As Brexit advocates continue the endless conflict, they use national icons such as Churchill, Shakespeare and Magna Carta for their own purposes. The result is a national myth consisting of four key elements: the pride of the empire, no submission, Anglo-Saxon solidarity and xenophobia. It does not matter if the myth is historically based or not. The point is to refine the past into a narrative where good wins over evil. Smoothing over complex elements and historical ambiguities is the goal. As the philosopher Ernest Renan said in 1882: "Oblivion […] is an essential factor in the creation of a nation."
So far, those who want to stay in the EU have lost the battle, as they have not launched their own national narrative, but allow charlatans and chauvinists to have a monopoly on the interpretation of British history. They have neither identified their own historical heroes, the nation's proudest moment nor attempted to counter the claim that Britain is locked in an endless conflict with Europe. They have failed to capture the national identity that encompasses both the past, the present and the future.
Take for example Winston Churchill, whose steadfastness, courage, wit and defiance are a good picture of Britain's perception of itself. Churchill was ambivalent about the role of Britain in a politically integrated Europe. But he was also among the first to speak warmly of European unity after World War II, including in his speech "Let Europe Arise" in Zurich on September 19, 1946: "If Europe were once united in sharing its common heritage there would be no limit to the happiness, prosperity and glory which its 300 million or 400 million people would enjoy. » Why have not those who want to stay in the EU highlighted such moments?
One problem, of course, is that Churchill has long been hijacked by Brexit supporters, including Boris Johnson, who wrote the book. The Churchill Factor - How One Man Made History (2014). Here, Churchill's lonely struggle to pacify Nazi Germany is portrayed as a political choice rather than a principle. This tells a lot about Johnson, the man who saw Brexit as a means of advancing his own political ambitions. It seems that Johnson thinks that Churchill, for safety's sake, had a speech ready in the drawer entitled 'We Surrender'.
But still, those who want out of the EU have probably understood the character of the nation better than those who want to stay. By emphasizing the empire's proudest and greatest moments, they manage to compensate for a genuine British nationalism – which is really a mixture of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish national identities. Given that the latter three were developed as a reaction to English imperialism, there is not really a genuine British identity.
After establishing an empire in the British Isles, the British took their territorial ambitions abroad, and it was this external empire that allowed the various national identities to develop. But when the empire was dissolved, the English were left without a traditional national identity. As Krishan Kumar, author of several books on English identity and culture, writes: The English remained an imperialist people, vulnerable to delusions of greatness and with notions that salvation is to be found in the past.
The real Victorian era
Contrary to what Rees-Moggs claims (see mention), the latter half of the Victorian era was marked by a destructive sense of the recession, which prevented Britain from making important decisions about the future. Author Simon Heffer shows in the book The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914 how the entire imperialist architecture crumbled in the late 1800th century. Heffer, a conservative Englishman with an equally conservative wardrobe, is a more honest historian than Rees-Moggs. Although Heffer's review of the Victorian era is also very selective, the text is of a completely different quality and with a depth of knowledge that places him in the foremost ranks of historians.
Heffer describes how the superficial pomposity and self-confidence – what he calls swagger (bragging) – at the end of the Victorian era served as a smokescreen for widespread disagreement and discontent among the people. About 92 percent of the wealth was in the hands of 10 percent of the population. Women were marginalized, but also became more confident. And it was smoldering in the colonies. Heffer blames the spoiled elite that Rees-Moggs is so excited about. The elite squandered the economic and political legacy, thus sowing the seeds of the empire's decline.
Just as Brexit supporters blame the EU for the consequences of globalization, the elite did not understand the forces that influenced their complex and fragile world. Yes, they extended the right to vote – but to more men, not to women. They were too slow to mitigate the consequences of industrialization, thus opening up to widespread social unrest. They underestimated the Irish ambitions and, ironically, created a major obstacle to Brexit: the border that separates Northern Ireland and Ireland. The latter is a proud and successful member state of the EU.
Heffer shows how, towards the end of the Victorian era, the domestic problems that undermined Britain's social and political cohesion were overlooked, not least because the British were obsessed with global ambitions. This kept them trapped in an endless debate about how best to maintain the Pax Britannica ["British Peace" as the British controlled trade routes, ed. note]. Some wanted to create a British-imperialist federation or a multinational commonwealth. Others wanted a more formalized Atlantic Union, or even a new Anglo-American state. All these proposals have one thing in common: deep nostalgia on the verge of utopianism, and a total disregard for the colonies' ambitions and wishes. The motivation was to preserve something that was already in decline. But this is not how it went: Nostalgia is an oversimplification of reality and does not form the basis for an enlightened and functioning policy.
It lost the empire
Today's Brexit supporters are actually continuing the same old debate, repeating even the same mistakes. They believe that separating from the EU and going global can solve the problems domestically, and that the liberation from a supranational political and economic order will enable them to regain control of the country's borders and unite the people.
Although the rest of the English-speaking world still wants to maintain a common law, democracy and free markets, it has no interest at all in embracing the Pax Britannica. The United States, Canada and Australia have all gone their separate ways, and know that the future of the global economy lies in Asia. The notion that India and South Africa would like to restore the lost empire and reconnect with Britain is ridiculous, as then-Prime Minister Theresa May discovered in a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016.
Political strategies rooted in nostalgia will never lead, but can lead to a new hell, as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini demonstrated. Being obsessed with the past, no matter how brilliant it may be, is no good recipe for living in the present.
See also review by The Victorians: Can the empire strike back after Brexit?
© Project Syndicate www.project-syndicate.org
Translated by Iril Kolle