November 18, 2019

In his valedictory speech as outgoing European Council President, Donald Tusk described Brexit as a delusion driven by the foolish nostalgia of those Brits still “longing for the empire”. His words prompted the usual harrumphing, but the truth is he has it precisely backwards. It is not Brexiters who are chasing an imperialist high, but those devoted to the European Union.

Since its founding, the EU has self-mythologised as a project of peace, whose principal aim is to prevent a repeat of the two World Wars of 1914 and 1939. The basis for this argument tends to be a notion that the World Wars were caused by an excess of “nationalism”, with the aggressive and expansive German identity promoted by the Nazis held up as the primary exhibit, and that by diluting the power of Europe’s nation states nationalism will also be attenuated.

Lately, despite its convoluted and multivariate origins, the First World War has also been recruited by European leaders as a cautionary tale against nationalism. But the origin of the Second World War can just as reasonably be described as a multi-sided jockeying for power between imperial powers.

And as Yoram Hazony has argued in The Virtue of Nationalism, Hitler was less a nationalist than an imperialist, who sought to expand German-controlled territory and as such was resisted by the rival empires of Britain, the United States and other allies. That is to say, the two World Wars were arguably more driven by the competing interests of imperial players than an excess of national identification as such.

Over the horrific bloodshed that took place between 1914 and 1945, these imperial powers lost or began the irreversible process of losing their empires. The British Empire was at its greatest, not to mention most crisis-ridden, after the end of the First World War, and by the end of the Second was exhausted to the point where it no longer had either the will or the resources to sustain its imperial reach. 

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The international world order that replaced the Old World empires from 1945 until relatively recently was, in effect, an empire of American-influenced rules underpinned by American military and economic dominance. And in this new age of Pax Americana, international conventions established the right of nations to self-determination. It was no longer the done thing to invade countries halfway round the world for the purpose of grabbing resources, extending geopolitical influence and/or “civilising” the natives.

With no one overseas to colonise, what happened to the old ruling bureaucracies of the formerly imperial nations of Europe? What now for those educated with imperial dreams and a global vision, trained from a young age to run international business and political institutions, dreaming of rule across vast territories and hundreds of millions of benighted souls in need of guidance?

The solution they came up with was to colonise one another. To console themselves for the loss of the riches and ready supply of servants in their overseas colonies, the washed-up post-imperial nations of Europe agreed to pool their reach, influence and unwashed natives into a kind of ersatz empire.

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It did not greatly matter whether the natives in question liked the idea or not, as the pooling was undertaken largely without public discussion and in practice (to begin with at least) made little difference to their everyday lives. Rather, the extension of ‘reach’ and ‘influence’ was largely a bureaucratic one, harmonising rules on the kind of trade and manufacturing standards which most ordinary people care very little about.

The result provided an imperial buzz for a cadre of civil servants, who got to dictate standards on the minutiae of countless areas of commerce for hundreds of millions of people rather than mere tens (and enjoy the perks of a colossal corporate lobbying industry in the process).

Even better, they could do all this without any of the demonstrable dangers of the kind of overheated jingoism that came with the style of imperialism that ended in bloodshed with the two world wars. A kind of diet imperialism, if you like: all the fun of civilising the heathens, with none of the guilt.

Their diet empire now constituted, the post-imperial civil servants of each EU member state could enjoy something of the lavish transnational lifestylemoney-no-object pageantry and grand entertaining they missed out on by the unfortunate fact of having been born too late for a career enjoying absolute power in the colonies while feathering their own nests. Indeed, the strange disappearance of a 2014 report on corruption within EU institutions suggests the diet imperialism of Europe offers ample opportunities of the nest-feathering variety.

Those in the administrative class who missed out on the opportunities for self-enrichment in the prewar empires can enjoy instead the huge and relatively unaccountable sums of money that flow around the European Union’s various budgets.

Indeed, even when misbehaviour tips over into outright criminal activity it can sometimes go unpunished, as was the case with IMF head Christine Lagarde, who received a criminal conviction in 2016 for negligence over inappropriate payouts while in the French Government but was nonetheless installed this year as head of the European Central Bank.

The administrative empire also delivers a servant class, at a scale appropriate to the post-imperial nostalgia it serves to alleviate. The debate around the Brexit referendum was full of dire warnings about the looming loss of staff to (among other things) wipe bottoms, look after children, pick fruit and make lattes.

These laments strongly hint at the preoccupations of a colonial class reluctant in the extreme to let go of a rich supply of subaltern masses whose services were rendered affordable by the expansion of the labour market through freedom of movement.

It is not just the servants. The prospect of losing the European extension to their shrunken, empire-less British geopolitical self-image cuts to the heart of our modern governing class. As one would expect, then, those lamenting Britain’s post-Brexit loss of “standing” or evolution into a “laughing stock” (who cares?) are not the supposedly imperialist and thin-skinned Brexiters but those who wish to remain. Because in their view the only available modern source of the suitably elevated pomp, influence and imperial “standing” to which they feel entitled is our membership of the EU.

Paradoxically, in the act of accusing Brexiters of the imperial nostalgia of which they themselves are guilty, the Remain Europhiles have hit on a term which is more accurate than they realise for their Brexiter foes: Little Englanders. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the original Little Englanders were anti-imperialist, and wanted the borders of the United Kingdom to stop at the edges of the British Isles.

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The epithet tends to be used against Brexiters to imply jingoistic and probably racist imperial aspirations, but this is the opposite of what it meant when first used. And taken in its original sense, calling Brexiters Little Englanders is entirely accurate: they would like the borders of the nation to which they belong to be at the edge of the British Isles, not along the edge of Turkey or Russia.

Should they get their way, this will present the United Kingdom with the prospect of life as an independent nation of modest size. We can then look forward to a future going about our business much reduced from the giddy, extractive and racist highs of the early twentieth century but hopefully more stable, more content with ourselves and, importantly, perhaps even finally at ease with the loss of British imperial reach.

For the imperialist nostalgists of Remain, though, unable to reconcile themselves to the notion of the United Kingdom as anything but a world power, this possibility is anathema. The argument tends to be that unless we join a large power bloc we will be ground to dust between them. Gideon Rachman argued recently in the FT  that “the EU needs to become a power project”, saying that future geopolitics will be a contest between four or five large blocs including China and the US and the individual nations of Europe cannot hold a candle to these behemoths.

But must this necessarily be so? Rachman’s future is just a projection, and many projections – such as Fukuyama’s famous one about the “end of history” — have been proved wrong by subsequent events. Admittedly, a multipolar future seems likely. But any age of competing superpowers has always also contained smaller nations that managed to avoid absorption into a larger empire by one means or another. Why should Little England not be one of them?

The only thing holding us back from a post-Brexit and doubly post-imperial future, at ease with our reduction in stature and ready for a new chapter in our national history, is the imperial nostalgia of the Europhiles.