After Prime Minister Theresa May gave a bullish speech last month outlining her plans for Britain’s negotiations to leave the European Union, the front page of The Daily Mail, a right-wing tabloid, displayed a triumphant cartoon depicting Mrs. May, head thrust proudly into the air, standing on the edge of what I assume is one of the White Cliffs of Dover. The Union Jack flew behind her as she trampled a European Union flag.
This image resembled nothing more than “The Rhodes Colossus,” a famous jingoistic cartoon from 1892 in which the racist, empire-building diamond tycoon Cecil Rhodes stood similarly astride Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town. “We’ll walk away from a bad deal — and make E.U. pay,” read the text beside the illustration, as if the Lord Kitchener Wants You poster had been blessed with the eloquence of Mrs. May’s new best friend, Donald J. Trump.
But was she supposed to look like she was about to jump off that cliff?
Sober analysts agree that Mrs. May’s plans are deeply foolish. Her intention is to sacrifice Britain’s membership in the European single market, something necessary for the economy to function as it is now configured, to gain full control over immigration policy, which is not. In short, she is planning to profoundly alienate key industries and trading partners to score populist popularity points.
Parliament will be afforded little oversight in relation to the process and frankly doesn’t seem interested in opposing it, no matter how extreme Mrs. May’s plans are. The House of Commons voted recently to give itself as little power as possible to reject whatever terms Mrs. May eventually puts to it, a bizarre move for a legislative body in an apparently functioning liberal democracy. The prime minister’s Brexit plans will alienate Britain’s regions as well: Scotland saw support for independence spike after the June 23 referendum result, while in Northern Ireland there are profound fears over what Brexit will mean for the Good Friday Agreement.
All this domestic turmoil is indicative of the way in which Brexit goes to the heart of Britain’s national identity. For this reason, it is hard to believe that the jingoistic associations of The Daily Mail’s cartoon were a coincidence. Brexit is rooted in imperial nostalgia and myths of British exceptionalism, coming up as they have — especially since 2008 — against the reality that Britain is no longer a major world power.
This is evident in Mrs. May’s rhetoric. Her Brexit speech, for instance, invited us to imagine the “Global Britain” that will somehow emerge once the country has left the European Union, its citizens “instinctively” looking, as she has claimed the British do, to expand their horizons beyond Europe and exploit opportunities across the world. This is simply a sanitized version of the dream of a British Empire in which every eastern and southern corner of the globe could be imagined as an Englishman’s rightful backyard, ready for him to stride into, whenever he so chose, to impose his will and make his fortune.
The bullishness of the Brexiteers represents a progression from an earlier era of revived empire nostalgia that might be described as the “Keep Calm and Carry On” era. From the mid-2000s, tropes such as the titular wartime posters, alongside a rediscovered love for old-timey delicacies like tea, cupcakes and gin, offered a retreat from a world made freshly hostile to the middle class by the global financial crisis.
These tropes abide today — but they have ceased acting merely as a shelter, for those who live surrounded by them, against politics. They have now become an active, transformative political force. It’s not just The Daily Mail cartoon, or Mrs. May’s crypto-imperialist rhetoric. It’s the U.K. Independence Party leader Paul Nuttall, striding about in a tweed jacket and matching hat like a Victorian country squire. It’s the Brexit secretary David Davis, responding to complaints from the Civil Service that it lacks the budget to deal with the logistics of leaving the European Union by invoking the Blitz spirit of World War II. It’s the foreign secretary Boris Johnson saying that France’s president, François Hollande, “wants to administer punishment beatings to anyone who chooses to escape, rather in the manner of some World War II movie.” Those most under the spell of imperial nostalgia have now become the sorcerers themselves, having somehow managed to conjure up a mandate to transform Britain in their image.
But no matter how confident the Brexiteers might be, their grip on reality remains patchy at best. Global Britain’s delusions are unlikely to withstand the shock of actually leaving the European Union. One indication of this came shortly after the referendum result, when it emerged that Marmite, an iconic British food, was actually owned by a Dutch company, Unilever. Its prices are set to go up after Britain leaves the European Union. Andrea Leadsom, the minister for the environment, food and rural affairs, has indicated that Britain’s post-Brexit trade strategy will be primarily based around the export of jam, biscuits and cheese. Britain, it seems, is in danger of becoming the world’s largest church fete.
Still, Mrs. May will probably be able to carry the public with her. Her Brexit plans have generally polled well, and since taking office she has remained by far the most popular of all the major party leaders. Even if there is an economic collapse when Britain leaves the European Union — as most analysts think is likely — her mandate probably won’t be hurt: Already the right-wing press is lining up to lay the blame for the coming crisis on the bad attitude of “Remoaners,” as it has labeled the “liberal elitists” who remain pro-Europe even after the referendum result.
So what’s going to happen? These days, it feels like the worst-case scenario always prevails. If that happens this time, too, Brexit will mean that England, shorn of Scotland, Northern Ireland and maybe even Wales, contracts into a small, isolated, one-party state governed by schoolteacherly Conservatives who persist in wild-eyed delusions about their country’s special grandeur. In this desperate fantasy Britain, there are no jobs, and any dissent — from disseminating pro-foreigner propaganda to having a nonregulation haircut — will be punished by forced participation in the government’s “Clean for the Queen” program (which incidentally is a real initiative that was pioneered last year to encourage Her Majesty’s subjects to de-litter their neighborhoods in preparation for her birthday).
All of this might sound bizarre, over-the-top, even actively demented. But if what the Brexiteers want is to return Britain to a utopia they have devised by splicing a few rose-tinted memories of the 1950s together with an understanding of imperial history derived largely from images on vintage biscuit tins, then all of this seems chillingly plausible, insofar as it would, in many ways, constitute the realization of that dream. Viva Britannia!
Tom Whyman is an academic philosopher and freelance writer.