Wayne’s World

Whatever the economic imperatives behind imperialism, every empire invariably generates a rhetoric of superiority, which supposedly entitles and even obliges certain countries or societies to acquire territory, dominate and conquer others or impose their system of government through direct or indirect means.   Such superiority might be cultural, religious, racial, or systemic, but it often translates into a sense of ‘mission’ or ‘destiny’ which presents empire as some kind of altruistic project.

Some empires are cured of such delusions slowly and painfully.  For Spain, the process of imperial disintegration and collapse began in the seventeenth century and culminated in the Spanish-American war at the end of the nineteenth.   Other empires have experienced a more sudden and traumatic collision with reality. The thousand-year Reich and Japan’s empire of the sun underwent a process of imperial expansion that lasted roughly fifteen years, and which ended with the destruction of both Germany and Japan and the humiliation of occupation.

Partly as a result of such devastation, both countries have to some extent come to terms with their respective imperial pasts and have learned to be suspicious of the narratives of superiority that once sustained them.  Here in the UK things have turned out rather differently. Britain’s protracted ‘retreat from empire’ has never entirely cured the British ruling classes – and a significant section of the public – of the belief that the UK has some kind of special destiny that is different from other nations.

Suggest, as Danish Finance Minister Kristian Jensen did in June, that  ‘there are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realized they are small nations’ and that we might belong to both categories, and you will get the British Ambassador to Denmark Dominic Schroeder angrily denying that Great Britain is ‘ a diminished or diminishing power.’   Suggest that we might do better economically as members of the European Union than we would by leaving it, and you will hear a great deal of lofty pontificating about how we were once ‘ a great trading nation’ and could become one again.

Few of those who make such arguments will talk about how Britain became a ‘great trading nation’ in the first place.   You won’t hear many references to gunboats and the British navy, the East India Company’s wars, famines in Bengal, the collapse of the Bengal textile industry, the Opium Wars, the Irish famine, Mau Mau concentration camps, to mention but a few of the darker episodes from our imperial past.   If such things are remembered at all, they are likely to be remembered as aberrations in the acquisition of our ‘accidental empire.’

Even Orwell, the great imperial critic, once noted that the British empire was ‘ a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.’  Well yes, compared with the Nazis and Japan’s ‘Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Scheme’ we don’t look that bad, but really such comparisons aren’t something to go around feeling superior about, and they certainly shouldn’t induce us to hanker after what we have lost.

This curious and dangerous combination of imperial nostalgia and imperial amnesia that continues to define and distort our politics.   I’ve been reminded of this combination many times in my lifetime, but never more so than during the last twelve months.   Brexit is absolutely marinated by this remembered past – together with a sour streak of English hyper-nationalism.   It isn’t that we want an empire again, it’s just that we want to be as ‘great’ as we thought we were when we had one.

That’s why we can’t stand foreigners telling us what to do, even if we voluntarily agreed to join an organisation in which we also tell them what we want to do.   It’s why we describe the EU as a ‘dictatorship’ and talk of starving ourselves to be free of it so that once again we can become the great trading nation we were always destined to be.

After all, as  a woman on Question Time recently reminded viewers,  ‘ For thousands of years, Britain has ruled in a wonderful way.  We’ve been a light to the world.’  And this week, in an incredible interview ‘Wayne from Chelmsford’ told LBC presenter James O’Brien that he still supported Brexit despite mounting evidence that it may be an economic disaster, not only because he didn’t believe it would be, but because we used to ‘own 3 thirds [sic]of the world’.

How did we get to ‘own’ these ‘3 thirds’?   Wayne probably doesn’t know, and he clearly doesn’t care.   Asked whether leaving the EU might make it difficult for Brits to go to France, he replies that ‘ I don’t want to go to France’.   He doesn’t want to go to Greece either, because ‘ I’ve heard you can’t go to certain beaches because they’ve got full of tents with migrants on them.’

There are a lot of things to be depressed about it this alarming interview: the unapologetic xenophobia; the deep hatred of migrants; the ignorance and complete indifference to facts, arguments or evidence.  But once again Wayne’s view of our imperial past expresses a nostalgia and romanticism that is at the core of Brexit.  Before you reach into the standard Brexiters’ book of clichés and accuse me of snobbery or looking down at the working classes, I should point out that this view is not restricted to ignorant bigots from Chelmsford.  On the contrary, our newspapers and our ruling classes are absolutely steeped in it, as Theresa May’s ‘global Britain’ speeches and the Eton-educated buffoon Boris Johnson consistently prove.

In short, we are witnessing a textbook example of what can happen when a country succumbs not only to its worst prejudices, but also to its most foolish and most inflated delusions.   The former will be hard enough to crack, but in the end, there may only one thing that cure the country of the latter, and that is the very painful encounter with reality that John Harris suggested in the Guardian today, in a piece which attributed Brexit to ‘ an ingrained English exceptionalism, partly traceable to geography but equally bound up with a puffed-up interpretation of our national past, which has bubbled away in our politics and culture for decades.’

As Harris observed:

‘The likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have used it for their own ideological ends; in the kind of post-industrial places long ignored by Westminster politicians it turned out to be the one bit of pride and identity many people had left. It runs deep: even if the economy takes a vertiginous plunge, it will take a lot longer than two years to shift it.’

Harris also argues that

‘The only way such delusions will fade is if they are finally tested in the real world and found wanting, whereupon this country may at last be ready to humbly engage with modernity. And in that sense, to paraphrase a faded politician, Brexit probably has to mean Brexit. That may result in a long spell of relative penury, and an atmosphere of recrimination and resentment. By the time everything is resolved a lot of us will either be very old or dead. But that may be the price we have to pay to belatedly put all our imperial baggage in the glass case where it belongs, and to edge our way back into the European family, if they will have us.’

There are a lot of ifs in this scenario, and none of it is much to celebrate or look forward to.  I hope these bleak possibilities don’t materialize, because a lot of people will suffer if they do, and national political and economic traumas do not always produce a positive – let alone a redemptive – outcome.

I still hope that the country will come to its senses, and that there can some kind of revisiting of the referendum result, either through an election or a second referendum on a final deal.  I hope that we can find our way to a better future that is not based on the selective reinvention of our imperial past.  Perhaps then we might conclude that our collective interests could be best served by remaining in the – flawed – organisation that we voluntarily chose to remain and that we are foolishly choosing to leave.  

And perhaps we might finally learn to stop looking down at the rest of the world, and come to terms with the fact that we were not as great or as special as we thought we were,  and accept that empires do not repeat themselves, and finally say good riddance to the one we had.

Empire 2.0

In years to come, historians will look back at the ruins of the country that was once the United Kingdom and wonder what brought about its spectacular and stunning collapse. As they pick their way through the rubble,  they will eventually end up in the strange and barren period that we are now living through, in which there is almost nothing that we seem able to do except watch as one of the greatest collection of fools, frauds, fakes incompetents that has ever led the British state leads the country towards disaster with the gleeful insouciance of a drunk batsman tottering out to the wicket to take a wild swing at any ball that moves.

Yesterday, for example, Theresa May had the unbelievable gall to accuse Nicola Sturgeon of ‘playing politics’ with the country’s future, as if she would never dream of doing such a thing.   And today, the pitiful David Davis admitted that the government has no contingency plan for leaving the EU without a deal, even though Theresa May only recently insisted that leaving the EU with no deal would be better than leaving it with a bad deal.  How could she be so sure, if she hadn’t actually assessed what might happen?  We don’t know, and she obviously doesn’t know either. Yet that didn’t stop her promising to inflict on the country what she didn’t know, regardless of the consequences, and there is little indication that those who voted to leave want to know, or even know that they don’t know.

This is the terrifying dynamic that the country is now trapped in.  It unfolds day after day, gathering pace and idiocy with each passing week.  There appears to be nothing that anyone can do to stop it.  Today, a report from the construction industry predicted the loss of 200,000 construction jobs.  Since the Referendum there has been a 90 percent drop in the number of EU nurses coming to the UK and there are nowhere near enough nurses to replace them.

Try and stop this – or even try to allow parliament to actually look in detail at what the unelected PM is planning – and you are likely to be dismissed as a ‘Remoaner’ and ‘whinger’ or even a ‘traitor’ who has defied the ‘will of the people’.

With hindsight historians may be able to understand how this incredible disaster was allowed to happen.  And when they sift through the fanaticism, the arrogance, the glassy-eyed optimism, the flagwaving jingoism and the sheer stupidity and destructive malevolence of the political class that made it happen, they may well discover something called Empire 2.0.

This apparently is the name that Whitehall civil servants have given to the government’s proposal to reinvent the Commonwealth as a post-EU substitute for the EU.  Liam Fox, the sleazy spiv who should never have been allowed to take office yet has inexplicably become trade secretary, does not like this terminology, saying ‘It’s a phrase I find slightly offensively caricaturing. So it’s not a phrase I would use.’

No one could caricature Fox and his colleagues better than they do themselves, but Empire 2.0 is in fact a very good shorthand explanation for what is taking place.  Empire 2.0 sounds like Hawaii 5.0 and for these clowns it is just as thrilling, or ‘terribly exciting’ as Nigel Farage put it.   Because one of the main reasons why this country is now preparing to commit collective national suicide is because it once had an empire and it has still not got used to the fact that it does not have one.

Like the woman on Question Time who insisted that Britain ruled as  ‘the light of the world’ for ‘thousand of years’, the British political class, and a significant percentage of its population believes that the British empire was great and it cannot get used to the fact that it no longer great.

This is a country haunted and poisoned by imperial nostalgia and imperial amnesia.  It’s a country that has tried to cling onto greatness by stacking up nuclear weapons so that it can sit at the big table at the UN; above all by kidding itself that it was acting like ‘Greece to Rome’ in its servile and subordinate relationship with the United States and its willingness to ride shotgun with every lunatic American military adventure.

But despite all this, the country senses that it is not great as it once was or has it should be.  It remembers a time when the tables of the world ate with British steel, when gunboats were there to remind dodgy foreigners and governments trying to prevent their populations from becoming opium addicts of their duties and responsibilities.

Now we have to abide by the rules of an organisation – the EU – that we willingly joined, and so we tell ourselves that the EU is a new ‘Reich’ and that we are living under the ‘dictatorship of Brussels.’

Having foreigners tell us what to do is bad enough, but the real indicator of our fall from greatness is the presence of foreigners inside ‘our’ borders.  It was alright once for us to emigrate to any country that took our fancy and conquer countries that opposed us – immigrants were not supposed to come here, at least not in such numbers that they became noticeable.  They were not supposed to walk around our streets and SPEAK THEIR OWN LANGUAGES.

For too many of our countrymen, such things are unacceptable.   And that is why we had to leave the EU.  That’s why we want Empire 2.0 to restore our links with our old friends from the Commmonwealth who once belonged to Empire 1.0, because we are a ‘great trading nation’ and great trading nations can do what they like even if they can’t.

It’s no good pointing out that countries that replace a rational and thoughtful analysis of their actual possibilities and prospects in the real world with fantasies are not going to get very far.   You can try to explain that leaving the single market and falling back on WTO rules is a catastrophic error.  People like Fox, who believe in the ‘tremendous opportunities opportunities to importers and exporters from across the whole Commonwealth, a genuinely win-win situation’, will never listen.  They will never change their minds, never think twice, never allow even the shadow of a doubt to drift across the bright horizon.

They remember when we were great and they know we can be great again.  For them, every precipice is a chance to fly.   Unfortunately, too many people share the same belief, and they will probably continue to share it, long after we hit the ground, and the bubble of Empire 2.0 floats out of reach, and bursts above their heads.