But it is interesting to note that the same people making this argument often seem to be bemoaning the extent to which the UK’s global influence is set to decline after Brexit. They are upset not because they fear Brexit will achieve some kind of land-grab that will return the nation to an abhorrent imperial past, but rather because they fear Britain will lose its “seat at the table”.
Former British prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major, both ardent Remainers, have issued warnings about the UK’s reduced influence on the world stage after Brexit, as have other prominent Remain-supporters. “We are no longer ‘Great’ Britain,” tweeted former Conservative MP Anna Soubry on Christmas Eve after the trade deal was announced. Leaving the EU, she added, “diminishes our country, will make us all a little poorer & narrow our horizons”.
If it really is the Brexiters who are so hung up on restoring the country to its former imperial glory, why do so many Remainers express concern that the UK should hold on to its influence abroad — an outsize influence that most of them would surely agree was largely achieved by virtue of its erstwhile imperial ambitions?
It’s not just pro-EU politicians and commentators. The wider Remain-voting public seems to feel the UK should continue to be a major global player too. In a September 2020 Ipsos Mori poll, 41 per cent of Remain voters agreed that the UK “should try to punch above its weight in world affairs”, with just 29 per cent of Remainers saying they disagreed with this idea.
“One of the legacies of the imperial past is the assumption that Britain should punch above its weight in the world, that it should be a global player and an influencer and a leader,” says Robert Saunders, a historian and author of Yes to Europe! “But that idea has been just as present in pro-European thought as it has been in anti-European thought.”
And punching above one’s weight, after all, is not just about political, economic, or military prowess; it’s about cultural, ethical and even spiritual leadership too.
Remain-supporting shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy recently tweeted that Britain must be a “force for good in the world” — a view shared by 45 per cent of Remainers in the Ipsos Mori poll. This brings to mind an image of a benevolent Britain which should steer the rest of the world in the right direction, an idea that is just as steeped in “imperial nostalgia” — perhaps even amnesia — as any Brexiter fantasy of gunboats and military glory.
None of this is to say that a longing for neo-imperial splendour is absent among Brexiters. But according to Sunder Katwala, director of the think-tank British Future, being part of the “elite” is probably a greater indicator of feeling this way than how you voted in 2016.
“You will still see from elites on both sides different ways to make the argument that Britain is big enough to matter, but there’s then disagreement about whether the EU is a vehicle or an obstacle to that,” he says.
About 17.4m people voted to leave the EU, which, Dr Saunders points out, constitutes the “largest electoral alliance ever constructed in Britain”. To try to explain their motives — or even those of the politicians who led them — as the product of “imperial nostalgia” seems just as reductive and unhelpful as claiming they only voted for Brexit because they were “sold a lie”. (It’s never the gullible Leave voters who complain about being lied to, but those on the opposite team.)
It also feels disingenuous for Remainers to dismiss Brexiters’ motives thus, when many of them seem anxious for the UK to retain or increase its global clout. Then again, dismissing those we disagree with as irrational, stuck in the past, or “deplorable”, is often easier than really listening to and engaging with what the other side is saying. This is a risky path to go down. As Dr Saunders says, “the incapacity of the warring tribes of British politics to talk to one another is actually more dangerous, in the long term, than the trade problems or the economic problems that Brexit might bring with it.”