Will the Sun Set on the Boris Empire?
The new British prime minister’s vision for a Global Britain gets history—and the present—all wrong.
Boris Johnson, Britain’s incoming prime minister, is the quintessential nostalgic leader. Since the Brexit referendum, in order to make Britain’s future outside the European Union appealing, he has played on London’s past, inflating the true power and influence of his country. Little does it matter that Britain no longer rules the waves, that a former colony such as India aspires to become a great power, that continental Europe is no longer a military battlefield. In his telling, the sun will never set on the Boris Empire.
Just a few days before the Brexit vote in 2016, he urged his fellow citizens to back leaving the European Union in order “to take the chains off the giant, unshackled Britannia and let the Lion roar again” and win the “battle for British democracy.” He even claimed that Prime Minister Winston Churchill—his political hero whose life he celebrated years earlier in the book The Churchill Factor—would have joined him on his campaign bus. Amid the referendum campaign, he was so immersed in the past that the Labour MP Yvette Cooper asked in the Guardian, “Can the prime minister invite him to return to the 21st century?”
Carried though, Brexit would indeed transport the country back in time. At a minimum, a divorce from Brussels would bring it back to 1973, when it first joined the European Economic Community. But the late 1960s and early 1970s do not represent the United Kingdom’s golden days. The economy was stagnant, the empire was collapsing, Europe was coming together, and Britain was slowly moving to the margins of the international system.
It is really the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when the empire was at its apogee, that Johnson has in mind. He’s been explicit about that; when he left his job as foreign minister in July 2018 over his disagreement with the so-called soft Brexit deal Prime Minister Theresa May reached with Brussels, Johnson said that the spirit of Brexit had been lost. Britain had to rediscover the dynamism of the Victorian explorers and go back out into the wider world “to find friends, to open markets, to promote our culture and our values.”
Johnson’s historical ramblings coincide with a concrete, albeit utopian, political project: rebuilding Global Britain. The strategy roughly consists of rekindling old friendships in the Commonwealth, rediscovering the special relationship with the United States, and strengthening links with Asian economies. The Global Britain grand strategy is part of a national mythology that emphasizes the country’s status as an island nation. To better understand Johnson’s view of the world, it is important to start from that story
The “island nation” idea encapsulates the defining features of the United Kingdom: internal unity, military security, global reach, and continental separation. It is a symbol both of openness and closedness, independence and resilience. Great Britain was, and is, both stubbornly inward-looking and relentlessly international.
It is Britain’s isolation that has led to its exceptionalism: Not only does the country stand apart geographically from a crowded continent, it also stands out historically. The British pride themselves on their country’s exceptional history of continuous freedom, self-government, and rule of law (which it sometimes had a supposed civilizing duty to spread to the rest of the world). From this self-glorifying perspective, the legal structures imposed by the European integration process contaminated British institutional purity.
Geographical isolation also implies that the Anglo-Saxons are something different from their continental peers. And before the idea of a unified West arose during the Cold War, there were almost three centuries of military confrontations between the Anglo-Saxon world and continental Europe.
For Britain, being different has meant being powerful. Every time would-be European or Eurasian hegemons—from Charles V, Philip II, Louis XIV, and Napoleon Bonaparte to Wilhelm II, Adolf Hitler, and Leonid Brezhnev—threatened to disrupt the global balance of power, the Anglo-Saxons intervened to restore order. As Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it in her famous speech at the College of Europe in Bruges in 1988, when discussing Britain’s special contribution to the European project: “Had it not been for that willingness to fight and to die, Europe would have been united long before now—but not in liberty, not in justice.”
Given the island nation myth, a no-deal Brexit does not scare Johnson. It would align with a clear and distinct worldview that sees British interests as lying away from Europe’s.
The Global Britain strategy clings nostalgically to the idea that Britain would go from being an ordinary European Union member state to a modern version of the old imperial power. Thanks to the diplomatic legacy of its colonial era, the U.K. would find itself at the center of a dense network of relations with its true kin, while enjoying a position of greater influence than it ever had within the EU.
Outside of Europe, Britain could work on building an Anglosphere with the English-speaking countries that are committed to common law, democracy, and free markets. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States would be the natural candidates for open trade and exchange of people.
Beyond the Anglosphere, Britain would revive its relations with the Commonwealth—a legacy of its empire, with its 53 members spanning five continents and containing almost 2.5 billion people—on which Britain turned its back when it joined the European Economic Community in 1973. Johnson and his hardcore Brexit fellows depict the Commonwealth as an underutilized business asset, which contains one of the world’s fastest growing economies, India, and would allow the U.K. to have a globe-spanning presence.
Within this strategic framework, Europe would play a secondary role. To Johnson’s eyes, the EU is a doomed project. As in the past centuries, continental Europe will only be a source of problems for the U.K. It will certainly remain a key market to absorb British goods. But its relative importance will decline over time as a result of the emergence of more prosperous markets and more assertive global powers. Better for Britain to cultivate its own interests abroad independently.
The idea of Global Britain rests on many false assumptions. First of all, the British Empire was certainly global, but it was first and foremost British. Unlike Britain, its former colonies are less nostalgic for its return. If anything, their memories of the colonial era are distinctly negative.
Moreover, the special relationship with the United States might turn out to be much less special than Johnson seems willing to acknowledge. It is true that both U.S. President Donald Trump and the Brexiteers catalyzed similar forms of discontent, but with different purposes in mind. Brexit was predicated on free-market multilateralism; Trump endorses protectionism and America First. Meanwhile, each other member of the Anglosphere has its own priorities and interests. Australia and New Zealand are torn between their Western identities and positions in the Asia-Pacific. For them, a post-Brexit Britain may lose its appeal as a trans-Atlantic intermediary and Anglo-Saxon balancer in European affairs.
Finally, the Commonwealth, which comprises both democracies and autocracies, emerging and advanced economies, does not offer a viable economic alternative to the EU. The Commonwealth absorbs less than 10 percent of British exports and imports. The United States alone is about twice as important to the British economy—and the European Union, in turn, more than twice the United States. A 5 percent drop of British trade with the EU could be offset only by a 25 percent increase with the BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
However, the greatest challenge facing Johnson’s Global Britain vision will be domestic. Within the U.K., Scotland and Northern Ireland are more committed to the European project than to the establishment of a modern empire. And even many Brexiteers outside of Johnson’s elite circles, in particular those living in rural and industrial areas, have much more inward-looking attitudes. They want to stem global forces at the border to live a more secure and quiet life at home.
Johnson will soon realize that nostalgia is not a good compass for 21st-century politics. A past, especially a glorious one, can hardly suit an ordinary present.