A number of columnists and commentators have pointed to something disturbingly imperial in some of the arguments in favour of Brexit. Few, however, have looked to the academic study of British national identity or imperial history for answers. By using the work of Paul Gilroy and Bill Schwarz as a lens through which to examine Brexit, we can better perceive the role British imperial history and memory has played in exacerbating the current political situation. Writing long before the 2016 EU referendum, both Gilroy and Schwarz analysed the place of Empire in constructions of British national and racial identity. However, their analyses also happened to contain what have become key features of Brexiteer rhetoric.
In his 2004 book, Postcolonial Melancholia (published in the UK under the title After Empire), Gilroy continued a conversation he had begun back in 1987 with his Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. Perhaps most pertinent to the Brexit debate, Gilroy analysed Britain’s enduring obsession with the Second World War, summed up for him by ‘the brash motto’: ‘Two world wars and one world cup, doo dah, doo dah’. For Gilroy, the broken record quality of the British collective memory was deeply bound up with decolonisation. The uncomfortable complexities of the imperial past ‘have been collapsed into the overarching figuration of Britain at war against the Nazis, under attack, yet stalwart and ultimately triumphant’.
The image of Britain standing alone in the summer of 1940 has been constantly invoked by Brexit-supporting British ministers. Back in September last year, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt ‘warned’ the EU that if they attempted to force a bad deal on the Prime Minister they risked stirring Britain’s ‘“Dunkirk spirit”’. Earlier in January of that year, a group of pro-Brexit politicians and campaigners were planning to meet with European Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels in order to warn him that Britain would resist a bad deal with ‘Churchillian “iron will”’. The simultaneous denial of Britain’s imperial past and obsession with the Second World War can be seen in microcosm in recent controversies over Churchill himself. He is always portrayed in his ‘finest hour’, for instance, and never during his many more reactionary, imperialist moments.
This fixation with the 1940s is significant for Gilroy because it points to what it does not – and cannot – express: prideful regret at the loss of Empire tinged with discomfort and shame about the actual record of imperial governance. Signs of this stifled colonial past sometimes slip out of the very same politicians who invoke Churchill and Dunkirk. On a diplomatic visit to Myanmar in 2017, Churchill biographer and Brexiteer Boris Johnson was bizarrely unable to contain a recitation of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The Road to Mandalay’. But as Gilroy noted, these postcolonial parapraxes can also be altogether darker, finding expression in the politics of xenophobia.
The unspoken fear of being colonised or becoming a colony based on ‘the terrifying folk knowledge’ of what that actually means in practice, is expressed in a desire to expel immigrants and, in this case, shun Europe. At one end this is behind the fears of Johnson and other Brexiteers who speak of Britain being doomed ‘to the status of a colony’ by a ‘bad’ withdrawal deal. At the other, it can be seen in Leave.EU’s infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster which attempted to conjure up dystopian images of Britain’s white population reduced to a minority, submerged by a black or brown ‘mass’.
In his 2011 Memories of Empire, Volume 1: The White Man’s World, Bill Schwarz provides an account of the British experience of decolonisation. He argues that the highly racialised politics of British white settler colonies, especially Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), rebounded on the metropole. Settler political leaders like president of the Central African Federation Roy Welensky (1956-1963) and Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith (1964-1979) portrayed their fellow settlers as authentic white Britons in conflict with out of touch, metropolitan liberal elite in league with black anti-colonial nationalists. During the 1960s, the Conservative New Right, notably the Monday Club (founded 1961) and, infamously, Enoch Powell began to talk about an imagined British people in similar terms. Schwarz writes that they came to believe that:
The governors of the land lived faraway… they were out of touch with the real feelings of the English people… and, wittingly or unwittingly, they were working to destroy the nation. The rulers, in other words, had become the enemies of all true English men and women.
Though Powell and the Monday Club were reacting to post-war Commonwealth immigration, Schwarz’s summary of their arguments could easily apply to Theresa May’s recent controversial statement on Brexit. More broadly, this colonial conception of a metropolitan liberal elite, out of touch and in league with the ‘other’, became a familiar epithet of the Leave campaign and pro-Brexit sections of the British press. This perhaps unsurprising when many of the main spokespeople for the Leave campaign were born or raised in the white enclaves where this kind of politics developed, in countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, and Uganda.
The point of all this is not that academic writing on British imperialism and national identity can be used to prove that all Leave voters are racist or hanker for ‘good old days’ of British imperialism. The work of Gilroy and Schwarz helps reveal the un-exorcised ghosts of British imperialism lurking within the on-going campaign for Britain to leave the European Union. Whether in the talk of a ‘Dunkirk spirit’ or metropolitan liberal ‘Enemies of the People’, the morbid symptoms of a nation that has failed to reckon with its past are readily observable. Brexit was not caused by the British Empire but the unresolved imperial past has worked to intensify and accelerate a constitutional crisis in which Brexit negotiations have been driven by a series of delusions about the national past instead of present political realities.
Liam Liburd is in his 3rd year PhD studies with the University of Sheffield. His thesis is titled “Radical Right, Imperial, White: Imperialism, Race and Gender on the British Radical Right, 1918 to 1968”. His research focuses on the relationship between the British Radical Right and the British Empire. An article of his, on ideas of imperial masculinity in the British Union of Fascists, was recently published in Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies. He has broader interests in gender and cultural historical approaches to British and imperial history in the twentieth century.
Always on the sidelines? A historian’s view on Brexit by Eirini Karamouzi
Free Trade Brexit: Think Tanks and Pressure Groups in Modern British Politics by Aaron Ackerley
 Gary Younge, ‘Britain’s imperial fantasies have given us Brexit’, The Guardian, 3 February,
2018; Fintan O’Toole, ‘The paranoid fantasy behind Brexit’, The Guardian, 16 November, 2018.
 Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), p. 117.
 Ibid., p. 97.
 Gordon Rayner, ‘Jeremy Hunt warns EU a bad Brexit deal will stir Britain’s “Dunkirk spirit”’, The Daily Telegraph, 30 September, 2018.
 James Rothwell, ‘“We will channel Churchill” – Brexiteers to warn Michel Barnier of “iron will” to walk away from bad deal’, The Daily Telegraph, 6 January, 2018.
 Kieran Andrews, ‘MSP defends claim Churchill was racist’, The Times, 29 January, 2019.
 Felix Klos, ‘Boris Johnson’s Abuse of Churchill’, History Today, 1 June 2016; Harry Yorke, ‘Boris Johnson likens Brexit dilemma to Churchill’s defiance of Hitler’, The Daily Telegraph, 6 December, 2018.
 Robert Booth, ‘Boris Johnson caught on camera reciting Kipling in Myanmar temple’, The Guardian, 30 September, 2017.
 Gilroy, After Empire, pp. 102, 110-111.
 Ibid., p. 100.
 ‘Boris Johnson says Brexit deal will make Britain an EU colony’, Reuters, 3 October, 2018.
 Heather Stewart & Rowena Mason, ‘Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster reported to police’, Guardian, 16 July, 2016.
 Bill Schwarz, Memories of Empire, Volume 1 – The White Man’s World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 347, 398-399.
 Powell was an outspoken Eurosceptic and while the Monday Club was divided over the issue of European Economic Community, the organisation contained a stridently anti-Europe wing, see Schwarz, White Man’s World, pp. 432-433.
 Schwarz, White Man’s World, p. 398.
 ‘PM Statement on Brexit: 20 March 2019’.
 Claire Phipps, ‘British newspapers react to judges’ Brexit ruling: ‘Enemies of the people’, 4 November, 2016.
 Younge, ‘Britain’s imperial fantasies have given us Brexit’.