Can a post-Brexit Britain face up to the legacy of its lost empire?

David Winner says just under the surface of Brexit lurks lingering English nationalism that never came to terms with losing its empire, and with the negative aspects of that imperial legacy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 January, 2018, 2:09pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 January, 2018, 7:41pm

Why did Britain get itself into its Brexit mess? Immediate causes – miscalculation by former prime minister David Cameron over the 2016 referendum, the influence of anti-European newspapers, and so on – are well known.

But deeper cultural forces are also at work. Emotionally underpinning the drive to leave the European Union is an English nationalism rooted in that rarely discussed trauma, the hangover of empire. The days when British maps showed a quarter of the globe coloured pink have long gone, of course. But the English continue to feel their lost empire the way amputees feel a vanished limb.

This was rarely discussed directly in politics, but the condition (and its attendant delusions and prejudices) festered for decades in the important and emotive symbolic realm of sport, especially football.

Empire and football always went together. The game was nurtured in the elite private schools of Victorian England and still carries a stamp of its use as an educational tool for inculcating imperial values and “manliness”. One key attitude concerned contempt for foreigners. The English didn’t just play the game. They also had to be the best at it, for winning at sport demonstrated their superiority as a people and justified their global pre-eminence.

Britain’s geopolitical status and its footballing hegemony both faded in the 1950s. As the empire fell, the team started losing to foreigners, famously crushed 6-3 by Hungary in 1953. Yet Britain never suffered a national shock equivalent to the French defeat in Algeria. English exceptionalism survived intact and the country remained emotionally hard-wired to expect supremacy.

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The English take a rose-tinted view of their history and never think much – or even know – about repugnant aspects of empire.

What lingered instead was a vague sense of having lost something precious, of having been somehow cheated of their right to be champions on and off the field.

In 1962, Dean Acheson observed that the British had “lost an empire but not yet found a role”. But the problem was worse: they lost the empire and never quite got over it. The syndrome is all the more powerful for being rarely, if ever, discussed. Historian Nicholas Boyle has likened the problem to the “inability to mourn” identified by psychoanalysts Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich in Germany after the second world war. Unable to acknowledge the emotion they had invested in their love of Hitler, a generation of Germans struggled to escape his malign influence.

Likewise, Boyle argues, the English have been unable to recognise how much their society and values are products of the imperial period “and have therefore been unable to mourn the empire’s passing or to escape from the compulsion to recreate it”.

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The guiding fantasy of Brexit, asserted despite all objective evidence to the contrary, is that, freed from the “yoke” of the EU, “global Britain” will resume its rightful, natural place as a world power. This idea contradicts the pragmatic pro-EU policy of every pre-Theresa May British government since the 1970s. But it fits with the football fantasy, asserted despite decades of results suggesting otherwise, that the English national team can and must win the Fifa World Cup. (They did in 1966 but have reached just one semi-final since.)

As with empire, there were obvious reasons why the footballers fell into the second rank: they were overtaken by other, bigger global players and became a respected, successful, medium-sized power instead.

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Many countries would be happy with that but it gnaws at the nostalgic nationalists who cannot accept this supposedly humiliating, fallen condition and look for scapegoats.

In politics, Brexiters blame “Brussels” for Britain’s problems and denounce opponents at home as “mutineers” and “enemies of the people”. Such language is new in British politics. But it echoes a decades-old discourse in football where every failure of the England team is treated as a “disgrace” and “national humiliation”, and managers or star players are vilified. David Beckham, for example, was hanged in effigy by fans after a defeat in 1998. Managers are subjected to extraordinary abuse when the team fails.

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Brexit has already produced a condition of permanent political crisis and economic fear in the once-stable and prosperous UK. No one knows how the process will go or what it will do to the country. A dwindling band of Brexit optimists still think all will be well. Others predict severe damage to the economy and Britain’s international standing, and even the break-up of the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to stay in the EU and could end up leaving).

But there may be a sliver of silver lining. If the shock persuades the British finally to look more honestly at their history, it may not have been entirely in vain.

David Winner is the author of books on culture and football including Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football