Argument

Clap Your Hands If You Believe in Brexit

Leavers cling to dangerous myths about the innate greatness of the British.

A cartoon by David Low for the Evening Standard, originally published on June 18, 1940, just after the fall of France.
A cartoon by David Low for the Evening Standard, originally published on June 18, 1940, just after the fall of France.

On the evening of Dec. 16, Britain’s blink-and-you-missed-it former Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, tried to sum up the philosophical differences boiling away beneath the country’s warring political factions. “Remainers,” he wrote, “believe UK prosperity depends on its location, Brexiters believe UK prosperity depends on its character.” Of all the delusions that currently grip British politics, Raab’s faith in “character” is perhaps the most destructive—and widely shared among his fellow Brexiteers. Yet it is nourished by a deep seam of popular memory: a set of myths about British power that depend on a fundamental misunderstanding of its past

In the children’s book version of history to which Raab and his ilk subscribe, Britain’s glorious past can be traced to a single source: not to geography; not to the global empire that supplied it with wealth, soldiers, and the control of world trade; not even to its abundant harbors and easily mineable coal; nor to the migrants who helped birth the industrial revolution. The secret to British greatness lies simply in this: the sheer pluck and determination of its people.

That thesis isn’t new. It’s been told and retold in popular accounts of British history, dating back to Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, the “campfire yarns” of the Boy Scouts movement, and the adventure stories of the early 20th century. In such accounts, the dominant folk memory of British history is not of empire but of “plucky little Britain,” standing with its back to the wall in the face of overpowering odds. It is the story of the underdog, hopelessly outnumbered but somehow finding a way through. It’s the story of Dunkirk: the fishing smacks and pleasure boats that defied the Nazi war machine. It’s Francis Drake, singeing the beards of the mighty Spanish Empire. And in the most famous cartoon of World War II, it’s the lone warrior on the British coast, his fist clenched in defiance, as the skies blacken beneath the shadow of the Luftwaffe.

Even at the pinnacle of the British Empire, when Britain ruled a quarter of the world’s landmass and commanded the seas, it was the heroic defeats that were honored in popular memory. The stories live on even today: Gen. Charles Gordon, making his heroic last stand at Khartoum; the slaughter at Isandlwana; the brave redcoats of innumerable Victorian paintings, fighting to the last man against hopeless and desperate odds. The result is a curious act of historical alchemy, transmuting one of the most formidable empires of global history into the myth of Little Britain.

In the high days of empire, this was a useful dishonesty. It allowed a military superpower, imposing its might across the globe, to imagine itself as something different: a brave champion of freedom, engaged in heroic resistance against dark forces that willed its destruction. During the two world wars, when the possibility of defeat was very real, it served to galvanize morale. But in so doing, it wiped from popular memory everything that made Britain such a formidable opponent to the Nazi empire: its colossal military machine, its unmatched economic power, and—above all—a global empire that could mobilize men and materiel from across the planet. The imperial contribution to the War effort was swiftly forgotten; indeed, within a few short years many of those who had fought for Britain would be recast as invaders themselves, in the fevered rhetoric of Enoch Powell and the National Front.

Yet such acts of collective amnesia come at a price. In a nation that has lost its empire, its military preeminence, and its economic supremacy, they have taught the dangerous lesson that (to borrow Prime Minister Theresa May’s favorite sound bite) “Nothing has changed.” They reduce geopolitics to a form of faith-healing, in which anything is possible so long as we believe.

That’s not a unique idea. The American conviction in the early 2000s that anything was possible with sufficient will, dubbed by Matthew Yglesias “The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics,” was very similar. But the belief that Britain just needs enough faith to revive again takes a uniquely British form. We might dub it the Tinkerbell Theory of History, after the sprite from Peter Pan who is magically revived, in the stage performance, by the audience clapping their hands to express their belief in fairies.

Like so much of Brexit ideology, such ideas were turbo-charged by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Victory in the Falklands War owed less to prime ministerial pluck than to the firepower of a Navy she had wanted to cut. Yet in Thatcher’s rhetoric, victory over a much weaker opponent became a moment of psychological rebirth: a rebuke to the “waverers and the faint-hearts who thought “that Britain was no longer the nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world.”

As Thatcher said, “The lesson of the Falklands is that Britain has not changed and that this nation still has those sterling qualities which shine through our history. This generation can match their fathers and grandfathers in ability, in courage, and in resolution. We have not changed. When the demands of war and the dangers to our own people call us to arms—then we British are as we have always been.”

This was not about mourning the end of empire—still less about attempting to reverse it. It was a denial that decolonization mattered at all. The delusion that a small nation—stripped of its colonies, its military power, and its position in the global financial system—could remain “as we have always been,” if it only had the courage to believe, has become central to the ideology of the Brexit right. For Boris Johnson, all that is necessary for Brexit to succeed is that we “believe in the British people,” recapturing “the dynamism of those bearded Victorians” and putting “some lead in the collective pencil.” The same idea fires Grant Shapps’s romantic appeals to the “swashbuckling spirit of the 19th Century,” or Theresa May’s homilies on “the lesson” of the wartime generation: that “if we come together, there is no limit to what we can achieve.” For a nation to be great, it appears, it is necessary only that it wills it.

That brings us back to Tinkerbell. For Johnson, the crumpled Peter Pan of British politics, the Brexit “dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.” But like the children in an Edwardian theatre, gazing wide-eyed at the stage, all the British people have to do is to clap their hands—to close their eyes and say “I do believe in Brexit! I do! I do!”—and the fairy will take flight once more.

Yet politics is not a fairy tale, and history does not owe us a happy ending. Pluck alone did not build the empire or win the war, and it offers no substitute for the power Britain has lost. The British cannot build a better future on fantasies about the past. All that remains to them is to be wise in time.

Robert Saunders is a senior lecturer in history at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain.

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