England’s Last Gasp of Empire

Queen Elizabeth II attended a service of the Order of the British Empire in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, in 2012. Geoff Pugh/Daily Telegraph, via Associated Press.
Queen Elizabeth II attended a service of the Order of the British Empire in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, in 2012. Geoff Pugh/Daily Telegraph, via Associated Press.

From Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, England was an empire. No more.

Brexit has turned the twilight years of the reign of Elizabeth II into the final chapter in the history of Great Britain. What its partisans, celebrating with flag-waving in the street, tearfully called “Independence Day” will unravel the role that England has played since the 16th century as a great power, along with the City of London’s reign as a financial capital of the world.

After Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558, her merchant-venturers began an imperial quest. By Elizabeth II’s birth, Britain’s empire spanned nearly a quarter of the globe.

Brexit’s fantasy of revived greatness — “taking back control” — will achieve the opposite. England’s wish to withdraw from its union with Europe appears now to have made inevitable Scotland’s eventual withdrawal from its union with England. It has also placed in doubt the status of Northern Ireland, where a majority also voted against leaving the European Union.

This misguided craving will turn Britain’s seat, created by Winston Churchill, on the United Nations Security Council into a rotten borough (as parliamentary constituencies that persisted despite low populations were known historically). The great powers will never allow this little England to exercise a veto right against their wishes.

Why did England choose this? The key is not sovereignty but a rejection of ethnic change.

“It’s not England anymore,” people told me as I traveled around the country covering the referendum. In Tonbridge and Grantham, in Romford and Witney, this is what I heard, hundreds of times: “We don’t recognize our country anymore.”

Middle England did not treat this as a referendum on European Union membership but as a plebiscite on one thing: “immigration.” For Middle Englanders, “immigrants” is also a synonym for nonwhite British. Identity, not austerity, motivated their vote to Leave.

At her coronation in 1953, Elizabeth II also became the reigning monarch of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The nonwhite population of Britain then was probably less than 20,000. Over 70 percent of British workers were manual laborers.

London was far from the cosmopolitan capital it has become. In 1931, less than 3 percent of Londoners were foreign-born; that was the historical norm for the city. For all London’s trade and commerce, historians believe it was essentially mono-ethnic as late as the 17th century.

Metropolitan elites often use the Irish and Jewish settlement in Britain from the mid-19th century to bolster a national story of Britain as an immigrant nation, but the history does not fit this narrative. We prefer to forget it, but Britain’s Irish communities suffered appalling levels of ethnic hate and communal segregation into the 1980s.

Jews were expelled from Britain in the 13th century and barred from settling here until the 17th century. The extreme hostility to Jewish immigrants saw Britain largely close its borders to them in 1905, and later refuse asylum to hundreds of thousands of European Jews fleeing Nazism. In Wales, there was even a pogrom against Jews in 1911.

Before World War II, only three waves left a demographic trace on this “island nation”: Huguenots from France and the Netherlands in the 16th century, Irish migration in the mid-19th century and Jewish immigration in the later decades. The numbers were always small. Huguenots numbered about 1 percent of London’s population; Irish migration, even at its 19th-century peak, amounted to less than 3 percent of the population of England and Wales. Fewer than 250,000 Jews migrated to Britain between 1880 and 1914.

So the most striking historical trend of Elizabeth II’s reign has been a sudden ethnic transformation of Britain. In 1931, when the queen was a child of 5, only 1.75 percent of Britain’s population was foreign-born. Her rule saw the Empire come to Britain: For the first time, the island experienced large-scale nonwhite immigration from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. By 2011, when she was 85, about 20 percent of the population of England and Wales were immigrants or the children of immigrants.

When the queen celebrated her 90th birthday this year, more than 12 percent of her subjects were nonwhite. This is the new England, but London is already another country. In 1971, 86 percent of Londoners were still white British. Forty years later, fewer than half were. Urban areas with a population less than 60 percent white British now include such major cities as Slough, Leicester, Luton and Birmingham. Ethnic change is gathering pace: By 2050, roughly 30 percent of Britons could be nonwhite.

Remain campaigners argue that it was areas with low immigration that voted most heavily for Brexit. This misses the large flow of white British families from diverse cities to such areas and misunderstands them. People were voting against their town turning into London; they were voting against becoming an immigrant nation.

In Tonbridge, I heard “Enoch was right” — a reference to Enoch Powell, the politician who scandalized party colleagues in 1968 but won broad public support for a speech that predicted racial strife resulting from mass immigration. In Grantham, Margaret Thatcher’s hometown, I was told Britain would “collapse with these millions of Turks.” In Romford, a suburb east of London, I was warned that “there’ll be a civil war between the English and the immigrants.”

Since Brexit, a wave of attacks, arson and abuse has hit Britain. Historically, ethnic change is one of the most difficult things a society can go through. But why is this anger flaring with such intensity now?

Part of the reason is that the messaging of the Leave campaign suggested that Britain was under a camouflaged German diktat. A majority of those I met thought a tide of immigration from the European Union was imminent — thanks, they believed, to impending Turkish membership. This made the Brexit referendum eerily similar in emotional content to last year’s bailout referendum in Greece, which encompassed a similar psychodrama of World War II refought.

On my travels, I thought often of the writer J. G. Ballard. The English are a funny old lot, he said: They “talked as if they’d won the war but acted as if they’ve lost it.”

The suburbs dream of violence, he wrote. Beneath the surface, he saw an angry, lost society in which the centuries-old pillars of Britishness — empire, church, navy, class — were crumbling. This unraveling has continued inside Britain long after it ceased to exist in the world.

And now the dreamers, unwitting, sickened with nostalgia, have torn down that last, threadbare vestige of Great Britain. This is the queen of England’s England no more.

Ben Judah is the author, most recently, of This Is London.

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