In 1962, former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously remarked that Britain had lost an Empire, but had yet to find a new foreign policy role. The comment came in the context of Britain’s first application to join the European Economic Community (EEC), which failed in the face of a French veto the following year. When Britain’s application was eventually accepted in 1973 it appeared that Britain’s role in EEC, its relationship with America, and its ties to the former Empire through the Commonwealth could form three “spheres of interests” which would take the place of the Empire. The trouble was that the romance of Empire endured long after the British were forced to beat a hasty retreat from their imperial possessions. The aggressive form of patriotism found in the Brexit campaign fits the description of jingoism, which has resurfaced at regular intervals in various forms over the past century.
The myth of Britain as an isolated island nation is not borne out by the reality of British history. Recent historiography has highlighted that British citizens in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were deeply engaged in the project of Empire. The British diaspora was created as huge numbers of British people emigrated to Britain’s empire, whilst those who remained in Britain continued to buy ‘empire goods’ imported from the colonies.
Victorian and Edwardian audiences were familiar with fictional British explorers like those in King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and Heart of Darkness (1899). The boy scouts was created with the express purpose of making schoolboys into similar adventurers. The investment of the British public in the romance of the Empire gave rise to incidents of jingoism, such as the patriotic fervour surrounding the disastrous First Boer War (1880-1881). These stories of British greatness hid the reality of exploitation and brutality under colonial rule, but the narrative of British exceptionalism has nevertheless stuck within the British popular memory.
The transition away from imperial adventure and towards a small-island mentality took place gradually between 1945 and 1979. However, the jingoism of the Empire continued as a marked feature of Britain’s new island outlook. World War Two was initially interpreted as proof by the likes of Edward Heath that Britain should commit itself to the ideals of European peace and integration, but in spite of Heath’s success in taking Britain into the EEC the British imagination was dogged by delusions that jeopardised European cooperation from the outset. The new patriots who were most powerful under Thatcher and Powell denied the role of the Empire in World War Two by creating the myth of Britain standing alone against Nazi Germany. The story is fundamentally contradictory because it uses the British Empire as proof of Britain’s greatness whilst simultaneously denying Britain’s links beyond its own borders.
The island nation myth has been characterised consistently by increasingly stringent restrictions on immigration, from the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 through to the recent suggestion of a £30,000 skilled immigrant salary threshold.
Prior to the 1962 act immigrants from the former Empire had freedom of movement into Britain and played a major role in repairing the economy after World War Two, but after the 1962 act restrictions were placed on Commonwealth citizens moving to Britain who did not have relatives within the country. The restrictions were imposed by those such as Powell who conceived of Britain as a white, isolated nation rather than as a world power with strong historical links further than its own borders.
This new myth was in itself contradictory because it required Britain to isolate itself, but it also required the British government to use its relations with other nations to provide proof of Britain’s comparative greatness. In this Thatcher’s war in the Falklands and Brexit have a great deal in common. Thatcher used the Falklands War to establish herself as a victorious, Britannia-like figure within the British press, which helped her to take a landslide majority in the khaki election of 1983.
As she deployed the same model of conduct in her dealings with the EU she became increasingly confrontational, culminating in her “No! No! No!” speech. Throughout her time in power Thatcher was able to use Europe as an enemy against which she could rally aggressive isolationism. The cleavage she opened within the Conservative Party over Europe worsened as she continued to meddle in party affairs under Major. Over the following thirty years the civil war over Europe became the central focus of bids by Conservative leaders to remain in power within the party.
Myths of British identity are no basis upon which to make decisions about Britain’s relations with Europe because claims to British greatness are not borne out by historical fact. Britain’s empire should be a source of national shame, but as a result of the empire Britain has strong and clear ties to former colonial countries that show the theory of Britain’s historical isolation to be a myth. The British government should take this lesson and apply it to its dealings with Europe, but the myth of Britain’s isolation from Europe and the Commonwealth during World War Two is such that Brexiteers now believe that Britain can go alone again. The nation will now be forced to continue to search for its role within the world now that it has rejected a place for itself within Europe.