Britons don’t pine for empire – they just want to be left alone
UK Politics: If the British are guilty of anything, it is too much introspection
Britain’s trade minister Liam Fox: his keenness for a trade deal with India, if it were to hinge on freer migration, would not be shared by his voters. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA
There is a certain kind of Briton, often educated to the hilt, who believes that sick Americans are left to writhe around on hospital floors until they show the doctors a credit card. Even sophisticated people think in simple terms about foreign countries. They just need a plausible line-to-take that sees them through a dinner party as it turns to political chat.
Americans give as good as they get. To the extent that their smartest people talk about Britain, they focus on our imperial delusions: here is a country that never adjusted to its loss of empire and does odd things to compensate. In Europe and Asia, too, exit from the EU is read as a desperate lunge for a global role, an act nearer to therapy than to statecraft. Colonial nostalgia has become the one thing the world “knows” about modern Britain.
It just happens to lack the ring of truth if you live here. Vestiges of empire survive in public life and some Conservative ministers picture a new Commonwealth trade zone that diplomats call, in what must pass for office banter, Empire 2.0. But Britain is not Liam Fox. It voted to leave the EU for reasons that differ from those that animate the trade secretary. It wanted less, not more, of the world. It resented the EU as a conduit for global forces, especially immigration, rather than as an obstacle to their full embrace.
The regions that shaped and were shaped by empire voted to remain, including London, the old metropole; Scotland, the source of many settlers and administrators; Manchester, not just the empire’s industrial centre but its liberal intellectual heart; and the port cities of Liverpool and Bristol.
Inland Birmingham voted to leave, as did the countryside and market towns of Deep England. What those communities seem to want is Nation 1.0 – the sovereign statehood that predated the globalised era, when the population was more homogenous and the economy less exposed to foreign competition. Whatever these impulses are, they are not colonial.
What should strike the outside world is the relative absence of imperial neuroses in a nation that used to run a quarter of it. Most voters have no memory of empire. Those who had the chance did not punish postwar governments for their relinquishment of the colonies. No episode poisoned our politics quite as much and as recently as France’s 1960s Algeria crisis.
The British regard the empire as a good thing, say the surveys, but this does not amount to an urge for its return or for an integrated Commonwealth as a more realistic consolation prize.
Since 1945, intelligent outsiders have overestimated Britain’s frustrated ambition and underrated its sense of resignation, its desire for a quiet life after a draining few centuries as a player. When the American diplomat Dean Acheson said the British had not yet found a role after empire, he rather assumed that we were looking for one.
Insiders make the same mistake. The least effective argument for the EU in the referendum campaign centred on its usefulness as a power-multiplier for medium-sized nations. It is not that voters disbelieved this. They just did not care enough.
History keeps forcing countries into this choice between significance abroad and retrenchment at home. Imagine that it were possible to go back in time and make sure the empire had never happened, in return for much-reduced postwar immigration from the former colonies. I suspect that some of the voters now fingered as neo-imperialists would trade their nation’s record of world grandeur for what might delicately be called a more familiar population.
A less extreme thought experiment is already in the news. If a UK-India trade deal were to hinge on freer migration between the two countries, would Mr Fox sign it? He must know his keenness would not be matched by his own voters.
A first-time visitor to Paris from elsewhere in Europe might flinch at the monuments to Napoleon. Over time, it dawns. For the French, he has become a domestic figure: the bringer of order and rational progress to their people, the inventor of the civil code and the schools system. They remember the father of the nation, not the prolific warmaker.
It is easy for foreigners to read imperial nostalgia into something much more parochial. The terminal point of empire is introspection, not a restless desire to do it all over again. Introspection is bad enough but the British cannot be guilty of that and the opposite at the same time. Outsiders are free to fault us, if they pick the right fault.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017