

How has this shaped their view of the world – and Britain?

A new report by the race equality charity The Runnymede Trust has called for the Government to make the teaching of Empire and migration in state schools mandatory.  

That a number of Brexiteers have colonial links in their backgrounds is certainly interesting.

The 2016 Brexit vote brought Britain’s relationship with Empire to the fore, it said, and “exposed a chronic misunderstanding among our political leaders of Britain’s relationship, past and present, to its former empire”.

“The Windrush scandal of 2018 laid bare the dearth of understanding at government level of the ‘winding up’ of the Empire, with ministers repeatedly misunderstanding post-war migration from the Caribbean to Britain,” the report states.

“Discussions over a potential border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have shown that there is little understanding of Britain’s past relationship with Ireland among some MPs. The need for a realistic appraisal of Britain’s past and present relationships with the wider world is evident and urgent.”

When those in public life – such as Boris Johnson – speak of Brexit as a return to a time when Britain was “great”, they are, in reality, referring to the days of Empire. But, they fail to mention that Britain’s strength during this ambitious venture was built on the backs of others – particularly its wealth, its innovations and its culture. It could never have achieved victory in two world wars if it wasn’t for all those fighting on its behalf in the colonies. To pretend otherwise is simply untrue.

Empire Not A Nation State

In his book The Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder, the acclaimed historian, speaks of “the fable of the wise nation”, which he says has made the EU vulnerable to issues such as Brexit. For him, countries either look for integration with others or create empires of their own.

The UK (as opposed to England) Snyder argues, has never been a ‘nation-state’ – a country in which the state represents the interests solely of a population with a shared cultural or ethnic identity, distinct to that state. It was an empire and then joined the EU. But, the two concepts – ’empire’ and ‘nation-state’ – have become confusingly conflated, with leaving the EU now somehow equated to a return to the “great” days of Empire, which is portrayed as a time when Britain was a closed, strong nation-state – a complete fallacy.

“Citizens of west European member states thought that their nations had long existed and had made better choices as they learned from history, in particular learning from war in Europe that peace was a good thing,” Snyder writes.

“As European empires were forced to abandon colonies and joined the process of integration, this fable of the wise nation smoothed the process, allowing Europeans to look away from both defeat in colonial wars and the atrocities they committed as they lost.

“In history there was no era of the nation-state: generally empire ended while integration began, with no interval in between… [For Britain] there was no moment between empire and integration when the nation was sovereign and the state flourished in isolation.”

Snyder makes a compelling case that the nostalgia for the nation-state we never were was partly sublimated in the creation of the European Union. But, this also allowed us to “forget the true difficulties of history” and that “leaders and societies could praise themselves for choosing Europe, when in fact Europe was an existential need after empire”.

Nigel Farage “proposed a return to a non-existent past, when Europeans lived in nation-states without immigrants”. Because of this delusion, leaving the EU “would be a step into the unknown rather than the comfortable homecoming promised by nationalism,” Snyder argues.

By choosing a Brexit that refuses to recognise that we were never just an autonomous nation-state but relied on resources, workforces and armies drawn from across the globe, we are condemned to an impossible search for a past that never was.

The longer we fail to recognise the realities of the British Empire, the longer the idea of what it represented can be warped. It’s driving us over a Brexit cliff-edge.

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