Brexit and the lost Empire

In my previous (extended) essay on Brexit and loss of Empire I touched on the apparent paradox that those populations living in the ‘Brexit heartlands’, i.e. traditionally Labour voting, northern (and eastern and Welsh), white working class communities, voted heavily to leave the European Union. And although it is important to note that, overall, it was the middle, not the working, classes who voted ‘Leave’,[1] it still seems to strike some commentators rather odd that those in the northern heartlands should be effectively supporting a small group on the right of the Conservative party who have their own, neo-liberal, agenda regarding Brexit.

On the other hand, and as I pointed out in the essay, it is not at all clear, at least from the viewpoint of those who actually live in the Brexit heartlands, what the EU has ever done for them. In fact, from where they are standing it seems to be just another manifestation of the ‘corrupt elite’, alongside the ‘corrupt Westminster elite’, the ‘liberal establishment’ and so on. I cited research by Simon Winlow and colleagues who conducted a range of interviews with members of the English Defence League (EDL), and many of these individuals were former Labour voters now embracing right-wing populist and nationalist ideas.[2] Since then many of these individuals appear to have gravitated towards the Brexit Party, or even towards the newly-found populism of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.

But this seems to beg another question: what is the attraction of right-wing populist and nationalist ideas for this particular group of people in the first place? In the course of their research, Winlow and his colleagues found a widespread sense of despair and betrayal amongst those they were interviewing. They felt they had been let down by Labour and essentially abandoned by the southern ‘Westminster elite’; in many ways they saw themselves as collateral damage in the never-ending march of globalisation. As I pointed out in the essay, Winlow and colleagues were very sympathetic to the plight of these individuals and communities; however, they strongly disagreed with their ‘solution’, i.e. embracing right-wing politics. Rather, for Winlow and colleagues, the answer was to embrace socialism and to confront global capital through the class struggle.

The problem here, in my view, is that this type of analysis is fundamentally flawed. To argue that those who may well be the ‘collateral damage’ of globalisation should therefore embrace socialism is to make some rather questionable assumptions about how such individuals view (political) reality and their position within it. As I noted in the essay:

Nationalism is essentially based on a completely difference way of experiencing, and being-in, the world. Socialism, at the end of the day, is simply capitalism remediated. In other words, and as many (Hegelian) Marxists would point out, socialism is the final stage of history, preceded by global capitalism. So basically, the aim of the socialist revolution is to finish the job of the bourgeois revolutions that began in the seventeenth century and which continued into the twentieth.

In other words, there is nothing inherently ‘anti-socialist’ about globalisation. Rather, it’s about who controls it and who benefits from it. This also raises a rather interesting paradox regarding Brexit itself: for many on the (Conservative) right, Brexit is an opportunity to destroy what little is left of the post-war social democratic consensus and to usher in a new golden age of neo-liberalism. From this position, Blairism and its legacy was simply a ‘blip’, and now it’s time to finish the job begun by Margaret Thatcher. Brexit is simply a useful way to disrupt the existing political order in order to bring about such changes. In this sense it could be, rather ironically, argued that Brexit will help bring about the very situation, i.e. complete globalisation (of the neo-liberal variety), that it was supposedly a reaction to.

Leaving that argument to one side for the moment, what exactly is the lure of right-wing populism and nationalism for those who would appear to gain very little from it – at least in economic terms? If Brexit is indeed a very British (and more specifically, English) manifestation of right-wing populism (and I think there is very strong argument that it is) then what’s in it for those in the northern and eastern Brexit heartlands? Economically, the answer would appear to be nothing; but perhaps this is key point: for many people, Brexit was never ultimately about economics but something else. And this ‘something else’, I would argue, is based on a longing, a nostalgia even, for something long lost.

In their article Brexit: how the end of Britain’s empire led to rising inequality that helped Leave to victory Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson argue that growing inequality, especially amongst older, middle-class Conservative voters was an important, but (as yet) unrecognised, factor in the result of the referendum of 2016:

Great inequality has damaged the lives of the majority of middle-class Conservative and UK Independence Party (UKIP) voters who live in the south of England. It damaged their lives because it hurt so many of their children and grandchildren’s life chances. Whereas their generation, when young adults, could more easily secure permanent housing, start a family, hold down a steady job and – if they were to secure a place – attend university for free, it’s primarily because of rising inequality that the next generations in England could not.

The authors go on to point out that some of these (much older) voters would have remembered a time when Britain still had an Empire and that 24 May (Queen Victoria’s birthday) was called Empire Day. More importantly, perhaps, they were of a generation where the future was always going to be better than the past, which meant their children and grandchildren’s future. However, in recent years, the idea of a ‘better tomorrow’ has been seriously called into question. Joining the EU was supposed to be a way to alleviate the problems caused by the decline of Empire, but instead it simply exposed Britain’s vulnerabilities even more. Not surprisingly, perhaps, many of those who still had vague memories of Empire and Empire Day decided it was time to try and restore a better age:

…the “take back control” slogan employed by Leave campaigners was a very powerful message. It harks back to when the British actually had a lot of control. Older people, the grandparents of today, “knew” without thinking about it that up to 1947 Britain was in control of some 700m people in an empire stretching around the world and most of them thought that this was a “good thing”.

However, this still doesn’t quite answer the question as to why working-class, ex-Labour voters would support Brexit; surely they would not be still harking after the lost Empire? As a matter of fact, it seems quite possible that they were (and still are). As Dorling and Tomlinson note:

A value system, based on military patriotism, xenophobia, racism and a nationalism that excluded foreigners, filtered down from the upper-class public schools to the middle-class grammar schools and into the elementary schools for the working classes.

Those young men who ran the empire had to feel effortlessly superior to the populations they were sent abroad to govern. The working classes had to be helped to feel superior. To one boy brought up in a Salford slum in the early 20th century: “School was a blackened gaunt building, made exciting by learning that there seemed to be five oceans and five continents, most of which seemed to belong to us.”

The working class were encouraged to ignore their poverty in the belief that they were superior to the natives overseas. The 1880s to the 1930s was a time when vast areas of Asia and Africa were being invaded and taken over by the British, and a range of invented imperial traditions were developing. A passion for classification of supposed classes and races on biological and eugenic lines was developing alongside stereotypes of the ignorant and deficient working classes, similar to those tropes of superiority over the stupid and lazy natives overseas.

And this is perhaps the most difficult (and, for some, troubling) aspect of the ‘end of Empire’ narrative and its relation to Brexit: it’s one thing for older, middle class Conservatives to hark back to the lost days of Empire; it’s quite another for the not-so-old, working class (ex) Labour voters to be doing the same thing. Apart from anything else it seems to undermine the whole notion of class consciousness: you might be a citizen of the most powerful nation on earth, but if you are at the bottom of the pile what good is that to you?

But is it simply a matter of ‘false consciousness’? In other words, at the height of Empire were the British proletariat simply being duped; and are they continuing to be duped even now? Certainly, this seems to be the argument of the likes of Winlow et al. Yes, Brexit can be seen as a manifestation of political disillusionment and marginalisation, but is right-wing populism the answer? Clearly, for those on the left the answer is a resounding ‘no’.

What, however, if there was an even more disturbing possibility? What if (i) the attraction of Brexit for many working class voters is linked to a longing for a lost Empire and (ii) they really do want to restore a time when they were citizens of a nation that ruled the waves and much of the planet?

  1. See the results of Michael Ashcroft’s final referendum poll for more detailed results on this.
  2. Simon Winlow, Steve Hill, and James Treadwell, The Rise of the Right English Nationalism and the Transformation of Working-Class Politics, Kindle edition (Bristol: Policy Press, 2016).