UK clings to imperial nostalgia as Brexit looms
By ISHAAN THAROOR | The Washington Post | Published: January 4, 2019
British Prime Minister Theresa May may be on her last legs. Last month, she delayed a parliamentary vote on her much-maligned Brexit deal with Brussels, fearing it would go down in flames — and take her government with it. Several weeks later, the deal is still in limbo, saddled with fatal problems no one seems to be able to solve.
Now the March deadline for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is looming, and the chances are rising that no deal will be reached. A “no-deal” Brexit would be a significant blow to the British economy, creating chaos at the country’s ports and even raising the prospect of shortages of medicines and other goods.
But as potential havoc draws near, May’s government seems to have its attention elsewhere. Burdened by their deliberations with Europe, key Cabinet ministers are instead trying to woo support from Britain’s former colonies.
In an interview published last weekend by the Telegraph, a British newspaper with a Tory-friendly line, Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson offered a grandiose vision of a “global” post-Brexit Britain resuming a central place in world affairs.
“This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play,” Williamson said. He added that being free of Brussels would allow Westminster to “quite dramatically” shift focus, even saying that May’s government was planning on opening two new military bases in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt made similar noises during a trip to Southeast Asia last week. He pointed to Britain’s historic — that is, colonial — ties to an arc of nations stretching from New Zealand to Malaysia. “Those connections are why Britain’s post-Brexit role should be to act as an invisible chain linking together the democracies of the world,” said Hunt, “those countries which share our values and support our belief in free trade, the rule of law and open societies.”
Williamson and Hunt are hardly the first British officials to see the country’s post-Brexit future through the lens of the past. Imperial nostalgia has always shadowed the push for Brexit. Diehard Brexiteers conjured visions of Britain restored to its former glory once free of the EU’s bureaucratic shackles; government officials spoke of an “Empire 2.0,” anchored by new trade deals with Commonwealth countries.
Even as Brexit teetered on the verge of collapse last month, the old colonial hubris wasn’t far from view. “We simply cannot allow the Irish to treat us like this,” an anonymous Tory grandee told the BBC, referring to Ireland’s maneuvering over the future status of its border with Britain. “The Irish really should know their place.”
Those convictions — as much as Brexiteer anger over immigration and EU regulations — have long animated a segment of the British press and public. “After more than four decades in the EU we are in danger of persuading ourselves that we have forgotten how to run the country by ourselves,” noted a recent editorial in the Sunday Times. “A people who within living memory governed a quarter of the world’s land area and a fifth of its population is surely capable of governing itself without Brussels.”
But along with imperial nostalgia comes a fair amount of delusion. If Brexit takes place with no deal, Britain’s politicians won’t have the luxury to launch new projects away from Europe: They’ll be bogged down by a seemingly endless bureaucratic and political struggle with the continent, wrangling over everything from finalized trade arrangements to Britain’s border with Ireland to the status of hundreds of thousands of EU citizens on British soil.
Nor will Britain’s small military count for much, no matter where it is posted. “Symbolic frigates and infantry battalions scattered across the territories of the old British empire may comfort golf club Tories, and pander to service traditions, but they are strategically worthless,” wrote Paul Mason in the New Statesman.
Mason argued that rather than speaking airily of the country’s global reach, British leadership ought to focus specifically on the security challenges of jihadism and the new threats posed by Russia. The country “should be a major regional player in the defense of Europe against destabilization and of our own society against terrorism,” he wrote.
But that requires greater cooperation with — not independence from — the rest of Europe.
“The ‘Global Britain’ narrative is meant to meet the British public’s great power expectations,” wrote Thibaud Harrois, a French academic at Sorbonne University in Paris, last year. “This narrative is far from supported by evidence, and post-Brexit foreign and defense policy confirms Britain’s already-growing isolation on the international stage.”
With perhaps unintended irony, Hunt suggested that Britain should emulate one of its former colonies. His country could “learn lessons” from Singapore, he said, whose economic success has been driven by investment in education and infrastructure. (Opponents growl that Conservatives like Singapore for other reasons — chiefly, its low taxes.)
“The remarkable transformation of Singapore, from a tiny territory devoid of natural resources into the world’s eighth-richest country, is a reminder of the tidal shifts that can exist within the ebb and flow of the changing world order,” Hunt wrote in an op-ed before leaving for Asia.
Critics would contend that the path Britain is now traveling is sending it in the opposite direction.
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.