The story of modern Britain is, in many ways, a tale of dwindling self-regard. In the late 19th century, old Blighty had a pretty clear sense of its place in the world. We were rulers of the waves, the cradle of the industrial revolution, and on our way to creating the largest empire in history.
It was around this time that a ditty, ostensibly inspired by the ongoing Russo-Turkish War, became popular in the country’s music halls:
We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too…
The song, with its clear message of national invincibility, helped give rise to the word “jingoism”—an extreme form of patriotism characterized by Britain’s expansionist foreign policy.
But within a century, the shape of global geopolitics shifted. Humiliated by the 1956 Suez Crisis, and with its empire fragmenting, Britain’s propensity for chest-beating subsided. In time, a less bellicose country would emerge—wryer, more self-aware, and chastened, perhaps, by the guilty knowledge that its success-story was built on exploitation and conquest.
Recently, however, the language of British exceptionalism has resurfaced. On March 6, an article in The Times newspaper revealed that government officials are formulating a blueprint for “Empire 2.0.” It remains unclear whether the terminology is genuine. (Some have claimed the leak was an act of sabotage by disgruntled civil servants.) But the contentious rhetoric has inevitably played into conversations about Brexit—specifically how Brexit support is sustaining itself through appeals to dormant patriotism.
With weeks to go before UK prime minister Theresa May officially pulls the lever to exit the European Union, uncertainties abound. Britain’s negotiating position suggests that, at minimum, the process of divorcing from the European single-market will cause the UK severe economic harm. Damage to society may prove even more indelible.
In place of realistic forecasts, May has offered a vision entitled “global Britain.” To me, this idea seems like an obvious sham constructed around a massive contradiction: that by turning our backs on our closest neighbors we will open our arms to the world. And yet, polls suggest many of those who voted to leave the EU in June are still in favor.
In order to understand the forces propelling Britain on this dangerous trajectory, it helps to examine the emotional residue of lost empire, and a peculiarly English neurosis about national pride.
For decades now, the English, far more so than their Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish neighbors, have been reluctant to assert their nationhood. The kind of ardent flag-waving common in most other countries has become stigmatized, permissible in polite society only during major international soccer tournaments and the innocuous bombast of the Last Night of the Proms. Brexit, with its promise to restore our forfeited “sovereignty,” reawakened the kind of aggressive patriotism that had been rendered taboo by the politically correct mores of the post-imperial age.
For much of the pro-Brexit coalition, then, rational assessment has been subordinated to a more sentimental project: putting the Great back in Great Britain by evoking the indomitable spirit of a time when Britain conquered the globe.
But May’s global Britain is not an open-armed nation going out into the world. In her vision, incubated by an amnesiac view of history, the empire itself was an act of beneficence, and the outrages perpetrated in its name never happened. Just ask Liam Fox, the government’s Secretary of State for International Trade.
In this nostalgic la-la-land, the British economy, wrested from Brussels’ bureaucratic tentacles, will flourish like never before. It will be a place where EU technocrats will allow themselves to be pushed around by the very country that vandalized their union. Meanwhile, the Byzantine complexities of creating new free trade deals, often the work of a decade or more will evaporate before our national will. And in lieu of lost European business, we will have “Empire 2.0”—a trading masterplan which, if earlier government pronouncements are any guide, will hinge on pushing jam and biscuits on our former colonies.
It’s impossible to know the extent to which May believes her own myth-making. A Remainer during last summer’s referendum, we can only wonder whether her conversion to the Brexit cause is inspired by cynical politicking or a genuine desire to uphold its result. But she surely understands the value of patriotism as political currency. At a time of resurgent nationalism in America and across Europe, the simple slogans employed by populists like Donald Trump, whose “Make America Great Again” slogan was foreshadowed by the Brexiteer mantra, “Taking our country back” have demonstrated how disillusionment about globalization can be exploited through appeals to love thy country. By riding the patriotic wave, with a trenchant right-wing press behind her, she has quickly positioned herself as a champion of the people.
In such an atmosphere, in which opposing Brexit seems almost anti-British, sensible calls for a second referendum on the terms of our exit are viewed as mildly treasonous. Anxious Remainers, or “Remoaners” in the Brexiteers’ parlance, are dismissed off-hand, their worries denounced as “talking the country down.” For the government, of course, it’s win-win. If the worst Brexit prophecies come to bear, they can all be blamed on the people who failed to get on board with the national mission. As the former British prime minister Tony Blair said recently: “How hideously, in this debate, is the mantle of patriotism abused.”
And so it seems jingoism has become our asylum—a mad refuge from Brexit’s cold truths.
Through it all, I keep remembering a conversation I once had with a friend of my mum’s about the Falklands War. He recalled how, in April of 1982, as Margaret Thatcher dispatched 100 ships across the Atlantic, the Britain he thought he knew became unrecognizable. As if a switch had been flipped in the soul of the nation, ordinarily kind-spirited people unfurled flags, started talking about how much they hated the “Argies,” and cheered the news of Argentinian casualties.
It’s the kind of patriotic mob-think that sounds particularly alien to people from my generation who—born in the 1980s and 1990s—grew-up in an increasingly cooperative Europe. Profoundly conscious of our own failings, progressive Britain’s capacity for introspection—the tacit admission that Morris-dancing looks silly and that our food is a bit crap—stimulated our embrace of the wider world.
But the reactionary side of these islands was always there, sipping tea, grumbling about foreigners, hankering after the good old days—a resentful hinterland that has never quite accepted our lost pre-eminence. That’s why Brexiteers no longer care that they are cheering on a fantasy, by Jingo, so long as it’s a fantasy wrapped in the Union flag.