THERE ARE LEGITIMATE REASONS to be sceptical of Brexit, but one of the silliest claims is that isolationism stems from nostalgia for Empire or even “neo-colonialism”. These ideas are founded in a moralistic view of history, where all the world’s badness must issue from a single source. The result is to misunderstand the flaws in contemporary British nationalism. And this violates the first law of all political tactics, which is to know your enemy.
In truth, Britain’s neo-colonial moment is fading – which is exactly the problem facing British state managers. After the collapse of Empire, epitomised by the 1956 Suez debacle, UK foreign policy went into a slump. As Dean Acheson put it, Britain had lost an Empire and was yet to find a role. Elements of the British elite worried that the country was snoozing its way into Scandinavian complacency.
This was precisely why Tory elites of the time sought to join the European Economic Community (EEC), as Acheson had urged in that speech. Britain’s ambassador to the EEC warned that “I feel that unless we succeed in creating a satisfactory relationship with Europe we may have declined in a relatively short time into neutrality … a greater Sweden”. Shuddering at this Nordic nightmare, epitomised by a tax and spend, Cold War-sceptical Labour Left, they were willing to sacrifice hallowed British parliamentary sovereignty for Europe’s “pooled sovereignty”, so that Britain would “punch above its weight”.
Britain’s neo-imperialism really got going under Thatcher. The Falklands War blasted off some post-Suez cobwebs. It unleashed a new British confidence which undoubtedly secured her the 1983 election. Arms trading boomed, founded in alliances with despicable dictators. Britain was back, cosmopolitan and assertive.
But Thatcher was small beer next to her New Labour successors. Under Tony Blair, Britain would be more than a mere cheerleader for American Empire; we would be warmonger in chief, urging reluctant Presidents to screw their courage to the sticking-place. Blair’s court philosophers spoke of “postmodern imperialism”, which they saw as a good thing. Not to be outdone by his rival, Gordon Brown toured Africa posing as David Livingstone and insisting that Britain had to cast off any sense of shame about the Empire.
All these notions of a crusading, cosmopolitan state, solving the world’s problems, played critical functions in solving a British identity crisis. Empire and Protestantism, the twin glues of British history, were either gone or in rapid decline. The welfare state and full employment had stepped in to build a new sense of national solidarity. But Thatcher and her successors set about dismantling that legacy. A neurotic search for opportunities to interfere in the affairs of others thus became the centrepiece of what it meant to be British.
We all know how this story ends. There is no need to review the debacles of Afghanistan, Libya and most of all Iraq.
The crucial point is that Britain now cannot afford to be a crusader. Not economically, given its already limited military spending. Not ideologically, insofar as wars are unpopular, and doubly when they involved troop commitments. And not politically, insofar as it would exacerbate all manner of internal national tensions, most especially with Scotland. (It’s worth noting that Scottish Labour, with honourable exceptions, dutifully lined up to back the Iraq invasion in Holyrood).
That’s the true problem Britain faces today. What does it mean anymore, in a post-neoliberal world where warfare is about drones, and Royalty prefers the life of American celebrity to tedious ceremonial duties?
Of course, with America potentially re-gunning under Biden, the Brexiteers are unlikely pacifists. As naïve Atlanticists and perennial gamblers, they would doubtless jump at a low-cost crusade in some godforsaken place.
Still, the most worrying trends once again stem from a centrist Labour Party proclaiming its “internationalist” credentials. A recent “Open Labour” pamphlet, trumpeted by Lisa Nandy, is a jeremiad against what they call Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-imperialism. “It is…the intellectual and organisational remnants of Corbynism,” they contend, “that need to be challenged in order to resurrect an ethical and internationalist foreign policy for new times.”
Hysteria, paranoia and conspiracy theories have entered the bloodstream of the Starmerites. But even if they go for broke with some new war frenzy, it will only reinforce the dynamics pushing Scotland towards independence. Britain today cannot restore its greatness with militarism. All that remains of British ambition is arms sales to a sordid Saudi regime imposing genocide on Yemen.