Brex­i­teers are pin­ing for em­pire

Business Mirror - - OPINION - Pankaj Mishra

THERE are no good rea­sons for Bri­tain to leave the Euro­pean Union (EU). “Brexit” makes zero sense geopo­lit­i­cally or eco­nom­i­cally, as ex­as­per­ated for­eign­ers, in­clud­ing US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, have re­peat­edly pointed out. But then, as with many political phe­nom­ena to­day, any ex­pla­na­tion of the in­ex­pli­ca­ble Brexit cam­paign has to be sought deep in so­cial, cul­tural and emo­tional his­tory.

The im­pulse driv­ing the Brex­i­teers is the same one for­mer US Sec­re­tary of State Dean Ach­e­son high­lighted in 1962, when he de­clared, “Great Bri­tain has lost an em­pire and has not yet found a role.” The writer Ed­mund Wil­son ex­pressed it, too, when he said that the Bri­tish elite was “com­pletely un­rec­on­ciled to the post-war di­min­ish­ment of Bri­tain.”

The mem­bers of Bri­tain’s Con­ser­va­tive Party who would with­draw from the EU share the same stub­born be­lief that their small is­land re­mains great enough to stand apart from con­ti­nen­tal Europe. To be sure, the orig­i­nal Bri­tish sense of self-suf­fi­ciency, and of power and glory, was de­rived from his­tor­i­cal facts. In the 18th cen­tury, Bri­tain’s ge­o­graph­i­cal iso­la­tion, as well as en­twined tra­di­tions of com­merce and in­di­vid­ual lib­erty, clearly dis­tin­guished it from ri­vals on the tur­bu­lent con­ti­nent. Those virtues made ar­dent An­glophiles even out of hard-headed men, like Mon­tesquieu and Voltaire.

Then in the 19th cen­tury, Bri­tain’s in­dus­trial and com­mer­cial ex­pan­sion re­or­ga­nized the world into an eco­nomic unity, for bet­ter and for worse. Bri­tish colonists, fi­nanciers, en­gi­neers, ex­plor­ers, sea­men, in­sur­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors broke down many of the ge­o­graph­i­cal, so­cial and eco­nomic bar­ri­ers be­tween con­ti­nents. These tri­umphant for­ays into the world out­side Europe both cre­ated Bri­tain’s dis­tinc­tive mod­ern char­ac­ter and gave its pros­per­ing classes a sense of splen­did unique­ness within a Europe racked by war and rev­o­lu­tion.

This long ex­pe­ri­ence of suc­cess­ful im­pe­ri­al­ism seeded many at­ti­tudes rec­og­niz­able in to­day’s Brexit cam­paign. It bred a dis­trust of con­ti­nen­tal Euro­peans. Even the acute chron­i­cler of London’s la­bor­ing poor Henry May­hew wrote fear­fully in 1862 of the “aliens” in London’s East End, “whom we had long wel­comed and pam­pered in our midst” and who “swarmed west­ward in law­less, hun­gry mul­ti­tudes.” Win­ston Churchill’s fa­ther op­posed a pro­posed Chan­nel Tun­nel with France in the late 19th cen­tury by say­ing that “the rep­u­ta­tion of Eng­land has hith­erto de­pended upon her be­ing, as it were, virgo in­tacta.”

The serene pos­ses­sion of a great em­pire cre­ated among elites some last­ing men­tal and emo­tional dis­po­si­tions, rang­ing from the “stiff up­per lip” to an im­pe­ri­ous self-ab­sorp­tion and poor un­der­stand­ing of the im­por­tance of di­ver­sity. E.M. Forster blamed the political prob­lems of the Bri­tish Em­pire in the early 20th cen­tury on su­perbly ed­u­cated “pub­lic-school men” who “go forth” with “un­de­vel­oped hearts” into “a world that is not en­tirely com­posed of pub­lic-school men or even of An­gloSax­ons but of men who are as var­i­ous as the sands of the sea.”

It could never have been easy for this fre­quently blun­der­ing but cos­seted Bri­tish rul­ing class to find a mere role af­ter los­ing an em­pire. They’ve sought to keep the old flame alive through oc­ca­sional neo-im­pe­rial ad­ven­tures, from Suez to the Falk- lands to Iraq. As Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter, Michael Gove, a lead­ing cam­paigner for Brexit, was ob­sessed with bring­ing school his­tory syl­labuses in line with the re­vi­sion­ist think­ing of self­de­clared “neo- im­pe­ri­al­ists” Niall Fer­gu­son and An­drew Roberts. Both Roberts and Fer­gu­son lent their voices to the Iraq War, ar­gu­ing that the Bri­tish Em­pire was an “ex­em­plary force for good,” and that im­pe­ri­al­ism was “an idea whose time has come again.”

In re­cent years, this pas­sive- ag­gres­sive­ness about the Bri­tish Em­pire— a ven­ture with of­ten be­nign mo­tives and agents but blighted by vi­o­lence, racism and ex­ploita­tion— has gone main­stream among a sec­tion of Bri­tish right-wingers. Last week Boris John­son even ac­cused Obama of in­her­it­ing his Kenyan an­ces­tors’ anti- im­pe­ri­al­ist an­i­mus against Bri­tain. This was an ex­traor­di­nar­ily in­tem­per­ate at­tack by the out­go­ing mayor of London— the world’s most cos­mopoli­tan city and a shin­ing ex­am­ple of how Bri­tain has done much bet­ter than any con­ti­nen­tal Euro­pean coun­try in ac­com­mo­dat­ing its for­eign­born pop­u­la­tion.

Brexit is lit­tle more than another in­stance of dead-end think­ing by some em­pire fetishists, pow­ered by the same delu­sion of a small is­land re­gain­ing its global power and in­flu­ence. Ac­cord­ing to this Trum­plite view, iso­la­tion might just make Bri­tain great again.

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