Brexiteers are pining for empire

Pankaj Mishra writes: There are no good reasons for Britain to leave the European Union. “Brexit” makes zero sense geopolitically or economically, as exasperated foreigners, including U.S. President Barack Obama, have repeatedly pointed out. But then, as with many political phenomena today, any explanation of the inexplicable Brexit campaign has to be sought deep in social, cultural and emotional history.

The impulse driving the Brexiteers is the same one former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson highlighted in 1962, when he declared, “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” The writer Edmund Wilson expressed it, too, when he said that the British elite was “completely unreconciled to the post-war diminishment of Britain.”

The members of Britain’s Conservative Party who would withdraw from the European Union share the same stubborn belief that their small island remains great enough to stand apart from continental Europe. To be sure, the original British sense of self-sufficiency, and of power and glory, was derived from historical facts. In the 18th century, Britain’s geographical isolation, as well as entwined traditions of commerce and individual liberty, clearly distinguished it from rivals on the turbulent continent. Those virtues made ardent Anglophiles even out of hard-headed men like Montesquieu and Voltaire.

Then in the 19th century, Britain’s industrial and commercial expansion reorganized the world into an economic unity, for better and for worse. British colonists, financiers, engineers, explorers, seamen, insurers and administrators broke down many of the geographical, social and economic barriers between continents. These triumphant forays into the world outside Europe both created Britain’s distinctive modern character and gave its prospering classes a sense of splendid uniqueness within a Europe racked by war and revolution. [Continue reading…]

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