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‘Leading the world?’ The historical fantasy of May’s vision for post-Brexit Britain


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As Theresa May leads Britain towards leaving the European Union, it is becoming increasingly clear that her vision for ‘post-Brexit’ Britain is largely based on an idea of British power that never really existed.

This became clear in her speech to the Republican congressional retreat in Philadelphia. May set out her vision for the United Kingdom’s world role. In it, she said that ‘we have the opportunity to reassert our belief in a confident, sovereign and Global Britain, ready to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike’, a Britain what would be ‘even more global and internationalist in action and in spirit’.

Central to this ‘even more global’ Britain would be its deep and special relationship with the United States to whom ‘we have ties of kinship, language and culture’. Much of her speech was designed to highlight the shared interest and values that underpin the Anglo-American relationship. In one of several quotations from Churchill, she stated that ‘we speak the same language, kneel at the same altars and, to a very large extent, pursue the same ideals’.

Of course, speaking of the close ties between the United Kingdom and the United States has been part and parcel of every Prime Minister’s rhetoric since at least the 1950s. May’s speech had two deeper purposes. The first, naturally is to build a close relationship with the new Administration in D.C., to coax the Republicans as well as President Trump towards London’s own preferred line on a range of issues global issues from trading relationships to future policy towards Syria and Iran.

May’s second, perhaps unconscious purpose, was to continue to flesh out her vision of Britain’s post-Brexit identity. In her speech to the Conservative Party conference last year, she famously declared that people who considered themselves citizens of the world were in fact ‘citizens of nowhere’. In touting the ‘even more global’ Britain, May might just find herself creating the Britain of nowhere: isolated and cut off from trading blocs, and bound by its own contradictory immigration policies that seek to appeal to skilled workers but alienate everyone.

It became clear during the speech that this vision for a global Britain is based on a historical fantasy, one where Britain walked side-by-side with the Americans to save the world. ‘Time and again’, she said in Philadelphia, ‘it is the relationship between us that has defined the modern world’.

In describing the First World War, she graciously mentioned ‘France, our friends in the Commonwealth and other allies’ who joined Britain and the United States in victory. But when she told her audience that ‘you responded to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour by joining Britain in the Second World War and defeating fascism not just in the Pacific but in Africa and Europe too’, one wonders if her knowledge of history is derived entirely from Churchill, given his six-volume account of the Second World War was notorious for down-playing the decisive role of the Red Army in defeating Germany.

The cold war, too, was for May a joint effort, ‘confronting communism and ultimately defeating it not just through military might, but by winning the war of ideas. And by proving that open, liberal, democratic societies will always defeat those that are closed, coercive and cruel’. The robust policies of successive West German governments might have deserved a mention here, especially given the UK Government was not always as keen in stoutly ‘confronting communism’ as Bonn or Washington were during the Cold War or as May seems to assume today.

The Prime Minister’s deliberate praising of the leadership of ‘Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan’ in end of the cold was an obvious attempt to use a historical parallel to promote her own possible relationship with Trump, however unlikely that might seem. As she wryly noted later when asked about the differences between her and the new President, ‘sometimes opposites attract’.

Theresa May’s view of the high points of twentieth-century history as an Anglo-American pas de deux is not only historically misinformed, it is profoundly dangerous. It reminds us that when attempting to imagine this ‘even more global’ Britain, the current Conservative government can do little more than fall back on a vision of Britain’s past as a world power. But it is a vision that in itself is illusory: the power May believes Britain possessed did not exist. The United Kingdom ended the Second World War the minor partner in the ‘Big Three’ alliance, and during the cold war its military power and diplomatic importance was outstripped by others.

Moreover, this moral purpose May believes Britain possessed is also deeply ahistorical. While the UK can be justly proud of its record of fighting dictators in the twentieth century, any sense of self-congratulation must be tempered by an awareness that Britain’s own actions in the lands it colonised and dominated are hardly causes for celebration.

A post-Brexit Britain needs to look forward, not back. If only because the vision of Britain it rests on is not only long gone, it never really existed in the first place. 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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