How were imperial nostalgia and anti-imperialism mobilised, and by whom, in the pro-/anti-Brexit campaigns in the UK?
The 2016 UK referendum on continued membership of the European Union (EU), which concluded in a victory for the Leave campaign, has been argued by many to have been less a debate on the pros and cons of membership, but rather a proxy for discussions about race and migration (Bhambra, 2017). Many believe that “imperial nostalgia” was mobilised and was a leading factor in the success of the Leave vote, with 52% of the population voting in it’s favour (Choudry, 2021). It became widely theorised by academic commentators, with the argument that many Leave voters were partial to imperial patterns of thought, consciously or not, and that the terms on which the creation of the EU referendum took place are indicative of the UK struggling to place itself in the world post-Empire (Dunin-Wasowicz, 2017). However, it is thought that “imperial nostalgia” was oftentimes combined with and in lieu of “imperial amnesia”, with individuals longing for an independent, self-sustaining, homogenous Britain, that never truly existed, and how this train of thought was used to campaigner and politician’s advantage. In this essay, I will be first exploring how imperial nostalgia was mobilised by pro-Brexiters in the referendum and how they used colonial terms in their favour, but will also be exploring how imperial nostalgia and anti-imperialism was mobilised by those in support of Remain.
One of the key phrases used by those arguing for exit from the EU was “we want our country back”, alongside the Leave campaign making “take back control” a widely used slogan amongst its supporters. The phrase “take back control” is an expression particularly indicative of imperial nostalgia, as it could be interpreted as representing a desire for the “control” that Britain once had as an empire and an imperial state. However, despite these expressions that encapsulate a yearning for what they believe Britain once was, since it’s very inception as a common political unit in 1707, Britain has not been an independent nation, but rather a component of broader political identities, notably empire, then the Commonwealth, and since 1973, the EU (Bhambra, 2017). There has never been an independent Britain, nor an “island nation”. Regardless of this fact, in a country that had once ruled over a quarter of the world, the perceived loss of “control” over their political system, their economic prospects and their destiny is a persuasive factor in voting Leave, considering these were promised to be returned once exiting the EU (Bachmann & Sidaway, 2016). Tomlinson and Dorling (2016) argue that the foundation of Brexit is rooted in British imperialism and empire, for two intersecting reasons: the post-war migration of labourers from the former colonies to Britain, , thus setting the racist terms for subsequent discussions on “immigration”, alongside the geopolitical decline of a once hegemonic nation, the citizens of which, particularly those of a lower class, being encouraged to believe in their economic, political, social and racial superiority to the non-British subjects of the Empire. The premise of all British social classes uniting in a national patriotic superiority is comforting to many who voted Leave, with this solidarity having been a well-known component in British heritage, giving a certain level of context in explaining the xenophobia, racism and hostility that is still prevalent in this society today.
In his book Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, Irish author and journalist Fintan O'Toole highlights the curious habit amongst Brexiteers of describing our past and future relationship with the EU using colonial language and terms, reinforcing the claim that campaigners mobilised imperial nostalgia in order to reach their desired outcome. He gives examples of pro-Brexit Australian politician Alex Downer stating in the Daily Telegraph that “it’s astonishing that Great Britain risks ending up an EU colony after Brexit”, Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency Jacob Rees-Mogg told the BBC in 2017 that Britain must not become a “colony” of the EU during the two-year transition period following its withdrawal, Conservative Daniel Hannan tweeted in May 2018 that “leaving the EU whilst still remaining in the customs union would be far worse than staying where we are. We’d be an EU colony, subject to taxation without representation,” (Sanghera, 2021), and former UKIP party leader Nigel Farage speaking of “an independent United Kingdom”, a notion frequently perpetuated by those in favour of the Leave vote, during his Brexit victory speech (O’Toole, 2018). Referring to this Brexiteer mentality as “the ironic reversal of zombie imperialism”, O’Toole asserts that the “crucial idea here is the vertiginous fall from “heart of empire” to “occupied colony”. In the imperial imagination, there are only two states: dominant an submissive, coloniser and colonised. This dualism lingers. If England is not an imperial power, it must be the only other thing that it can be: a colony.” (O’Toole, 2018). However, this is an interpretation that certain individuals in support of Brexit have since rejected. For example, in response to a Financial Times article reporting that former President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, had contended that Brexiteers were “longing for the empire”, to which Daniel Hannan, one of the leading Leave campaigners, tweeted that “a rule of thumb”, that “if someone you meet keeps banging on about the British empire, you’re talking to a Remainer” (Knight, 2016). Boris Johnson also rejected the notion of Brexit being a manifestation of imperial nostalgia when he resigned from his position as Foreign Secretary in 2018, as he claimed that the inspiration for it was “not to build a new empire, heaven forfend… It meant taking the referendum and using it as an opportunity to rediscover some of the dynamism of… bearded Victorians.” (Sanghera, 2021). The same stance was held by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who also denied nostalgia for empire when saying that he was “not suggesting that we have some neo-imperial vision and are going to become a superpower” (Sanghera, 2021)
A surprising approach that Leave campaigners adopted during the referendum was targeting voters who were from or descended from individuals from former British colonies, namely Britain’s 4 million Black and Asian voters. Although polls suggested that the majority of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals voted to Remain withing the EU, there was a distinct amount of votes to Leave coming from within these communities, with around 33% of Asian voters voting Leave, and 27% of Black voters voting the same (Statista, 2022). It is thought that these figures could be attributed to Leave campaigners pitching the vote as a way for economic policy to become more oriented towards a revival of Commonwealth ties, and an opportunity to build connections in trade with Commonwealth countries, as opposed to those withing the European Union (Dunin-Wasowicz, 2017). For example, many politicians in favour of leaving the EU, such as Jacob-Rees Mogg, spoke of Britiain’s 19th- century success in free-trade when speaking of the reasoning behind Brexit, whilst simultaneously denying any motive charged by imperial nostalgia (Sanghera, 2021). Other examples of this include Priti Patel, who was the International Development Secretary at the time, maintaining that Commonwealth was an “exemplar” of “free markets, private enterprise and liberal economies” (Sanghera, 2021). The UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) Commonwealth spokesman, James Carver MEP (Member of European Parliament), also encouraged the idea of strengthening UK relations with Commonwealth countries, as he spoke fondly of the former colonies during a speech he gave on Commonwealth Day. On Monday the 13th of March 2017, falling just three months before the UK referendum, Carver described Commonwealth countries to be “a huge potential asset in every respect, both from the trade and business point of view and also from the point of view of our contribution to peace, stability and development” (The Economic Voice, 2016). As well as this, Carver ended his speech with the closing statement, “outside the EU, the world is our oyster, and the Commonwealth remains that precious pearl within.”. The language presented in these quotes is strongly linked with imperial nostalgia, as they are delivered in a manner that explicitly ignores the brutal reality of the British Empire, whilst also ignoring the Commonwealth as being a product of it. With the lack of acknowledgement of the racism, violence and brutality that was produced as a result of British imperialism, these government officials have presented the Commonwealth as an inclusive and more equal vision of what empire really was, whilst also presenting that these countries can still be an asset to Britain post-empire, thus continuing to view these nations as subordinates. However, this argument can be countered when referring back to the BAME voter statistics, it is important to not confuse nostalgia for empire with enthusiasm for Commonwealth; voters coming from a BAME background often feel a strong connection with the Commonwealth, due to their familial histories, but are most likely not nostalgic for empire (Saunders, 2019).
Despite the common presumption that Leave voters inherently long for empire, it is important to note that this is not always the case. For example, government officials such as Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Tony Blair and Niall Fergusson have all expressed a certain pride in the British empire, yet supported the Remain vote in 2016, whereas Brexiteers like George Galloway and Kwasi Kwarteng have explicitly criticised Britain’s imperial history over the years (Saunders, 2020). To give an example of the Remain campaign mobilising imperial nostalgia, David Cameron argued that Winston Churchill would have supported remaining within the EU following the 2016 Victory in Europe Day celebrations (Morales, 2016). As Churchill served his first term as the Prime Minister of the UK from 1940 to 1945, during the Second World-War and when Britain still had control over its colonies, it can be said that this is Cameron mobilising imperial nostalgia through using a figure like Churchill as a persuasive factor to vote Remain, as it suggests that he is idolising his governance despite his obvious support of the contemporary imperial agenda.
Although there is little information in its regard, anti-imperialist mobilisation during the 2016 referendum was largely perpetuated by those in favour of remaining in the EU, and used mainly to counter Leave campaigners’ mobilisation of imperial nostalgia. For example, many government officials and media outlets in opposition of Brexit coined the UK’s attempt to strengthen business and trade ties with Commonwealth countries as being “Empire 2.0”, (Saunders, 2020) after recognising the power that the sentiment had with many voters. Leave campaigners argued that leaving the EU would allow Britain to prioritise migration from Commonwealth countries, as opposed to migration from the EU, with the likes of Priti Patel and Kwasi Kwarteng signing an open letter from 20 MPs of “Commonwealth backgrounds” arguing that at the time, EU citizens, such as Eastern-Eurpoeans, had a better chances of migrating to the UK than migrants from Commonwealth countries did. The Remain campaign acknowledged the influence that this sentiment had, and countered it with highlighting that migration restrictions had been implemented on those from Commonwealth countries before Britain joined the EU, and was therefore not a result of it’s membership. They also pointed out that right-wing politicians in support of Leave, such as Farage, were unreliable when claiming to prioritise non-white immigration, and that promises made to reduce immigration drastically did not include any specific reference to increasing inflows from Commonwealth countries, whilst also mentioning that there would most likely not be any priority made for migrants working in non-essential job roles (Saunders, 2020). In fact, the “StrongerIn” campaign released an advertisement on referendum day in The Voice stating that Britain’s EU membership was actually beneficial to Commonwealth countries, insisting that partnering with an alliance of countries, rather than just Britain, would improve economic and developmental prospects.This could be interpreted to be anti-imperialist mobilisation, as it exhibits that these campaigners were not as focused on British leadership and exceptionalism, but rather as an actor in the EU; citizens of Commonwealth countries’ lives are not necessarily guaranteed to improve when given easier access to the “mother country”.