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Myths from a small island: the dangers of a buccaneering view of British history

The idea of “Global Britain” ignores the reality of our imperial past and pretends the UK can become a trading superpower through optimism alone.

As Brexit has blazed through British public life, torching our constitution, party system, economic ties and diplomatic relationships, its appetite has been fed by a combustible mix of loss, betrayal and dispossession. These are not just powerful political emotions: they rest on claims about the past that carry extraordinary destructive power. All sides in the Brexit debate trade assertions about British history: that “we were lied to” in the referendums of 1975 or 2016; that “we stood alone” in the Second World War and can do so again; or that “no one voted to be poorer” when they voted to leave the EU. These are not merely the sparks tossed out by political conflagration; they are the dry tinder on which that conflagration feeds.

History is politically powerful, because it serves as a proxy for ideology. From Boris Johnson to Jacob Rees-Mogg, and from Dominic Raab to Liam Fox, Leavers use the past to imagine the future. They make historically based claims about Britain’s “natural” allies, markets or place in the world, based on curated memories of war and empire. They invoke the achievements of former generations as a model for the present; and, in so doing, give the false assurance that the path down which we are walking leads to old and familiar places. As so often, history becomes the mask worn by ideology, when it wants to be mistaken for experience.

These histories owe less to academic writing than to what might be called second-hand dealers in the past: politicians, newspaper columnists and media commentators, who rummage through the scrapyard of history, pulling out the most useful parts and welding them together into a vehicle for their ambitions. The products are then marketed to the public through the most dangerous word in popular history: “we”. “We won the war.” “We survived the Blitz.” “We abolished slavery.” It is a word that allows us to pin other people’s medals to our chests; to demand gratitude for other people’s sacrifices; and to boast of victories bought with other people’s blood. It creates a false equivalence between past and present, in a way that can dull our sensitivity to change.

Since the EU referendum in 2016, one vision of the past has become especially potent: the idea of “Global Britain”. This is more than just a slogan; more even than a programme for the future. It is a story about British history that makes the past a model for the present. In Jacob Rees-Mogg’s telling, “our history is as a global nation”, yet “the ship of state has been moored in harbour since 1973”. Once Brexit has been achieved, Britain “can once again take to the high seas and look at the whole world rather than the narrow European sphere”.

Critics often view this as “imperial nostalgia”, yet the reality is more serious. Nostalgia at least begins from a sense of rupture: a recognition that something has been left behind, to which we can return only in the imagination. By contrast, the core idea of “Global Britain” is that nothing has changed: that Britain can enjoy the same power today as at its colonial meridian. Far from luxuriating in empire, Brexiteers actively evade the topic, for to do otherwise would force them to engage with the significance of its loss. The story they tell is not of a great empire that no longer exists, required to cut its cloth differently for a post-colonial age, but of a small island that has always punched above its weight; a “swashbuckling”, “buccaneering” people valiantly winning out against the odds. It is the myth of smallness, not the myth of empire, that defines “Global Britain”, and that teaches such dangerous lessons for the future.

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The godfather of Brexit history, at least for the British right, was Enoch Powell. Powell was an early proponent of the idea that “all history is myth” – not in the sense that it was untrue, but in that the stories told about the past carried political meanings. The “greatest task of the statesman”, he believed, was “to offer his people good myths and to save them from harmful myths”. Whether those stories were strictly accurate mattered less than the political charge they carried and the programmes to which they gave their support.

For Powell, postwar Britain was in the grip of an especially pernicious myth, which he called “the myth of empire”. This was the belief “that Britain was once great because she had an empire” but was now “small and weak because she has one no longer”. That myth, he argued, grotesquely overstated both the importance of empire itself and the effect on Britain of its loss. The conviction that Britain was “powerful because of her empire”, or that its power had been “sustained by colonies and dependencies which were in fact a net burden”, had caused “grave psychological damage”. Its legacy was evident in two contradictory tendencies: one, a pervasive sense of decline that had sapped the British of self-confidence; the other, a longing for empire-substitutes, such as the Commonwealth or the European Community. Powell called this the demon of “gigantism”: the idea that Britain must submerge its nationhood in some larger entity, in the pursuit of global power.

Powell came not to praise the empire but to bury it, and his heirs would take up the shovel with zest. The empire would be written out of Britain’s “island story”, and in particular from the memory of the Second World War. Within a few short years, colonial ex-servicemen who had fought for Britain would be cast as “invaders” themselves, in the febrile rhetoric of Powell and his acolytes. Yet the story was to take a turn that Powell had not anticipated. For while Powell had sought to slay the demon of gigantism, calling the British people “home again from years of distant wandering”, his inheritors would send Britain back out into the world to recapture the glories of the past. They would do so, armed with a view of British history that decoupled the achievements of the imperial age from the imperial structures that made them possible. The effect was to teach a dangerous lesson: that renewed greatness was there for the taking, requiring little more than pluck, optimism and a can-do attitude.

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In the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, a series of commentators held up Britain’s global past as an inspiration for the present. Yet they did so in a curious manner. Empire barely featured in these remarks, pushed aside by a history centring on trade and innovation. The result was a heroic vision of British history that was global, but not imperial. It recast a coercive military empire as a champion of “free trade”; and, in so doing, established entrepreneurialism, rather than empire, as the golden thread connecting past and present. That made it possible at once to disclaim empire and to invoke the lessons of the imperial past. In Boris Johnson’s words, the challenge was “to rediscover some of the dynamism of these bearded Victorians: not to build a new empire, heaven forfend”, but “to go back out into the world in a way that we had perhaps forgotten”.

This was particularly striking in the rhetoric of Liam Fox, the international trade secretary from 2016 to 2019, who was a big cheerleader for “Global Britain”. At a speech in Manchester in 2016 he told business leaders that the “global influence Britain enjoys today is largely down to our proud trading history”. A “small island perched on the edge of Europe” had become “the world’s largest and most powerful trading nation”, not through its military or naval power, but through “a history steeped in innovation and endeavour”. In 2017 he extended that analysis more broadly, in an address to the conference of Commonwealth trade ministers. The very existence of this event – the first of its kind – was a mark of the importance Fox placed upon the Commonwealth, which he described as an association of “some of the world’s oldest and most resilient friendships”. Yet he seemed remarkably coy about the nature of those friendships. In what passed as the historical section of his speech, Fox made the remarkable suggestion that what bound the Commonwealth together was a shared history of free trade. Britain, he proclaimed, had “long been associated with both the concept and practice of free-trade. A small island perched on the edge of the European continent became a leader of world trade. For over a century the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘free trade’ were virtually synonymous… Those of us, represented here today, have, through our shared history and experience, witnessed the transformation that trade can bring.”

At the same event, Priti Patel, then international development secretary, hailed the Commonwealth as an “exemplar” of “free markets, private enterprise and liberal economies”. Like Fox, she offered a curiously dehistoricised vision of the organisation, bound together not by a common experience of empire but by a shared commitment to market capitalism. This was a history that exceeded even Powell’s ambitions: a history not just of Britain, but of the Commonwealth, from which the empire was politely excised.

The use of “trade” as a euphemism for “empire” became a staple of Brexit ideology. Grant Shapps, for example, wrote an article in the week after the referendum urging Britain to retake its former status as “the world’s greatest trading nation”. The way to do this, it transpired, was not to conquer India or to build the world’s largest navy, but to “rediscover the swashbuckling spirit of the 19th century, when we practically owned the concept of free trade”. A similar vision inspired successive Brexit secretaries. David Davis told the makers of the 2016 pro-Leave documentary Brexit: The Movie that “Our history is a trading, buccaneering history – back to Drake and beyond. That’s what we’re good at.” Dominic Raab, likewise, has urged the British to resume their historic role as “buccaneering free traders”.

Such rhetoric showed no understanding of the role that empire actually played in Britain’s trading history, in breaking open new markets, protecting the sea lanes and enforcing British commercial superiority. Instead, it rested on a vague appeal to a “swashbuckling spirit”, resonant of plucky little Britons singeing the beards of mightier powers. Talk of Francis Drake evoked an Elizabethan ideal of pirates, privateers and derring-do, not the gunboats and battleships of the high Victorian age. In so doing, it suppressed the scale of British power in the past, to facilitate the comparison with the present.


Arise, Sir Francis: Brexiteers often cite Francis Drake as an exemplar of the “swashbuckling” spirit that Britain should recover

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What such histories have in common is not the celebration of empire but its erasure from the historical record. That “forgetting” fulfils two important functions in Brexit ideology. First, it establishes a continuity between past and present that is uninterrupted by the loss of Britain’s colonies. It creates a useable history of British greatness, anchored not in vanished imperial structures, but in a set of timeless national characteristics that require only liberation from Brussels to burst once more into bloom. As such, it rejects the importance of decolonisation as a rupture: one that might require a recasting of Britain’s geopolitical ambitions or a more bounded, regional identity.

Second, it enables a synthesis between two visions of British history that might otherwise seem at odds: one that casts Britain as a global titan; another that views it as a small island punching above its weight in the world. It treats the empire as something Britain did, not as something Britain was (and is no longer). It reimagines imperial history as an achievement against the odds; the story, as David Cameron put it in 2011, of “a small country that does great things”. It casts smallness as an essential ingredient in Britain’s historic success, not as a condition to which Britain has been reduced by the withdrawing of the imperial tide.

That idea of smallness – even at the peak of Britain’s imperial power – has deep roots in British folk memory. It is the story of Francis Drake, standing heroically against the mighty Spanish empire; of Robert Baden-Powell, bravely holding off the Boers at Mafeking; and of the fishing smacks and pleasure boats that defied the Nazi war machine at Dunkirk. In the most famous cartoon of the Second World War, the lone warrior stands on the British coast, his fist clenched in defiance, as the skies blacken beneath the shadow of the Luftwaffe.

In the high days of empire, such memories were a useful dishonesty. They allowed a military superpower to imagine itself as an embattled champion of freedom, engaged in heroic resistance against forces that willed its destruction. During the two world wars, when defeat was indeed a possibility, they served to bolster morale. Today, by contrast, they are put to more dangerous ends. They invoke a glorious past as a model for the future, while wiping from popular memory everything that made Britain such a formidable power. A story that celebrates smallness, that tells of glorious victories against impossible odds, has little room for Britain’s colossal military machine, unmatched economic power and global empire – whose contribution to the war effort it has shamefully forgotten.

This has at least three destructive consequences. It detaches memories of British greatness from the material conditions that made it possible; it overstates what Britain can achieve in the world as a small nation, “standing alone”; and it exaggerates the power of positive thinking as a national strategy. Failure can be blamed on those who refuse to cheer along: on “doomsters”, “pessimists” and “saboteurs”, who simply refuse to believe with sufficient fervour.

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That brings us to Boris Johnson. He differs from some of his fellow Leavers in that he is an unabashed enthusiast for empire. In a notorious article on Africa in 2002, he wrote that “the problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any longer”. His 2014 biography of Winston Churchill, The Churchill Factor, challenges “those who despise the empire” to decide whether they hate it more than “slavery or female genital mutilation”, as if the British had simply stumbled upon a crime scene and generously stayed around to help.

Yet Johnson has never shown the slightest regret at empire’s passing, or any sense that Britain is weakened by its loss. At the Conservative Party conference in 2016, he called the end of empire “a profoundly good thing”, but segued at once into a tub-thumping celebration of 21st-century Britain as “a soft power superpower”. Even on the seas, he boasted, British ships were tackling pirates “with all the courage and decisiveness of our 19th century forebears”. Those “tempted to despair” about Brexit were invited to learn from the “pessimists” who had predicted the worst “when we unbundled the British empire”.

The empire stands in Johnson’s rhetoric as a mark of virility: evidence of what Britain could still achieve if it put some lead in its collective pencil. Launching the Leave campaign in 2016, Johnson reminded voters that, “We used to run the biggest empire the world has ever seen, and with a much smaller domestic population… Are we really unable to do trade deals?” Strikingly, the “we” is assumed to be the same in each case: a “domestic population” that is larger today than at the peak of empire.

In Johnson’s rhetoric, Britain had an empire because it was mighty. It was not mighty because it had an empire. That power is assumed to have rested less on material underpinnings than on a cocktail of pluck, courage and determination, encapsulated in a heroic leader. For a nation to be great, it appears, it is necessary only that it wills it.

It is no surprise, then, that for Johnson, the exemplary episode of British history is the Second World War. In The Churchill Factor, he accounts for British victory in strikingly psychological terms, centring on the mobilisation of national belief by a single, heroic individual. Johnson sees in Churchill – and, by extension, in himself – a “resounding human rebuttal” to the “fashionable” emphasis on “deep economic forces, technological advances” and “mundane human actions”. The “story of Winston Churchill”, he concludes, “is a pretty withering retort to all that malarkey”.

It is no insult to Churchill to find this a dangerously immature vision. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, it will be “that malarkey” that determines whether trade seizes up, whether medicines are available and whether ports continue to function. It was “that malarkey”, in the form of years of careful planning, that made a success of the D-Day landings in 1944, two years after a “swashbuckling”, “buccaneering” trial-run sent men of equal pluck and determination to be slaughtered on the beaches of Dieppe.

Had Boris Johnson paid more attention in his classics degree, he would be familiar with the notion of hubris: the arrogance that brings nemesis in its wake. The rhetoric of “Global Britain”, with its breezy insistence that a nation stripped of its colonies, its military power and its dominance of the global financial system can enjoy the same power today as at its colonial zenith, has set Britain on a dangerous collision-course with reality. Nemesis will surely follow.

Robert Saunders teaches history at Queen Mary University of London. His most recent book is Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain

This article appears in the 09 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain