It wasn’t Colonel Blimp who gave us Brexit

Anglo Nostalgia
By Edoardo Campanella and Marta Dassù
Hurst Publications, 234pp, £25/$32.95

There has for some time been a popular theory that a majority of the British population want to leave the European Union because they have never got used to the UK becoming an ordinary country, and that in their hearts they are nostalgic for the British Empire.

The popularity of this theory has grown considerably in the EU ever since the publication last year of Heroic Failure: Brexit and The Politics of Pain by Fintan O’Toole, which depicts the enterprise as one devised by aloof public school toffs divorced from reality.

Anglo Nostalgia, written by two Italians – one an economist, the other a politician – takes a similar view. Those who pushed for Brexit, they write, “wanted to return the United Kingdom to a time when the country was fully sovereign and simultaneously able to play a global role”; that “a nostalgic view of Britain has been crucial to the Brexit debate”, and that at “the heart of today’s nationalist narrative is a promise to turn the clock back”.

The content of the popular rhetoric of Brexiteers during the 2016 referendum was proof, the authors say, of this nostalgic tendency, what with its references to Winston Churchill and William Shakespeare. When the likes of Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Dan Hannan invoke the idea of Britain becoming a global player, or talk of an “Anglosphere”, what they are really doing is imagining Britain once more as an imperial, worldwide power.

The idea that the British in the 21st century “miss their empire” is an attractive one, in that it appeals to schadenfreude among those Europeans who still like to gloat that the supercilious and superior Brits lost it all and still can’t get over it. This is why you’ll find this particular narrative in the pages of La Repubblica as much as in the Irish Times. And it is a myth.

Admittedly, the swing towards Brexit was informed by nostalgia. Yet it was not for the Empire, but instead for a time before 1992, to an era before the EU had pretensions about being a superstate, and in which its internal borders began to mean nothing. There was no appetite for Brexit then.

Even until 15 years ago, Euroscepticism in Britain was a decidedly minority position, pursued by aged folk who did indeed remember the last remnants of the Empire. That generation has gone. Those who voted for Brexit three years ago were the baby boomers who gave us 1960s decadent liberalism: hardly your Colonel Blimp-types yearning for Empire.

There were (and are) some who are motivated by nostalgia and a longing for the old blue passports (replaced in 1988 by burgundy red ones, in line with other EU countries). And there are some who harbour fantasies about Britain becoming the Singapore of Europe. But for most people the motivation for voting Leave was the simple expedient of “taking back control”, ie restoring sovereignty. This was the prevailing rhetoric of 2016, not any imperial fantasy. The people most responsible for swaying the vote – former Labour voters in northern industrial English towns – were scarcely the Old Etonians of O’Toole’s imagination, and unlikely to have been motivated by imperial dreams.

Our two authors here resort to a familiar tactic to explain the working-class impetus behind the Brexit vote: that they were brainwashed. “Leavers mislead their fellow citizens by claiming that a divorce from Brussels, while allowing the country to regain full control of its national sovereignty, would restore part of its lost splendour.” Again, another neat explanation, and again, untrue. Their choice was rather informed by first-hand experience. Most people I talked to in and around Kent three years ago were simply disconcerted at the changing demographics of their towns and the fact that, owing to increased immigration, their access to state education and medical services is reduced.

The authors repeatedly refer to the Brexit vote as “irrational”, not least because those who wanted to leave the EU don’t know where Britain will go next. But that misses the point. As well as “taking back control”, another trope of the Leave campaign was the notion that we had to “leave a sinking ship” – that there was not only something undesirable and pernicious about the EU, but also that the project was doomed. When you believe you are on a sinking ship, the first thing you do is get off. Where you will go next is a secondary consideration.

Anglo Nostalgia isn’t all rotten. It could have been a great book about the politics of nostalgia, and how a desire to return to the past is driving global politics today – from Russia to Hungary to Turkey to the United States, where the President wants to “make America great again”. The relevant sections here are illuminating. But otherwise (and one feels terrible saying this about two authors who have written such a meticulously researched book in a second language), owing to its central faulty premise, Anglo Nostalgia is indeed rotten.