The British government invoked Article 50 of the treaty on European Union last week, officially triggering Britain’s departure from the trading arrangements, economic treaties and security agreements that it has shared with other Europeans for more than 40 years. Some people were delighted, others devastated. But a loud subset of British citizens were suddenly gripped by a different emotion: nostalgia. Might it now be possible to turn the clock back to the 1970s — or earlier — in other ways, too?
Already, there are calls to bring back the blue passports that the British government ditched back in 1988. A Conservative member of parliament, Andrew Rosindell (chairman of the Flags and Heraldry Committee), described the burgundy E.U. passports that Britain uses now as “a source of humiliation” that can now be abandoned. Others want to return to imperial weights and measures — ounces and pounds, feet and inches — which British manufacturers gave up in order to make commerce easier with Europe. Still others are demanding the restoration of the Royal Yacht Britannia (it was retired as an austerity measure, nothing to do with Europe, but never mind).
It’s all pretty trivial, but this festival of remembrance offers a glimpse into the deeper motivations behind Brexit. The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, chose Article 50 day to laud Britain’s chance to “search for new trading opportunities as this country was able to do for hundreds of years.” On the face of it, the statement is absurd: Nothing in any European Union treaty ever prevented British businesses from searching for business around the world, and indeed German companies have been particularly successful at doing so for the past couple of decades. But it’s the “as this country was able to do for hundreds of years” clause that matters: the idea that we need to get back to we were before the war, modernity, the Internet or whatever you personally believe destroyed Britain’s status and made it less important than it used to be.
Nostalgia is an underrated force in politics, particularly because it has the power to affect how people understand and react to change. People in one Welsh region that received more than a billion dollars in European Union investment voted for Brexit because, they told one visiting politician, they didn’t like what that money had bought. They didn’t care about the regenerated steel mill, which had been turned into new colleges, new schools and a new hospital, all of which had generated new jobs. Instead, they wanted their old jobs in the nonexistent steel industry, and they seem to hope that leaving Europe would bring them back.
Nostalgia is also selective, offering false views of the past and therefore false hope for the future. The British columnist Gideon Rachman has recently pointed out that the nostalgia that shapes some of the Brexit rhetoric — that image of Britain as the buccaneering trading nation that bravely forged its way into Hong Kong’s harbor and Sydney’s bay — is actually based on ignorance. In fact, the British trading success of the 19th century were really imperial successes. They could not have happened without military intervention and colonial rule, neither of which is in the cards now. It’s pretty unlikely that the British navy is going to sink the Chinese fleet in order to impose a lucrative trade deal on modern Hong Kong, as it did in the past, let alone invade Australia.
But who knows? Spain is now demanding a say in the future of Gibraltar, the tiny, rocky peninsula on the Spanish coast that remains British territory, and whose borders and status, settled by the European Union, now have to be revisited. Outraged, a former Conservative Party leader, Michael Howard, declared that the British prime minister would defend Gibraltar just as forthrightly as Margaret Thatcher defended the Falkland Islands 30 years ago. Thatcher staged a military invasion of the Falklands; so now, presumably, Britain is threatening to invade Spain. Perhaps Howard is nostalgic for the 1980s — or perhaps for the 1580s, when the English fleet defeated the Spanish Armada, nobody had burgundy passports and lots of other things were a lot better, too.