The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brexit and Britain’s delusions of empire

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Brexit has begun, and British Prime Minister Theresa May now faces the unenviable task of settling her nation's divorce from the European Union while also figuring out how to make up for the potentially ruinous costs of the break. 

A first step of sorts took place Thursday when May’s government published plans to convert thousands of E.U. laws into British ones — what my colleague Karla Adam describes as “a gigantic ’cut and paste’ job, repatriating 40 years of powers from Brussels to London.” Dubbed the “Great Repeal Bill,” the move is a bid by British leaders to calm the justifiable fears of millions of Britons — and European nationals living in the country — who are worried about Brexit's effect on their daily lives.

But it’s Brexit supporters who may be in line for a real shock. Even beyond the coming “traumatic” loss of access to the E.U.’s market — as the Economist put it — the promise of a politically resurgent Britain is likely to fall flat.

Much of the rhetoric of the pro-Brexit crowd centers around the reclamation of British “sovereignty” from technocrats in Brussels. But Brexit proponents have also projected a nostalgic vision of Britain once more asserting itself as a dominant player on the world stage. May trumpeted the dawn of a new “Global Britain” earlier this year: a nation shorn of its continental commitments and capable of finding a new accommodation with other parts of the world — especially those it once colonized.

“Outside the E.U., the world is our oyster, and the Commonwealth the pearl within,” the far-right, pro-Brexit United Kingdom Independence Party declared ahead of last year’s referendum. Earlier this month, it emerged that May’s government is seeking to boost trade links to many of the nations of the Commonwealth — particularly in Africa — in a move labeled by some anonymous government officials as “Empire 2.0.”

And Liam Fox, charged with rebuilding these links as Britain's international trade secretary, suggested that his country had little to atone for in its imperial past.

Brits are hardly alone in harboring delusions of empire — consider, for example, the colonial nostalgia of France’s far-right nationalists or the Ottomania of Turkey’s ruling party. But the fantasy of Britain’s past collides almost farcically against Britain’s present.

Never mind that Britain’s empire was a precursor to the forces of globalization and migration that the Brexiteers so profoundly resent.

Never mind that Brexit will “be a considerable blow to Commonwealth nations that export to Britain,” as the Financial Times reported: “Thirty-two Commonwealth countries, mainly in Africa and the Caribbean, are covered by free-trade agreements with the E.U. These states therefore enjoy duty-free and quota-free access to the E.U. for nearly all their goods. . . . Once the UK is out of the E.U., these countries will end up paying $800m a year in additional duties to access the UK market, according to an analysis by the Commonwealth Secretariat.”

The reality is that many Commonwealth nations simply don’t need Britain. Australian exports to its former colonial ruler amounted to just 1.4 percent of its total outgoing trade. Canada, which shares a huge land border with the United States, will always look south, not east. India, once the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown, has an economy already roughly the same size as Britain’s; Indian moguls now own some of Britain’s most iconic companies.

“In anglophone Africa, the game is already up,” British historian David Olusoga noted in the Guardian. “The motorbikes on the freeways of Accra and Lagos are Chinese, assembled by local mechanics from kits shipped direct from Shandong. West Africa’s new convenience food is Chinese instant noodles, not fish and chips, and the supermarkets that sell them are South African-owned. Many anglophone Africans still have deep emotional, economic and often familial links to Britain, but those with money are now as keen to holiday in Dubai as London.”

“Brexit is rooted in imperial nostalgia and myths of British exceptionalism, coming up as they have — especially since 2008 — against the reality that Britain is no longer a major world power,” British academic Tom Whyman wrote in a withering column. “Those most under the spell of imperial nostalgia have now become the sorcerers themselves, having somehow managed to conjure up a mandate to transform Britain in their image.”

When not articulating wistful aspirations of empire, Brexit’s champions appeal to that other bulwark of British patriotism: the legacy of Winston Churchill and his generation’s defeat of the Nazis. When questioned in January about whether Britain could manage the chaos of a divorce with Europe, Brexit secretary David Davis harrumphed: “Our civil service can cope with World War Two, they can easily cope with this.”

The coming months will test the bravado and bluster of figures like Davis. Britain’s memories of past triumphs and world-spanning power may make for easy political rhetoric, but they don’t stand up to the actual history. Many have now noted how little Britain’s real imperial legacy — one of conquest and abuse, coercion and exploitation — is actually remembered.

“For a Martian historian, the most interesting thing about modern British history would surely be that the country built a massive global empire,” wrote columnist Gideon Rachman. “But for the Brits themselves, shaping a national story that centers around the war against the Nazis — rather than the empire — makes psychological sense. It has allowed Britain to nurture a national self-image as champions of freedom and plucky underdogs . . . rather than imperialist oppressors.”

Recognizing that history, Rachman suggested, would be a good start if “May truly wants to forge a future for a ‘global Britain.’ ”

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