Brexit Negotiations Are Driven By Greater England’s Nostalgia For Its Former Empire

Nicholas Boyle of Magdalene College and the University of Cambridge has written a particularly caustic evaluation of Greater England’s continued hegemony over the island of Britain and its overseas’ remnants of empire, including the north-east of Ireland, and how this historical legacy influenced attitudes in the lead-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum. From the New European:

“Europhobia was shown by the referendum to be a specifically English psychosis, the narcissistic outcome of a specifically English crisis of identity. That crisis has had two phases, roughly two centuries apart.

In the first phase, in the eighteenth century, the English gave up their Englishness in order to become British, the rulers of the British Empire; in the second phase, in the middle of the twentieth century, they lost even that surrogate for identity and have been wandering ever since through the imperial debris that litters their homeland, unable to say who they are.

England sank its identity in the unions with Scotland, in 1707, and with Ireland, in 1800, which gave rise respectively to Britain and to the United Kingdom. From then on the English had no need of a separate identity, for as metropolitans, first of the United Kingdom and then of the British empire, they dealt with no one on equal terms. They were characterless, because they never met anybody who could impose a character on them: they were masters of the seas, they could travel round the world without setting foot outside imperial territory, and economically the empire was, potentially at least, self-sufficient.

While Ireland, Wales, and Scotland became, for the English, slightly comic regions of ‘Britain’, ‘England’ became for them the sentimental ideal of ‘home’, the image of the green and pleasant mother-country that concealed the brutal realities of empire from its agents and possessed nothing so sordid as distinct political or economic interests of its own.

The destruction by the USA of the British empire, after its finest hour in 1940, was a traumatic blow to the psyche of two English generations, from which they have never recovered, largely because they have never recognised it.

The psychoanalysts, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, famously attributed various collective psychological traits of post-war Germany to an ‘inability to mourn’, an inability to recognize how much emotion they had invested in the love of their führer, to mourn his passing, and so to escape from his influence.

Similarly, we could say the English have been unable to recognise how much of their society and its norms was constructed during the imperial period and in order to sustain empire, and have therefore been unable to mourn the empire’s passing or to escape from the compulsion to recreate it.

…because England has been unable to acknowledge that loss, it has also been unable to acknowledge the end of English exceptionalism, the end of the characterlessness the English had enjoyed as rulers of the world – with no need of distinct features to mark them off from their equals since they had no equals, embodying, as they did, the decency, reasonableness and good sense by which they assumed the rest of the world privately measured its lesser achievements and to which they assumed it aspired.

The trauma of lost exceptionalism, the psychic legacy of empire, haunts the English to the present day, in the illusion that their country needs to find itself a global role.”

Also note this succinct point, which illustrates one of the reasons why the risible “Irexit” camp, which includes a fair number of domestic closet-unionists with a bad dose of empire nostalgia, will never gain a serious purchase in Irish politics:

“In Ireland, the EU, the essential framework for the Good Friday agreement of 1998, appears as the guardian of nationhood, the guarantor of the peaceful coexistence of the island’s two fractions: in Tyrone, Fermanagh, or Armagh, when you cross into the Republic at the end of your lane, it is the EU, not London, that tells you you are still in Ireland.”

With a “Brexit Border” of customs posts and “approved crossings” around the Six Counties becoming ever more likely, pro-European sentiment may well grow in this country, especially if EU-wide resentment at the highhandedness of the UK leads to a severe downturn in political and diplomatic relations between Brussels and London. England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity




  1. It´s great when someone can articulate better than you what you are trying to say. Spot on in everything he says.

  2. What’s this about the British having no equals?

    Throughout various times in history the Spanish, French, Russians and Germans have all been major threats to Britain’s power.

    Yes the British tended to come out on top but that was by no means inevitable. Even to the British themselves. Change a few small factors of history around and the Spanish Armada or Napoleon could easily have conquered England’s green hills.

    In hindsight in may be easy to claim the British were smug in the inevitability of their victory but contemporary Queen Elizabeth 1 staring down the very real prospect of a Spanish invasion wouldn’t have agreed with you.

    1. All true, but as it happened, by hook or by crook, the English generally came out on top each time … and so each time their insufferable arrogance got a boost.

      There was an English commentator, I forget who but it doesn’t really matter, of the immediate post-WWII generation, who when asked about religion said that the nearest thing to ideology he’d grown up with was “We Won the War!” I can certainly identify with that. A whole generation grew up with a constant stream of drama and documentaries on how ‘We’ (in truth mostly the US, but that was mostly glossed over, after all they spoke English, more or less) had come out on top, yet again, against the odds. And there was a New Elizabeth on the throne, and everything in the garden was, apparently, lovely.

      These by and large are the generation(s) who never really understood or had any liking for the EU, seeing it as at best an expedient, a way of humouring the foreigners. These are also the generation who seem incapable of viewing Scotland, Ireland and Wales as anything more than English appendages. They are also, sadly, delusions pathologies and all, the folks currently running the UK.

      If only they weren’t in positions of power it would be simply be a question of, “Come along now Dear, time for you medication …”

      Dunno whether to laugh or cry really. That it should all come to this …

      1. These are also the generation who seem incapable of viewing Scotland, Ireland and Wales as anything more than English appendages
        It doesn’t help that the countries themselves don’t do anything to be different from England.
        “We Won the War!”
        Funny how that’s the religion of the USSR/Russia too. They don’t really celebrate anything else other than the “Victory day” on 9th May. Even in countries that actively dislike those celebrations, because that “victory” started a decades long occupation.

        1. “It doesn’t help that the countries themselves don’t do anything to be different from England.”

          You think Ireland is no different from England?! In what respect, language? Their politics are certainly quite alien to a Brit. And Scotland now has only three Westminster MPs from the main UK parties. And just try telling a Welshman that he’s English … 😉

  3. Not so sure about the first part of this sentence: “The destruction by the USA of the British empire, after its finest hour in 1940, was a traumatic blow to the psyche of two English generations, from which they have never recovered, largely because they have never recognised it.”

    It would seem to me that self-determinism in British colonies, the recognition that the UK could no longer afford to retain the vast majority of its colonial interests and the fact that the need was no longer there for a far-flung domain was responsible for the end of its empire, rather than “destruction by the USA.”

    Am I missing something?

    1. The English are to a large extent psychologically like a former aristocrat in a land that has undergone a socialist revolution. They just can’t get used to the idea of being ‘just ordinary’ like everyone else. Different in all their own individual characteristics, but on the whole neither better nor worse. Britain has gone from being one of a handful of World Powers to being just another country. And although that’s nothing at all to be ashamed of, they still haven’t yet adjusted. I just wonder how much longer this can go on for. Hopefully this is largely a malaise of the older generations …

  4. I have no concern with an England independent and outside the EU. The EU takes away a nation’s economic and political sovereignty which is why Irish republicans oppose the EU. I am a firm believer brexit will lead to the end of the UK. Speed the day.

    1. You can’t have a cake and eat it too. While the EU like any other international treaty takes away some sovereignty it gives access to the biggest single market in the world and unlike small countries like Ireland can negotiate with big countries such as the USA as equals.

      The UK is not even officially out yet, but May already is running to the USA to beg for a trade deal while spouting bullshit about “special relationship”. You have to be extremely naive to believe that the UK is going to get a better deal with the USA as they currently have with the EU. They have no bargaining power of their own and the Americans aren’t going to just blindly give in to their demands.

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