The Underdog Imperialists: The Brexiteers uses of History Before and Since the 2016 Referendum

Abstract

This paper seeks to understand the ways in which those advocating for the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU), before and since the 2016 referendum, have drawn on historical parallels to mobilize popular support for their position. In light of the narrow margin of victory for Leave and the prevalence of emotionally driven arguments as a counter to the proposals of so-called “experts,” it is important to understand the historical rhetoric of the Leave campaign, and how it brought them victory. Noting that many of the Brexiteers consider themselves students of history, this paper argues that the use of historical myths about a British struggle for freedom against a European oppressor was a decisive factor in igniting visceral popular support for Brexit. It analyzes the ways in which the experiences of the Second World War were mobilized both during the first EU referendum in 1975 and in the 2016 campaign. It goes on to problematize Brexiteers’ attempts to use a sense of both their own powerlessness against the British pro-Remain establishment, and the wider sense that Britain had always suffered under German and French dominance, to create a myth of the historical “underdog.” Finally, it seeks to critique the contradictory relationship between the underdog myth and a narrative of reviving imperial ties, exposing them as fundamentally incompatible and ultimately inaccurate readings of British history.

Alistair Somerville is an M.A. Candidate in German and European Studies at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. His research focuses on contested political narratives in past and contemporary European societies, and he is the producer of the podcast The Europe Desk. You can reach him at aps128@georgetown.edu.

THE UNDERDOG IMPERIALISTS: THE BREXITEERS USES OF HISTORY BEFORE AND SINCE THE 2016 REFERENDUM

The official campaign slogan to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union in 2016, was “Vote Leave, take back control” (Vote Leave 2016). Although commonly shortened to “Vote Leave,” or simply “Leave,” the word “back” in the official slogan implies an orientation towards history. It suggests an opportunity for Britain to go back to a time when it had control over its borders, its economy, and its laws. However, the historical orientation of Vote Leave’s campaign slogan raises more questions than answers. From whom exactly did Britain need to take back control, and what sort of control existed previously for Britain to reclaim? This paper seeks to understand the ways the campaigns to leave the European Union during the 2016 referendum—both members of the official Vote Leave and the associated Leave.EU and Grassroots Out campaigns—used historical allusions and parallels to create an emotional case for Brexit.

Journalists and academics have begun the job of piecing together the myriad factors that resulted in the vote to leave the European Union. The motivations that brought about this result were numerous, including deeply held concerns based on the perception of uncontrolled immigration, widespread distrust of institutions, and shrewd political campaigning by the various leave campaigns. Indeed, not least because of the distinct lack of public understanding of the European Union, the vote was as much a referendum on the six years of economic austerity under the Conservative government, as anything else.[1] Scholars have found a direct correlation between exposure to cuts in welfare spending and a tendency to support the populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) (Fetzer 2019; Smith 2019).

Another element in this constellation of causes is the way in which Brexiteers (a colloquial term for those in the favor of Brexit) used and misused historical images and even historical myth to generate visceral, emotional, public support for Leave, and the energy to win a narrow victory in the referendum. Examining in particular the most intense period of the referendum campaign from March to June 2016, as well as a number of relevant allusions to history since the vote, this paper looks specifically at those who shaped the narrative—the politicians, strategists, and the media they deployed—and their ultimately successful attempts to convince 52% of voters to back Brexit.

Many of the key actors in the Brexit debate, such as now Prime Minister Boris Johnson and one of his de facto deputies Michael Gove, have always seen themselves as advocates of a “liberal” Brexit, with freedom from EU regulations and directions, global free trade, and equal immigration standards for all countries. Others, such as Nigel Farage of UKIP and latterly the Brexit Party, alongside the right wing of the Conservative Party, had comparatively illiberal motivations. Those groups emphasized the need to reduce immigration from Europe and elsewhere. Campaign posters produced in the weeks before the vote stoked racist fears by invoking the possibility of Turkey’s entry into the European Union and the effect that might have on crime rates in the UK (Boffey & Helm 2016). Their campaign rhetoric was imbued with xenophobia against the European “other” (Behr 2016). Pro-Brexit political strategists mobilized whichever message resonated most with voters to win the day. This populist approach played a crucial role in shaping the outcome. Given such disparities in the underlying motivations, let alone visions for the post-Brexit future, Brexiteers from both the liberal and conservative camps only united around historical narratives of the British underdog’s desire for freedom and control over its own destiny.

While it was not just history that motivated the campaign, it is impossible to understand the Brexiteers’ appeal without an analysis of the historical allusions they deployed before and since the referendum. They built a significant part of their emotional argument around mobilizing historical memories of Britain’s relationship with Europe in the Second World War, through to the 1975 referendum, and the country’s imperial legacies. The 2016 vote was only the third national referendum in Britain’s history and one of the few opportunities for public discussion of the country’s role in the world. As countries seek to understand their place in a rapidly changing global landscape, citizens, politicians, and campaigners alike often turn to history to shape the emotional case for their position.

Theories of historical memory and the shaping of national consciousness enable us to see the importance of historical allusions, parallels, and myths as tools of political argument. Benedict Anderson’s conception of the nation, which outlined the role of shared history and collective memory in the process of creating a national narrative is foundational to our understanding of the power of the nation as an idea to mobilize political action (Anderson 1983, 6). After all, it was the allure of an imagined past that won the vote for the Brexiteers. Prevailing theories on the role of historical memory in shaping political debates provide support for the idea that historically grounded narratives of the nation are exceptionally important in shaping public consciousness. As German historian Heinrich August Winkler has argued, it is commonplace in democratic society for contrasting images of history to compete against each other for primacy (Winkler 2004).[2] He points to the presence of Geschichtspolitik, or a political debate about a country’s history, as a healthy feature of a functioning democracy because societies require at least a baseline consensus on the stories that unite them as a people. Maurice Halbwachs, a French sociologist, was most influential in conceptualizing this idea in his 1940 work, The Collective Memory, in which he pioneered the idea that outside individual memory, there is also group memory. Membership of society, and participation in a group with a shared conception of the past, strongly shapes each individual’s understanding of history (Winkler 2004, 12). These understandings of the role of history in political debate provide a framework through which to analyze collective memory in the context of Brexit, and the importance that historical narratives play in shaping political beliefs.

Even the term “Brexiteer” itself has historical allusions. It references the Alexandre Dumas novel, The Three Musketeers, and gives allusions of a band of “swashbuckling” brothers fighting injustice (Katz 2016). Proponents of Brexit quickly adopted the term in the months leading up to the vote, because, as Michael Gove noted, “Brexiteer brings to mind buccaneer, pioneer, musketeer … It lends a sense of panache and romance to the argument” (quoted in Katz 2016). In the course of the referendum campaign and since, it became clear that a romantic attachment to a mythical British past, rather than the presentation of facts and evidence about the UK’s place in the world, became the priority of the Leave campaigns.

In an August 2018 piece for The Spectator, Greg Hall explored leading male Brexiteers’ fascination with history and commented on their educational backgrounds. He noted that their references to history during and since the referendum were in some cases almost comically specific. Oxford history graduate Jacob Rees-Mogg MP described Theresa May’s proposal for post-Brexit Britain as “the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Philip II at Le Goulet in 1200” (Hall 2018). Boris Johnson, also famous for igniting anti-EU sentiment through flowery rhetoric, used his weekly column in The Telegraph newspaper to declare in March 2016 that the EU “wants a superstate, just as Hitler did” (Ross 2016). Johnson studied ancient history in his classical studies degree. The intellectual architect of modern Conservative skepticism about the EU, Daniel Hannan (himself a Member of the European Parliament), as well as Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s only MP, studied history too. Michael Gove did not, but he presided over school reforms during his time as Education Secretary that “sought to establish a ‘narrative of British progress’ in the history curriculum” (Hall 2018). Hall noted a particular bias for Brexit among those who had studied the Glorious Revolution or the English Civil War, or had written about Churchill’s heroic resistance against Germany, as Johnson had famously done in his 2014 book The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History.

This fascination with history contrasted with the educational experiences of Remainers, the name given to those who wanted the UK to remain in the European Union. The Remainer campaign’s leaders more likely studied law (in the cases of Keir Starmer, Tony Blair, and Anna Soubry) or Philosophy, Politics and Economics, the much-maligned interdisciplinary Oxford degree program (see David Cameron, Yvette Cooper, and Will Straw, the director of Britain Stronger in Europe) (Beckett 2017). This may provide, Hall argued, a partial explanation about Remainers’ use of rational, economic arguments, as opposed to Brexiteers’ turn to stories from the past. David Cameron and his team argued that Brexit would lead to a fall in GDP, a collapse of the pound sterling, and lower wages for British workers (Mason 2016).

However, Hall missed a crucial dynamic: the highly gendered aspect to the contrasting educational backgrounds of those who fought each other over Brexit. The overwhelming presence of men leading both campaigns is indicative of wider and ongoing problems in the distribution of power within the British political class. However, it is still striking that, on the Leave side, the self-professed history buffs Hall referred to are exclusively male. Their fascination with history appears to take a very particular form, one that emphasizes the role of the “great man,” such as in the weight Johnson placed on Churchill’s role alone in making history, and on the “heroic” episodes of British history more generally. To complicate matters, the personal histories of the actors, and their differing approaches to the use of history, are significantly intertwined, not least because many of them attended the same high schools and universities. The actors went into the campaign carrying the inter-personal rivalries from their (invariably) Oxford days, centering on social class or student politics (as in the case of Gove, Cameron, and Johnson).

In many ways, the referendum served primarily as a stage for an intra-Conservative Party battle to settle old scores and hangovers from the rhetorical games of the Oxford Union debating society, more than as a stage for discussing the future of the country (Shipman 2017, 152-3). The most detailed studies of the campaign, such as the journalist Tim Shipman’s All Out War, are imbued with a sense that the main actors’ personal chances to go down as a “great man” of history, or at least a future prime minister, shaped their positions during the campaign. Such  desires to settle old scores and to be remembered appear to have left the option open to draw dangerous and untrue historical parallels between, for example, Nazi Germany and the EU. At the core, whether their vision for Britain after Brexit was more liberal or isolationist, Brexiteers could draw on powerful, sometimes verbose, historical parallels to evoke nostalgic arguments on the need to regain sovereignty, or “take back control.”

It is important to understand, however, that the politicians who knew enough history to see its potential as a powerful tool during the campaign, were not the only relevant actors in the Leave campaigns. Although he mentioned his name, Hall’s article gave little attention to arguably the most influential Brexiteer, at least when it came to shaping the narrative during the campaign: Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s campaign director, and an Oxford graduate in ancient and modern history. In the period from April to June 2016 in particular, special advisers and political spin doctors like Cummings played just as important a role as the politicians who led the campaigns (Wintour 2019).

Cummings, now Prime Minister Johnson’s chief strategist, is obsessed with nineteenth century statesmen and military strategists, and had read a huge number of books about them since resigning from Education Secretary Michael Gove’s office in 2014 (Wintour 2019). At university, Cummings had studied 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, and was fascinated by the “truth” spoken by “Thucydides, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu [and] Mao” on strategic theory (Shipman 2017, 93). Bismarck, his idol, once said: “People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election,” and this epithet aptly sums up Cummings’ approach. Cummings has made his obsession with history so widely known that it is hard to dismiss the Brexiteers’ use of history, myth-making, and outright falsehoods as simply unconscious or coincidental. According to Shipman’s account of the campaign, Cummings consulted books and sources on military theory directly prior to taking over leadership of Vote Leave. The 2019 TV drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War (which draws on Shipman’s work) also makes explicit parallels between the campaign and a war-time scenario. It presents Cummings’ strategy as a war on all fronts, including against other anti-EU groups with different priorities (Shipman 2017, 102-3). As this paper will consider, this presentation of the campaign as a civil war necessitates further examination of how Brexiteers drew on British war-time experience to conceive of their role as underdog warriors. Their self-conception as Brexiteers only added to their sense of adventure.

Theories of historical memory, advanced by scholars like Edgar Wolfrum, have stressed the fine line between collective memory of a group’s shared past and a mobilization of historical myths, not based on informed historical interpretations, but on selective memory. In the case of Brexit in particular, it is important to ask whose shared history was mobilized to greatest effect in the referendum debate. As has been argued above, politicians and campaigners deployed history in un-academic, ill-informed ways, or based their assertions and parallels on myth as a way to legitimize their own political conduct (Wolfrum 2002, 6). As Wolfrum noted: “The historical profession does not have a monopoly on history and memory. History has been and is deployed as a weapon, as a tool of political combat against internal and external opponents” (Wolfrum 2002, 6).[3] The public voted for Brexit in spite of three hundred historians signing a letter against it, indicative of a more general fall of trust in academics and the country’s liberal institutions (Hall 2018). Therefore, while history can often be an honest element of political debate, it is more appropriate in the case of Brexit to focus on the ways in which those outside the historical profession mobilized aspects of history as weapons, and used aspects of Britain’s past selectively, to construct an image of British resistance to European dominance, especially during the Second World War. Wolfrum also reminds us that a significant component of mobilizing history in political debate is the ability to block out and forget aspects of the past that do not fit the narrative one is trying to construct. In spite of Brexiteers’ desire to paint themselves as warrior underdogs in a fight against the establishment for British freedom, their parallel insistence on increased ties to the Commonwealth instead of Europe completely ignored Britain’s colonial past, as this paper will go on to discuss.

In light of theories about the role of collective memory in nation states, one might also raise questions about exactly whose history the Brexiteers’ looked to in their rhetoric and imagery. Most of the lead actors mentioned above were English, and could not claim to represent the diverse histories of other parts of the UK. Ultimately, while England and Wales voted for Brexit, Scotland and Northern Ireland came to back Remain (BBC 2016). Although Brexiteers claimed to be representing the history of an entire nation, their cavalier attitude towards the future of Northern Ireland and its border with Ireland, for example, demonstrated a woeful understanding of the sensitivity of Irish history and the possibility for renewed violence on the island after Brexit (see O’Toole 2018). Notably, the sense of English nationalism in the Brexiteers’ attitudes towards Ireland sincerely undermines claims that they sought a truly “liberal Brexit” that could free all of the UK from the shackles of the past. Johnson, Gove, and Rees-Mogg, in particular, despite their claims of desiring a globally orientated, liberal Brexit, were only too happy to exploit underlying English nationalism for their own political gain. This area is certainly worthy of further examination.

Drawing on theories of historical and collective memory highlights the stark disagreements in British society over the country’s role in the world in light of its past. This is particularly evident when the 2016 referendum is viewed in the context of 1975. Britain first voted on its relationship with Europe in a referendum in that year, the first national vote of its kind, having joined the European Economic Community in 1972 (Saunders 2018). With regard to collective memory, as Robert Saunders noted in his recent book on the 1975 experience, voters in the first European referendum were “closer to the end of the First World War than voters in 2016 were to the Second” (Saunders 2018, 23). Even the younger generation in 1975 had, through their parents’ experiences, a clear sense of the possibility of war on the continent. In some cities, the bomb damage from the Second World War was still visible thirty years on. The anniversary of Victory in Europe was celebrated a month before the referendum. Exactly thirty-one years after D-Day, Britain voted to remain a member of the European Economic Community (EEC). After the horrors of war, the use of the poppy on Britain in Europe posters, alongside a dove of peace for its logo, created strongly positive associations between the European Economic Community and its founders’ visions of peace in Europe. Some publications went further, criticizing the anti-Europe campaigns as playing to destructive nationalist tendencies. One claimed, “Nationalism kills” (Saunders 2018, 29). All of the campaign materials had the dove at their core, drawing the observer back to a fundamentally positive message. The campaign used the public anniversary of Victory in Europe Day to remind voters of a day that many had not dared to imagine during the darkest days of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, with the slogan: “On VE Day we celebrated the beginnings of peace. Vote Yes to make sure we keep it” (Saunders 2018, 29). It should not be forgotten that the 1975 debate took place at the height of the Cold War, and that the risk of war with the USSR was profound. Such references to peace in Europe were perceived as authentic because they were rooted in personal experience. Prime Minister Edward Heath had defended the city of Liverpool during the Blitz, for example. Others promoting the case for membership had been awarded the Military Cross, and even most on the anti-Community side, including Enoch Powell, had fought in the Second World War. The “Yes to Europe” campaign was able to mobilize positive, historically grounded arguments about peace and stability in Europe on the basis of shared historical and personal memory, which proved extremely powerful in the campaign.

In 2016, by contrast, any references by the Remain side to the potential for war on the continent were dismissed as “Project Fear” (Shipman 2017, 234). The Daily Mail ran the headline: ‘EU VOTE: NOW PM WARNS OF WAR AND GENOCIDE’, when Prime Minster David Cameron’s 9 May 2016 speech to the press made reference to the need to remain “close” to European neighbors. The speech invoked the memory of World Wars I and II, the Battles of Blenheim and Waterloo, and the Spanish Armada, to make an argument about European security (Shipman 2017, 235). The reference to “World War III,” the name given to the speech by Vote Leave, was a fabrication of Euroskeptic newspapers, and not actually part of the speech. The public, with little collective memory or personal experience of war, did not see Cameron’s attempt to mobilize historical memories of war as credible. Shipman notes this speech as the point at which a significant section of the public lost complete trust in Cameron and the establishment. The parallel cases of 1975 and 2016 therefore demonstrate that both the Remain and Leave camps attempted to use history in their arguments, and that, as Winkler’s understanding of historical memory showed, history need not be mobilized for a negative or destructive purpose in public discourse. Rather, the 1975 case demonstrates that history can serve as a point of reference in people’s personal experience or familial memory to remind them of their ties to a community – imagined or otherwise.
Rational allusions to a shared history of peace and security with European neighbors since the Second World War failed to generate support for Remain in 2016. Therefore, it is important to understand the ways in which Vote Leave enjoyed greater success in mobilizing history as a weapon in the campaign. In light of their own self-conception as underdogs fighting a heroic battle against the British establishment, Brexiteers drew on simple, misleading historical analogies to present Britain as an underdog nation oppressed by evil Europeans. As historian and public intellectual Richard J. Evans has noted, these allusions were almost always “spurious” (Evans 2018). Boris Johnson may have convinced some by writing that Brussels’ bureaucrats shared with Adolf Hitler the desire to bring “Europe under a single government [by] different methods,” but there is no historical evidence that either sought this (Evans 2018). Such images were repeated and bolstered in the pro-Brexit press, including in The Sun and The Daily Mail. Aggressively pro-Brexit from the beginning, these two newspapers were a fertile ground for promoting Vote Leave’s arguments. Shipman reported that 70% of the readers of The Sun supported Brexit (Shipman 2017, 127). Alongside the language of Boris Johnson’s column, other writers in the Daily Telegraph such as the polemicist Simon Heffer hyperbolized Germany’s economic power to the point of calling it the “Fourth Reich” (Heffer 2016). In an express appeal to whichever form of liberalism meant he could become the next prime minister, Johnson called for Britain to “liberate” itself from European domination as it had done in the Second World War (Evans 2018). Johnson, who achieved his goal of becoming Prime Minister in July 2019, has come under ever more scrutiny for his dealings with history since then, from his book about the Roman Empire to his decision to make up a quote about the fourteenth century English king Edward II (Purnell 2019; Somerville 2019). In his 2018 New Statesman piece, Evans exposes the lazy historical references of which almost all the leading Brexiteers were guilty, emphasizing in particular the erroneous claims around the need for “freedom” from Europe once again.

Nonetheless, the extent to which Vote Leave saw itself as the underdog should not be underestimated. Steve Baker, the Conservative MP and former Royal Air Force officer, who was the leader of the Eurosceptic group Conservatives for Britain and came to be a crucial link between Vote Leave and Parliament, famously wrote on the wall of the spartan campaign office, “You’re all heroes” (Shipman 2017, 234). There had been no Vote Leave launch event, because the campaign did not have the business, political, or celebrity endorsements of the Remain campaign, and instead was launched with a video piloting the original slogan: “Vote Leave, let’s take control” (Shipman 2017, 55). Of course, the Leave campaign was certainly the underdog when viewed alongside the Westminster government machine, which was mobilized to back Remain. This narrative proved powerful at Cummings’ campaign headquarters, and shaped the mindset of both strategists and politicians in the Leave campaign.

Furthermore, Vote Leave’s underdog status against the establishment was arguably part of its appeal in the first place for the likes of Gove and Johnson. In their admiration for Winston Churchill, for example, it seems that both men joined the campaign thinking they would go down as heroic underdogs, losing the referendum but perfectly placed to lead the Conservative Party as soon as they sensed further weakness on David Cameron’s part (Shipman 2017, 154). This is not to say that Gove and Johnson were not moved by principal in any way to back Brexit. Rather, it is hard to see beyond naked political ambition of lieutenants looking to steal the leadership of the party and the country, whatever the cost. Numerous articles on the campaign have discussed how admiration for Churchill, and the sense that they were walking in his footsteps, gave Brexiteers even greater confidence that they were leading a valiant fight against a future dictated to them by the Germans and the French (see Hall 2018; Andrews 2017).

It is, however, impossible to reconcile a perception of “underdog status,” in terms of Britain’s status relative to a fictional European “super-state,” with the narrative of imperial power so prominent in the Brexit referendum. To understand the role of imperial legacy in 2016, let us look once again at the 1975 experience. During the first referendum, imperial decline and the loss of colonies meant the European Economic Community presented the UK with the possibility of playing a new, positive role in the world. The Sun newspaper, then a supporter of the EEC, reported in March 1975, “After years of drift and failure, the Common Market offers an unrepeatable opportunity for a nation that lost an empire to gain a continent” (Saunders 2018). 1975 represented a fork in the road for Britain when it came to its identity and its place in the world.

In 1975, Parliament was debating the European Communities Act – the law that brought the UK into the EEC. The debate about Britain’s imperial role, and the status of its Commonwealth of former colonies, is significant, because the UK’s status as a declining power was fresh in voters’ minds in 1975 (Saunders 2018, 310). By contrast, in 2016, memories of the horrors perpetrated by British forces during colonial rule, as well as the humiliations of losing the colonies, were all but forgotten. This laid the ground for Brexiteers to produce narratives of a return to British imperial greatness through post-Brexit trade deals with Commonwealth countries.

Both Richard Evans and Kehinde Andrews have highlighted Secretary of State for International Trade Dr. Liam Fox’s tweet from March 2016 that Britain “is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history” (Andrews 2017). Such utterances make it clear that both a sense of superiority over other European countries, as well as a clear sense of historical amnesia, are alive and well in sections of the British elite. Such public statements erase the atrocities of British colonialism, such as the three million deaths caused by the Bengal famine, or the use of concentration camps in the Boer War (Pretorius 2019).

Brexiteers such as Fox and Boris Johnson continue to believe that Commonwealth countries will jump at the chance to make trade deals with the UK. This assumption is not based on economic arguments, but on the false premise that historical ties will lead previously subjugated nations to seek trade deals with their former colonial master. Regardless of colonial legacies, 31 of the remaining 52 Commonwealth countries have populations of less than 1.2 million. They do not pose any realistic opportunities for significant trade, and can certainly not replace the economic value of belonging to the world’s largest trading bloc, the EU (Tomlinson and Dorling 2016). Those educated in Britain even as late as the 1960s grew up with maps on their classroom wall showing British control of huge parts of the globe. As Bill Schwarz has argued, it is difficult to shake the sense of natural superiority which can come from knowing that your country once held a great empire, making people more susceptible to the myths of a renewed relationship with the Commonwealth after Brexit (Schwarz 2002). Pro-Brexit rhetoric combined calls for a return to global partnerships with former colonies in the Global South, with anti-immigrant slurs about the dangers of non-white Turks coming to Europe, again raising clear questions about the consistency of Brexiteers’ messages (Tomlinson and Dorling 2016; Andrews 2017).

It is worth noting that former Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her plans for the details of Brexit at Lancaster House, the site of the conferences in the late 1950s and early 1960s where Nigeria and then Kenya’s independence were negotiated. The symbolism of this choice of venue is striking. While it may be too broad a conclusion to assert the parallels between the humiliation of decolonization and the diminution of Britain’s standing in the world after Brexit simply on the basis of this connection, the history of Lancaster House’s uses leads one reasonably to emphasize the inescapability of Britain’s former empire as a backdrop for Brexit. As Sigmund Freud once noted, “some impression” of colonial experience still looms over post-imperial society, and in many ways highlights the hypocrisy of attempts by politicians to claim that a ‘liberal’ Brexit based on a mutually beneficial trade relationship with formerly colonized Commonwealth nations was somehow possible (Schwarz 2002).

At the party held at Vote Leave headquarters on the night of the referendum, Daniel Hannan, one of the Brexiteer historians, gave a speech celebrating victory. He gave a version of the St. Crispin’s Day feast speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, replacing the names of the king’s noblemen with those of leading lights from the Vote Leave campaign. Shipman reports him as saying:

From now on every year, it comes round, you guys will be remembered. Our names familiar in their mouths as household words – Duncan Smith and Penny Mordaunt and Dominic and Oliver and Douglas Carswell, and Parky and Starky [Parkinson and Stephenson, two Vote Leave communications aides] … What an amazing thing we have pulled off, and every year this will be our day, the day that we showed the world that this country was not yet finished. This is our Independence Day. (Shipman 2017, 437)

This event is illustrative of many of the conclusions that emerge from this analysis of Brexiteers’ use of history, during the campaign and since. While the speech does not allude to the desire for a return to the days of British global imperialism, Hannan’s words make clear the Brexiteers’ self-perception as English underdog warriors, who succeeded in defeating the establishment against the odds, and who deserve a place in a Shakespearean play. Moreover, the choice of Henry V emphasizes the anti-European, in this case, anti-French sentiment underlying many of the historical allusions seen throughout British anti-Europe rhetoric. The success of Brexiteers’ emotional historical claims was built on decades of allusions to the past in British political debates. It will therefore be unsurprising if we see even more nostalgic calls in future British political discourse for a return to a “better” past, now that the UK has formally left the EU.

In an illustrative case of the selective use of history, however, Hannan omitted another more ominous part of the original speech from Henry V at the victory party:

The fewer men, the greater share of honour. God’s will, I pray thee wish not one man more. Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost; It yearns me not if men my garments wear; Such outward things dwell not in my desires. But if it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive. (Act IV Scene 3, lines 18–67)

Arguably, this latter part of the speech would have been more appropriate to cite, in light of the immense uncertainties unleashed by the vote to leave the European Union. Brexiteers had been able to unite around historical, emotional claims during the campaign, but were deeply divided about the options for Britain’s economic future after leaving the EU. As Shakespeare might have said: such outward thoughts dwelt not on their desires, and were not part of their post-Brexit planning. Having coveted “honour,” they ignored warning signs from experts and institutions about the possibility of economic downturn, discord and lack of consensus after the vote. All they could agree on were emotionally driven arguments and parallels to a time when Britannia really did rule the waves. They mobilized their campaign around these messages, for a world in which unilateral British power on the world stage is more imagined than real. Given that a YouGov poll two days before the referendum showed that only 19% of voters trusted David Cameron’s statements, this was enough to secure victory.

Since 2016, the leading Brexiteers have risen to the highest offices in the land. Boris Johnson presides over a divided country that has left the European Union. Dominic Cummings is his chief strategist. It is therefore crucial for scholars to continue to scrutinize these men’s actions, as they now hold the fate of the country in their hands. The UK has yet to sign a trade deal with any Commonwealth nation, or any other country for that matter, and the coronavirus pandemic has created chaos at home as well as in the next stage of negotiations with Brussels. The government has sought to mobilize a positive message around the UK’s engagement with the world through its “Global Britain” campaign. However, at least for the time being, the populists who mobilized the past to such great effect in 2016 have yet to deliver a clear plan for the future. The underdog imperialists never expected to win the referendum, and they continue to rely on calls to the UK’s former colonial status as they craft a foreign policy for the future. An understanding of the power of this historical memory can help scholars assess the country’s trajectory going forward. While the country’s past does not help us to predict its future, it is impossible fully to grasp the power of the Brexiteers’ message without continued analysis of their weaponization of history.

 

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[1] Famously, the second most common Google search in the UK on the subject of the EU the day after the referendum was “What is the EU?”. See https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/06/24/480949383/britains-google-searches-for-what-is-the-eu-spike-after-brexit-vote.

[2] Winkler 2004, Der Griff nach der Deutungsmacht, 11: “In einer demokratischen Gesellschaft pflegen mehrere Geschichtsbilder miteinander zu konkurrieren”. Translation from German, author’s own: “In a democratic society, many different historical images seek to compete with one another.”

[3] Translation from German – author’s own.

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