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British Nostalgia

From the series European News

In his book Britain Alone, the Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens argues that David Cameron’s decision to hold the Brexit referendum in 2016 was self-serving […] The prime minister wanted to snuff out a Tory rebellion and to give himself a quieter life in 10 Downing Street. For short term tactical reasons, Cameron gambled on the strategic issue of Britain’s link to Europe.

As for Boris Johnson, backing Brexit had been about personal ambition: establishing his claim to the leadership. In Stephens’ reconstruction of events, Brexit was an unwanted outcome for the leaders of the Leave campaign: When Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, […] appeared before the cameras on the morning of 24 June, they looked shell-shocked rather than triumphant. […] Winning was not part of the plan.

However, once Brexit had been set in motion, Johnson pursued it with wild abandon and made it the cornerstone of his bid for No. 10.

According to Stephens, there was no underlying strategy to the actions of the two main Tory architects of Brexit — the resulting outcome of which has, however, had a huge impact on London’s international stature.

Atlantic decline and nostalgia

The subtitle of the book is The Path from Suez to Brexit, and it retells the journey has been painful between two events which triggered national trauma during Britain’s protracted and conscious managing [of] relative decline. This process has for much of the time […] resembled a fight with history, a struggle to hold on to the past.

In L’età della nostalgia [The Age of Nostalgia], Marta Dassù and Edoardo Campanella argue that Britain’s decision to leave the EU embodies this new form of nostalgic nationalism in its purest form. It should come as no surprise that nostalgia characterises those powers affected by the Atlantic decline — although the book itself also details the use and manipulation of the past by the ideologies of Chinese, Indian and Turkish imperialism, this being a regular occurrence in the construction of national myths. As for the United Kingdom, the authors note that in 1884 Greenwich became the time keeper for the world. […] This was an inevitable choice given Britain’s dominance of the seas. Dassù and Campanella argue that Brexit constitutes a new Greenwich moment. By voting for Brexit, Britain has again attempted to move the hands of the clock, just like in 1884: only this time it has only moved the hands on its own clock, not the world’s; and this time, it has moved the clock back, not forwards.

In Britain’s bid to look to the past, its imperial legacy has played a decisive role. This phenomenon is not exclusive to Britain, it is a characteristic of all the main imperial powers of the recent past, such as Russia and Turkey. Empires do fall, but their ontological legacy has lasting effects on the nations which emerge — the post-imperil nations.

In these old declining powers, nostalgia arises from fear of losing acquired privileges to an emerging Asia, to migratory flows, and to globalisation. As reported by the authors, it is these factors which constitute the structural reasons for a yearning for the past.

The European mooring

As Stephens explains, Britain Alone is a story of inflated ambition and diminished circumstance: the dissolution of an empire that in 1945 was home to 700 million citizens left Britain in search of a new identity, in a world where other great powers made the rules.

From time to time, Britain’s political leaders have been brave enough to present the country with the unvarnished choices offered by relative economic decline, however more often, they sought to cling on to the illusions until they were overwhelmed by circumstance Stephens argues that the original sin belonged to Winston Churchill: Britain had won the war and the Allies, popular imagination had it, had played secondary roles in the great drama. Here were the roots of the exceptionalism that saw future generations closing their eyes to the shifting balance of power and clinging on instead to the baubles of national prestige.

During the early post-war period Britain rejected the European project. However, in 1961 — following the Suez debacle — London applied to join the EEC. This was met by De Gaulle’s veto. Britain had to wait until 1971 before Georges Pompidou finally lifted the Gaullist veto. This paved the way to Britain joining the EEC in 1973. Stephens writes that what really hurt was the evidence of absolute decline, particularly after Britain excluded itself from the early decades of European integration.

Membership of the EEC allowed a workable compromise between the pull of the past and the realities of the present. As for the Trans-Atlantic relationship, as early as 1945, the Foreign Office had concluded that Britain would only be able to keep a place at the top table with the Ameri cans and the Soviet Union if it secured the leading role in Europe. Stephens describes how during a speech to the Commons in 1975, Margaret Thatcher stated that: Europe had opened windows to the world that would otherwise be closing with the end of empire

Today, with the intensification of tensions between the powers, the historic — and partly structural — deficit in centralisation within the EU has become even more evident; a deficit which has traditionally been promoted by British policy. Sergio Fabbrini has sought to quantify the delay by estimating that Next Generation EU could take eighteen months to roll out, compared to a mere two months for the US stimulus package. However, the continental scale of the EU means that its power will be enhanced.

Dassù and Campanella show how the arguments in favour of the Europcan option have been overturned and denied by the nostalgic illusion. This comprises three moments: the golden age, which refers to the age of empire. the great break, which was caused by the slow decline of empire and the decision of the UK to adhere to the European project in 1973 ; and finally the current discontent. Joining the EU was a break from the otherwise uninterrupted history of the United Kingdom since Magna Carta. In theory, Brexit represents a closure to this nostalgic cycle which will lead Britain back to the Golden Age.

A pocket-sized superpower?

Last March, the Johnson government published its Integrated Review on foreign policy, security and defence, entitled Global Britain in a Competitive Age. The document defines London’s global role for the next decade and deals with issues such as the tilt to Indo-Pacific which is described as the world’s growth engine, and the strengthening of Britin’s nuclear arsenal.

For the Financial Times [March 16th]: there is a Johnsonian have-your-cakeand-eat-it quality to this image of Britain as a pocket-sized superpower. A tilt to the Indo-Pacific makes sense, even if it is mainly a cover for opening markets, but there is a mismatch between the scale of ambition and the resources and capabilities available. The FT concludes: more realistic would be to accept the UK’s role as a sizeable European power, with global interests. London should represent a solid European pillar of NATO, The tilt towards the Indo-Pacific has some unrealistic aspects, with the risk of over-extension, and above all obscures a sizeable hole at the heart of the document — any vision for co-operation with the most important partner for Britain’s safety: Europe, and in particular the EU.

Le Monde comes to a similar conclusion. More than fifty years on from London’s decision to integrate Europe and proclaim its withdrawal ‘East of Suez’ thereby renouncing any ambition of being a global power […] it comes as a shock to see our neighbour turn away and adopt a vague and risky strategy on its own. One in which imperial nostalgia is accompanied by strategic know-how, and where global aspirations are used to mask the economic shock of Brexit.

American paternalism

As for the nuclear deterrent, Stephen highlights that Britain’s arsenal relies completely on American technology to keep it in service and may risk underestimating its political and military significance. This distinguishes Britain’s deterrent from France’s force de frappe. In Stephens’ view, the relationship with the USA has often appeared servile rather than special, with Washington often showing itself to be brutally unsentimental. For instance, Truman cancelled the Lend-Lease programme — the US loan to bankroll Britain’s war effort in the Second World War — without notice. Again, during the Suez Crisis, Eisenhower ordered the US ambassador to the United Nations to vote with the USSR against its own ally. Furthermore, the American Treasury blocked Britain’s access to the international money markets and in so doing hindered its attempt to support sterling during the crisis. Even during the supposedly idyllic relationship between the two during the Reagan-Thatcher years in the 1980s, the US President failed to consult Britain before invading Grenada — a Commonwealth member — and before initiating negotiations with Gorbachev, which included the future of the British nuclear deterrent. London’s participation in the Iraq war, at odds with the Rhineland axis, did not secure it a say in the post-Saddam Hussein era.

Unfortunate timing

The UK matured the tormented, strategic decision to adhere to the European project during the first three decades of the post-war period — the start of a long phase of development for the old powers. However, today’s conditions of imperialist tensions, Atlantic decline and growing tensions between continental power blocs, makes the decision to opt for Europe even more relevant. Stephens writes: the timing of the decision to pull up Britain’s anchor could scarcely have been more unfortunate. Predictions of a stable post-Cold War order have been confounded. History has moved in the opposite direction. China and Russia have challenged Western power. Now, Johnson promises a second Elizabethan age, with a buccaneering ‘Global Britain’, but the reality looks a lot more like Britain, or perhaps England, alone

It must be noted that while the current multilateral, liberist global cycle continues, it is possible for the agile British ship sailing the high seas to reap opportunities and advantages abroad. However, the persisting dialectic between multilateralism and power confrontation is taking place in a context of intensifying global tensions and is now on a continental scale.

Lotta Comunista, April 2021