books

Rule Britannia, by Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson

I’ve not written much about Brexit on the blog. I’ve saved it for the things I thought were most important to say, and one of them is that Brexit is inseparable from the long term decline of Britain as a world power. It’s a denying of recent history, resting on former glories and the perceived entitlements of empire.

Boris Johnson is exhibit A. This is a man who still thinks Britain should be running Africa. “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore,” he wrote in a Spectator article on Africa, which is still online here. That arrogance extends to the EU, which Boris obviously thinks would be better if it was entirely British: “If we had been asked to design the EU ourselves with a blank sheet of paper we would have nothing like the body that exists today.”

As Dorling and Tomlinson explain, many of those who voted for Brexit were educated in the 50s and 60s, when maps of the British empire still hung on classroom walls. The empire itself might have been almost gone by the time Boris was at school, but the colonial mentality remained. “Part of the reason the Brexit vote happened was that a small number of people in Britain have a dangerous, imperialist misconception of our standing in the world”.

Rule Britannia: Brexit and the end of empire explores this idea. It digs deep into the reasons why people voted the way they did, the roots of Britain’s problems with immigration, and issues around racism. The exceptionalism, condescension and entitlement that underpins the most popular arguments for Brexit are a direct consequence of empire, they argue. We were brought up to think that we were better than everyone else.

Young people don’t get taught that in the same way of course, but the British Empire isn’t taught at all. History as it’s taught today seems to go from the Romans, to the kings and queens (princes in the tower, Henry’s wives, etc), to the industrial revolution, to the World Wars. You could sail through school without realising that to most of the world, Britain has been an aggressor and an oppressor. We don’t know how we are perceived. We haven’t confronted our past.

In Madagascar, where I went to primary school, they have an equivalent of our expression ‘coals to Newcastle’ – you don’t sell guns to the English.

Brexit may force a reckoning, as I’ve argued before. “What the Brexiteers have actually sped us towards is the final whimper of the old ideal of the British Empire” say Dorling and Tomlinson, but that’s not all bad news. “Partly as a result of Brexit, the next generation will soon have a far better idea of the sins, misconceptions and ignorance of their fathers… it is for the next generation to make Britain decent, to make Britannia humane, and to consign the Empire’s triumphant songs to history.”

It won’t be popular in some circles, but Rule Britannia makes a good argument. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it a particularly good book. It rambles all over the place. A chapter called ‘From Empire to Commonwealth’ has about two paragraphs on the Commonwealth, then talks about selective education, Darwin’s family tree, and the problem of in-breeding in the British nobility. There is a through-line here about eugenics, private schooling and the British superiority complex, but it feels very baggy.

It’s also oddly repetitive, with two sections on the links between obesity and Brexit voting, and two sections that go through the song Jerusalem line by line to point out that every line is a falsehood. It’s a wry and tongue in cheek point in a book that allows itself its fun moments, but it doesn’t need to be in twice.

It’s also terribly partisan. The authors can’t mention a Conservative politician without immediately mentioning past indiscretions or mistakes. One chapter goes through every single member of David Cameron’s cabinet and does a character assassination of each of them. Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, “has had more success than any Labour leader for almost half a century” – bizarrely air-brushing Tony Blair out of history in a book which is supposed to be all about talking honestly about our past.

In short, Rule Britannia is going to appeal to those already convinced that Tory posh boys are wrecking the country, but it won’t reach those who most need to hear its message:

“Delusions of grandeur are essential to rule over an empire. A people have to fool themselves, and be fooled, into thinking that they are special enough to rule over huge multitudes of others. The lies that are told to create that necessary delusion can persist long after the empire has gone.”

 

3 comments

  1. I’ve heard very little imperial nostalgia from Brexiters. Brexiters seem prepared instead to give up on the UK to create an England free of entanglements. I think accusing Brexiters of nostalgia for empire is wishful thinking by Remainers. That you found this
    book very partisan suggests they are projecting what they want to be true.

    https://www.ft.com/content/a9c45baa-1dc6-11e7-b7d3-163f5a7f229c

    t’s the EU who talk of empire. Guy Verhofstaft only yesterday called the EU one at the Lib Dem conference.

    https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2019/09/watch-guy-verhofstadt-on-the-worlds-empires/

    1. Interesting perspective from Ganesh and I partly agree, but the way post-empire works is more subtle than that. In my view, it’s not about flag waving and direct appeals to nostalgia or recreating the empire. As you say, those aren’t common among advocates of Brexit, though they do exist – ‘new Elizabethan age’, etc.

      I see it more as the assumption that being a powerful and ‘independent’ nation is what we were and what we should be. It’s the idea that we don’t need anyone else, that we are naturally leaders, and that once we are ‘free’ of the EU we will be greater than we would be if we remained part of the union. That’s there in the tabloids every day, and every time Johnson opens his mouth. The idea that we’re better than everyone else is part of our national subconscious.

      In other words, the legacy of empire is in the assumptions we make about Britain’s role in the world, more than in jingoism and nostalgia. Not sure that the book really gets that distinction right, but that’s my view.

      1. I think the idea that in some way they are better than others, especially their neighbours is fairly common amongst many nations.

        While I think some of the leading Leavers do dream of global Britain I think among Brexit voters it’s more about retreating from the world.

        The arguments in favour of Britain ‘punching above its weight’ and world role were made by the Remain side of the referendum.

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