In Depth

Brexit: what’s the British Empire got to do with it?

Michel Barnier incurs Brexiteers’ wrath by suggesting the UK’s decision to leave EU was driven by ‘nostalgia’

Michel Barnier is facing a fierce backlash after claimed that the UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a by-product of a misplaced “nostalgia for the past”.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator said that “typically British reasons” such as “the hope for a return to a powerful global Britain” were behind the 2016 referendum result.

“In my country, too, some politicians still prefer to live in the past. But there were also people voting for Brexit who simply don’t want to accept rules,” the French politician said in an interview with The New York Review of Books

“Some voted to leave as they don’t want to accept the union’s regulations on their trading. They want to speculate freely and the union doesn’t allow them to do so.”

His comments have sparked anger among pro-Brexit politicians and media, with Tory MP Peter Bone telling the Daily Mail that “the French don’t understand the British, and [Barnier] doesn’t understand Brexit”.

“What the British people voted for was taking back control and sovereignty,” Bone said.

The Sun suggests that Barnier appears to believe the UK voted to leave “because we’re pining for the days of empire, rather than to take control of our laws and borders”.

But Barnier is not the first to make such a link.

British university professors Sally Tomlinson and Danny Dorling have called Brexit the “last gasp of the British Empire”.

In an article on the London School of Economics website, they ask: “Where else do the ideas of taking back control of a mythical country come from?”

The two academics write: “Once upon a time the Romance of Empire book series told children that England was a gallant little nation whose power and conquests are obviously the rewards of merit since all her opponents are bigger and uglier than she is, and the world map had large pink bits which we were told ‘belonged to us’.

“The Brexiteer master manipulators used such memories to take control of the opinions of some voters through a campaign notable for lies and misinformation.”

Frank Langfitt, London correspondent for US news site NPR, suggests that during the referendum campaign, Brexiteer politicians promised a “return to what Brexit voters saw as a better time”.

“Brexiteers, nostalgic for the days of the British Empire, feel Europe still owes them from rescuing the Continent from the Nazis,” Langfitt argues.

His views echo those of historian Margaret MacMillan, who shortly after the 2016 vote told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that many pro-Leave supporters longed for “a simpler time, a time when you had your cup of tea and your digestive biscuit and there weren’t any funny foreigners around”.

That outlook would mark a complete U-turn from the stance taken by many UK newspapers during the UK’s accession talks to the EU in the 1970s.

The Daily Mail - which on the day after the 2016 referendum praised Brits for “rising up against the arrogant, out-of-touch political class” - celebrated accession in 1971 with the headline, “Now we can lead Europe”. The Sun told its readers that EU membership offered “an unrepeatable opportunity for a nation that lost an empire to gain a continent”.

Regardless of why Britain joined the EU, the idea that the decision to quit the bloc was linked to nostalgia for a faded empire is viewed as laughable and insulting by many commentators.

Responding to Barnier’s comments, Tory Brexiteer Mark Francois told the Daily Express that British people “voted to leave the EU not out of a sense of nostalgia, but because they are fed up with being told how to run their country to people like him”. 

Conservative MEP David Campbell Bannerman has claimed that the EU itself is a “new empire arising”, and “not a benign, democratic or ultimately peaceful one”.

The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Moore agrees that the EU “is not, as some of my fellow Brexiteers think, a dictatorship, but an empire”.

“Empires are not necessarily all bad,” Moore adds. “When they work, they can bring more peace, more order and better drains, as did both the Roman and the British. When they don’t work, they impoverish, oppress and kill millions, as did the Soviet Union.

“On a scale out of ten, if the British Empire is seven and the Soviet Union is one, the EU is three or four.”

However, any hopes that British Empire might rise once again to challenge the EU are groundless, according to Philippe Lamberts, leader of the European greens.

“You listen to the rhetoric of [Jacob] Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage and they are speaking about the British Empire and it is long dead,” he said last month. “Gone are the days when a tiny country could rule over a significant chunk of the world.”

“The British Empire is long dead and because of that Brexit is a lose-lose, so you cannot make a success of it,” Lamberts concluded.

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