BI-2018We’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by MLitt students at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands as part of their coursework for the module ‘British Identities’. This week’s blog post comes from Liesbeth van Hulle and reflects on the recent

When radio presenter James O’Brien had one of his numerous discussions over Brexit with a listener and tore down every single argument of the Brexiteer concerning migration and the economy, the English caller at last resorted to his ultimate line of reasoning as to why Great Britain should disentangle itself from an increasingly unified Europe: ‘Well, we used to rule two thirds of the world.’[1] Peeling off the layers of Brexit arguments leaves at its core a nostalgia for an empire which a considerable part of the British population only grudgingly relinquished.

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The British empire never was ‘two thirds of the world’, but at its maximum Great Britain still ruled over an impressive one fifth of the total world population.[2] The notion of once governing an empire in which the sun never set, is one Britons, and especially the English, like to hold on to, which is exactly what a poll in 1997 confirmed. Sixty per cent of the respondents admitted to feelings of wistfulness when it came to Britain’s lost empire.[3]  John M. MacKenzie wrote in 2008 that the English had found it hard to adjust their thoughts of ‘effortless cultural and imperial superiority’ in the post-imperial age.[4] The result of the 2016 EU Referendum – when 51.9 per cent of the British electorate voted to leave the European Union – seems to validate that statement.

Linda Colley – in her book Britons – argued that a common interest of Britons following the Union of 1707 was trade. But if investment and mercantile interests acted as a cohesive force binding the four nations together, it was the empire that was at the centre of Great Britain. When that empire started disintegrating, Britain turned to its closest neighbours, the previous ‘Other’, the European continent: a trade market of millions of people. But the European Economic Community was precisely only that: an economic community.

The 1975 EEC Referendum was won by a large margin. Nearly 70 per cent of the English population voted in favour of trade, or in the prophetic words of E. P. Thompson: for ‘freedom to travel, trade, and sell one’s own labour’.[5] What they did not vote for – as one Brexiteer wrote to the Independent – was ‘the Union’. The European process of integration and cooperation not only undermines an innate sense of distinctiveness, but acutely clashes with the thought of once again heading a wave of ‘Anglobalisation’.[6]

The economic aspect of the European Union, therefore, is inferior to the English dream of a return to its former glory. The European Union constitutes the second largest economy in the world, and within the EU, the United Kingdom was/is arguably one of the main economies. Great Britain is a major player within the EU. But the country is not the only one steering its course. For some this situation is untenable. The more the EU breaks down borders and creates a multi-cultural society, the more evocative memories of Britain’s past empire become.

This former glory, however, has changed and is now part of a world where trade is limited by strict rules, tariffs and quotas, and where every country guards its own interests. To secure beneficial deals with Commonwealth countries, more may be required than an eighteenth-century map of the world and/or recommissioning the Royal Yacht Britannia.



[1] The listener actually first said three thirds, before O’ Brien corrected him that this equalled the entire world. See:

[2] L. Colley, Britons – Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven, 2014), p. 329.

[3] K. Kumar, ‘Empire, Nation, and National Identities’, in A. Thompson (ed.), Britain’s Experience of Empire in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2012), p. 2.

[4] J. M. MacKenzie, ‘Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English Worlds? A Four-Nation Approach to the History of the British Empire’, History Compass, Vol. 6(5), p. 1255.

[5] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963), p. 79.

[6] Kumar, ‘Empire, Nation, and National Identities’, p. 9.