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Brexit, the Commonwealth and the problem of imperial nostalgia - a response


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In their recent Opinion Article for History & Policy, Evan Smith and Stephen Gray note that several of the most prominent Brexiteers—Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Daniel Hannon—argue for ‘closer political and economic ties’ with the Commonwealth of Nations, and that this echoes ‘a long held argument by sections of the Tory right and the far right that Britain should break from its agreements with Europe and turn towards the Commonwealth.’ While sections of the right did invoke the Commonwealth in this manner, the picture is more complex, making it even clearer that its use in the recent EU Referendum was self-serving and unconvincing.

In the 1960s right-wing discontent in the Conservative party found organisational expression as the Monday Club. It was best known for opposing non-white immigration to the UK and supporting white rule in Rhodesia and South Africa. Contrary to expectation, however, its publications demonstrate that it did not advocate ‘abandoning Europe and reconnecting with the ‘white Commonwealth”. In 1965, it pressed for the Commonwealth and the European Free Trade Association to apply as ‘a corporate body’ for membership of the EEC. In a 1967 pamphlet, ‘Europe: Faith not Despair’, the leading Monday Clubber and MP for Chigwell, John Biggs-Davison, argued that ‘The Commonwealth is not a tiresome obstacle to the fulfilment of Britain’s European aspirations. For Britain Europe must not be an alternative to world duties but the means to their discharge.’ Ten years later, in the Club publication ‘Europe: The Unguarded Legacy: A Conservative Approach to European Unity’, Biggs-Davison maintained that there was no dilemma between membership of the EEC and the Commonwealth, though he was considerably more pessimistic about the relevance of the latter. It was only in the early 1980s, therefore, that the Monday Club’s attitude to the EEC turned completely sour, paralleling its slide into political irrelevance.

We should be cautious too about taking at face value the claims of prominent Brexiteers that they are in favour of re-establishing ‘political and economic’ ties with the Commonwealth. As keen devotees of Margaret Thatcher, Johnson, Farage and Hannan must surely know that she had little regard for the Commonwealth? Famously, it even soured her personal relations with the Queen. Thatcher presented herself as a Cold Warrior and free market champion. In this guise, she swept aside the protests of Commonwealth states at the UK’s decision to ignore economic sanctions imposed on apartheid South Africa.

The Brexiteers’ invocation of the Commonwealth might play on nostalgia, and during the EU Referendum campaign it offered an example of an alternative global network, but their fundamental position is that Britain should have unfettered access to global markets. As such, their references to developing trade links with the emerging powerhouses of India, China and Brazil are in line with the economic policies of the US and other western governments since the 1990s. This collective outlook, of course, contains echoes of empire, though it is more akin to the imperialism of free trade than a longing to rule over other peoples.

To understand British Conservatism, ‘imperial nostalgia’ must be set alongside other relevant appeals to nostalgia. On the day of the EU Referendum, for example, the Daily Express’s full page editorial (imploring readers to vote leave) was faced on the opposite page by the feature, ‘War Movies that Still Inspire Us’. It included a photograph of Michael Caine from the 1964 film Zulu. But most of the films listed dealt with the Second World War, and the list included several US movies. In a like manner, it is not uncommon to hear people invoke the two world wars when expressing negative opinions about the European Union generally and Germany in particular. The Daily Mail played on such attitudes on 4 February 2016 by making a specious analogy between Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany and David Cameron’s efforts to reach a deal with Brussels.

As demonstrated during the recent EU Referendum campaign, nostalgia can be used to encourage the idea of a lost golden age which might be restored. However, nostalgia can be used for more than one purpose. For the Thatcherite Brexiteers, it had the additional utility of distorting and obscuring the Thatcher government’s disregard for the Commonwealth, its enthusiasm for the Single European Act, its eagerness for the eastward expansion of the EEC, and its decision to join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Moreover, the equal if not greater emphasis placed by Brexiteers on Britain’s membership of NATO does not suggest a nostalgic desire to ‘revitalise … imperial networks in a post-imperial era’, but rather Britain’s continued subservience, alongside other western powers, to the post-Second World War foreign policy of the United States. In the end, like much of the EU Referendum debate, invoking the Commonwealth was a piece of expedient opportunism.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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