Sun 5 December 2021

Britain has not really faced up to losing an empire and the unresolved cost is playing out through the traumas of Brexit

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As the England cricket team spun to world cup victory at the weekend, Jacob Rees-Mogg saw his chance to put his own spin on the feat.

“We clearly don’t need Europe to win,” the arch Brexiteer tweeted, commenting on the team’s triumph.

Clearly a reference to the UK’s (perhaps) impending exit from the EU, his words also carried an imperialist tone, a ‘we’re great and we’ve done it all ourselves’ worldview, which is strongly out of step with the realities of British history.

By suggesting that England’s cricket team didn’t “need” the help of European ‘others’, many were quick to point out to the Conservative MP that five of the team’s 15 members were ‘others’ born in New Zealand, South Africa and Barbados. Two are the grandsons of Pakistani immigrants to the UK, while the team’s captain is Irish.

There is still no resolution on the question of the Irish backstop and whether Brexit would result in a hard border between the republic, a proud EU member, and the north. But, Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar hit the nail on the head last week when he said that “one of the difficulties for Britain is they’re struggling to cope with the fact that as a country and an economy they’re not as important in the world as they used to be”.

Rees-Mogg might think that ‘we clearly don’t need Europe to win’, but we clearly did need the rest of the world to win once.

While most European countries understood the “inevitable” transition and that they needed to “stick together and integrate so we can preserve our way of life, our prosperity, our peace and security, Britain has never really fully accepted that in the way that France and Germany and Italy did after the war”.

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For Professor Sally Tomlinson, co-author of ‘Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire, “the EU Referendum and Brexit will become understood as part of the last vestiges of Empire working their way out of the British psyche”. 

“A very small but influential group of people, who were nearly all in David Cameron’s cabinet and are all around Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt now, push this mystical notion of ‘British national sovereignty’ which to a large number of people is a white sovereignty,” she told Byline Times.

Many of them, including the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, were educated in private schools at a time when a jingoistic Empire and unreconstructed imperialism were still a part of the curriculum.

Prof Tomlinson said the notion that Britain became powerful on its own merit, rather than through its colonies, is misleading and that the rise of inequality in the UK – which, combined with austerity, led some to vote to leave the EU – was a consequence of the demise of the British Empire.

“Once you lose an Empire, you become poorer and that’s what happened,” she said. “Once you lose the land and the money from your Empire, you’ve got to find some other way of doing it.”

For Britain, that other way of doing it relied on internationalism, rather than protectionism. As domestic manufacturing and industry declined, globalisation and markets took hold – along with inequality.

His words also carried an imperialist tone, a ‘we’re great and we’ve done it all ourselves’ worldview of England which is strongly out of step with the reality of Britain’s history.

“Inequality and austerity are linked a lot to Empire, which people don’t understand,” Prof Tomlinson added.

Her book, written with fellow Oxford University academic Danny Dorling, explores how Britain’s economic decline happened at the same time as its remaining colonies were lost in the 1970s. Joining the EU in 1973 couldn’t replace the loss of the economic benefits they provided as Britain’s relationship with Europe was “mutual rather than exploitative”. Alongside this, inequality began to increase in Britain. 

As the Empire waned and living standards declined in the 1970s, many people found themselves poorer – not just the working classes. And, as 52% of those who voted to leave the EU lived in the southern half of England – the majority being middle-class – Brexit was not solely an expression of a working-class revolt, Prof Tomlinson said.

It was the inevitable consequence of the forces generated by the loss of Britain’s Empire.

So, Jacob Rees-Mogg might think that “we clearly don’t need Europe to win”, but we clearly did need the rest of the world to win once – not least all those from Britain’s colonies who fought on the country’s behalf during two world wars. To suggest otherwise is a dangerous myth. 


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