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.