In 1968 Alan Bennett’s first West End play, Forty Years On, ended its nostalgia trip through 20th century England with an arch precis of the state of a nation that had lost an empire but not yet found a role. “To let. A valuable site at the crossroads of the world. At present on offer to European clients. Outlying portions already disposed of to sitting tenants. Of some historical and period interest. Some alterations and improvements necessary.”
Fifty one years later, we find ourselves in a similar place. The national neuroses Bennett satirised with such perspicacity endure, and, according to the academics Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson, have found their purest, most destructive
political expression through Brexit. Rule Britannia, a chunky polemic, makes the now familiar argument that the 2016 vote happened because “a small number of people have a dangerous, imperialist misconception of our standing in the world”.
But who are they? Writing in the London Review of Books a month after the referendum, John Lanchester suggested Brexit was driven by the inhabitants of places where to be born is to suffer an “irreversible lifelong defeat” – the coalfield towns and faded seaside resorts we regularly see on the news. Not so, say Dorling and Tomlinson. In reality, it was millions of Conservative voters in the south-east wot won it: voters who merely felt poor, or insufficiently rich.
These bad winners, Dorling and Tomlinson argue, chafed at a society in which they had triumphed 3-1 rather than the 6-0 they deserved. Along with the politicians who peddled Brexit, they saw leaving the EU as a way to restore a natural order of life that existed only in their imagination. Rule Britannia is at its most convincing when it exposes this relationship between the systemic failure to reckon with Britain’s imperial past and the economic imbalances that at once caused Brexit and threaten to make it so painful if botched.
Tory Leavers long for a return to Britain’s past as a free-trading nation, but fail to acknowledge that little about the trading boom of the 19th century was free. It did not happen by ideological design but by forcing others to participate. No longer a global hegemon and soon to surrender our membership of the world’s most successful trade bloc, Britain has a dearth of non-finance exports, a chronic lack of investment, a predilection for unsustainable growth and intolerance for the immigrants on whom its economy depends. This will cost it dear should the hard Brexiteers get their way.
For Remainers, this stuff is catnip. If one believes, as the authors do, that Brexit is a consequence of a singular evil – in this case empire and our failure to understand it – their one-track moralism is great fun. But too much of it is hackneyed and unnecessary. Their rage at our anachronistic institutions and the “homogenised and corrupt elite” they perpetuate is justified but seldom controlled. They soon run out of actual evil and start tilting at windmills.
One chapter consists almost entirely of Wikipedian descriptions of every member of Theresa May’s first cabinet and their misdemeanours. We can all agree that Alun Cairns, the Welsh Secretary, shouldn’t have described Italians as “greasy wops” on a local radio show 11 years ago, but it is hardly a smoking gun. Early on, the authors reproachfully quote The Brexit Cookbook (author: “Nigel Sewage”) and its claim that, “Scotch eggs and trifle built the greatest empire the world has ever known until the EU forced us to eat Danish pastries and pizza.” They miss an obvious joke.
There are reams of similar material. At its weakest the tone is Pooterish and some of the stretching towards a point is absurd. “No leading Brexiteers went to Cambridge,” they declare. “Cambridge concentrates on the sciences, on evidence and fact.” It would be a limp argument even if it were true, which it isn’t (half of the cabinet’s Brexiteers went to Cambridge). Also irritating is the steady stream of maybes, perhapses, possiblies and presumablies that cast tenuous aspersions on the book’s many pantomime villains.
The lazy supposition muddies the clear-eyed empiricism of the book’s strongest sections. Dorling and Tomlinson have a
robust and timely argument to make about the enduring political and economic dysfunction empire and its decline have left us with. What they don’t do is substantiate their assertions that this is a specifically British failing. The post-imperial angst of other European nations, most notably France, is largely ignored, so too their expansive cast of politicians just as crass as ours.
The authors rightly diagnose our national habit of condescension as one of the causes of Brexit but are often guilty of it themselves. In a funny way, it proves their point. “Eventually,” they write, “every place that once had an empire learns to get over it.” Their failings here reflect the fact that not even the few who have bothered to understand Britain’s history realise they have the same post-imperial hangover as the Brexiteers: the misapprehension that our country is unique and its destiny ordained by character. British exceptionalism is a hell of a drug. Until both sides of the Brexit debate kick the habit, the answer will elude us.
Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson appear at Cambridge Literary Festival on 6 April
Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire
Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson
Biteback, 396pp, £12.99