Brexit as nostalgia

In their paper Brexit and Nostalgia Edoardo Campanella and Marta Dassù argue that the decision to leave the European Union was (and still is three and half years later) driven by nostalgic fantasies rather than any ‘rational’ economic or political considerations.[1] Furthermore, depending on how ‘hard-core’ the particular ‘Leaver’ is, the time they hark back to can vary quite considerably:

For most Leavers, the ideal chronological destination was 1973, just a moment before the UK joined the European Economic Community. Hard-core Brexiteers would have preferred to go further back to the Edwardian era, thus restoring the country’s lost imperial greatness.[2]

As the authors point out, though, the period of ‘lost imperial greatness’ was, in reality, a time of great debate and angst regarding Britain’s role in the world:

Notwithstanding presumptions of unbroken progress until the 1970s, the UK’s global role has actually been at issue since the late Victorian era, when the British Empire’s global pre-eminence was slipping as a result of combined internal and external fractures. It started in 1873 at the Oxford Union with a debate on how to reorganise and modernise Pax Britannica. Since then, plans have differed in detail, but they have all sought to unite the Anglosphere behind a common purpose and had nostalgic and utopian qualities. And they all purported to preserve a past that was falling apart by promoting London’s political and economic interests to the detriment of increasingly assertive colonies. These proposals oversimplified reality, and none was ever implemented. Hard-core Brexiteers essentially revived the debate.[3]

However, side-by-side with the ambitions of the ‘global Britons’, i.e. those who wish to restore a time when the UK’s main trading partners were Commonwealth members plus the US and, to bring things totally up to date, China, India and other Asiatic countries, there is also another ‘lost world’ that the Brexiteers are pining for. This is essentially an attempt to restore ‘the Island Race’ with its ‘Island Story’; in other words, a ‘Little England’ with ‘an insular geography that shapes the character of its people’. Campanella and Dassù argue that these two versions of the ‘lost past’ are essentially incompatible, and represent two different forms of nostalgia, which they define as ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’:

Global Britain, the Brexiteers’ principal form of offensive nostalgia, is resolutely outward-looking and therefore quite inconsistent with Little England. The former depicts the ambitions of elements of the Oxbridge elite that oppose the EU, while the latter (‘defensive nostalgia’) embodies the frustrations of a low-skilled working class.[4]

Perhaps it is not too simplistic to argue that the ‘global Britons’ are centred around the European Research Group (ERG) on the right-wing of the Tory party, whilst the ‘Little Englanders’, in the sense used by Campanella and Dassù, are those in the northern, eastern and Welsh Brexit heartlands. However, as I hinted at in my previous article on this subject, perhaps things are not quite that simple when it comes to the question of the (lost) Empire. Or, to put it another way, is it in the fact the case that the two versions of Brexit (‘Global Britain’ versus ‘Little England’) are incompatible?

As I pointed out in that article, even though the white working class were a million miles away economically and culturally from the Victorian and Edwardian elites who ran the Empire, they still felt superior to the colonial ‘natives’. And one reason for this, I would argue, was because of their closer identification with the nation than with their own class. In other words, even if the working class were not reaping the economic and cultural benefits of Empire, they could still identify with its ‘greatness’. They were, to paraphrase Marx, a nation-for-themselves rather than a class-for-themselves.

Furthermore, of course, many of the working class were, to a certain extent, reaping the economic benefits of the industrial revolution, which was very much the powerhouse of Empire. This was particularly true once labour had become properly organised, for example in coal mining and heavy industries. Contrast this to the post-industrial wastelands that many working class communities now occupy. So, in many ways, there is a lot to be nostalgic about.

But what about the Brexiteer elites? Do they hark back to ‘Little England’ as well as dreaming of ‘Global Britain’? Insofar as the Empire can be seen as an extension of ‘Little England’ across the globe then the answer is probably yes. The Empire was as much about exporting ‘Englishness’ and English values as it was about economic colonialism. Even in the far reaches of their colonial outposts the representatives of the English ruling elite were showing the ‘natives’ what it was to be ‘civilised’, i.e. English. In other words, it wasn’t only in Flanders that there was ‘some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England’…

  1. Edoardo Campanella and Marta Dassù, ‘Brexit and Nostalgia’, Survival, 61.3 (2019), 103–11.
  2. Ibid pp.103-4
  3. Ibid p.107
  4. Ibid p.108