There was an article last Tuesday in the Irish Times by Janan Ganesh: Britons don’t pine for Empire; they just want to be left alone, which claims that the people of ‘Deep England’ who voted to leave the EU last June did so not because they want “more of the world”, in the sense of a return to the imperial past, but rather less of it; a sort of “Nation 1.0” rather than “Empire 2.0”. The regions that were most associated with Empire voted to stay in (London, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Scotland) while the provincial areas that had least to do with the Empire voted Out, such as Birmingham and most of rural and small-town England and Wales. Janan Ganesh is the author of a biography of George Osborne and spent two years as a researcher at Policy Exchange (a Tory think-tank that was the source of numerous anti-Muslim scare stories in the Blair era) and five as political correspondent for the Economist; in the early 2000s he wrote for the Guardian as a “Labour activist” but more recently called Corbyn supporters “thick as pigshit”. I think he’s wrong on three counts: the concept of “Deep England”, the lack of historic basis for “Nation 1.0” and the idea that the areas that voted Out were those unconnected to the Empire.
How deep is Deep England?
The regions that shaped and were shaped by empire voted to remain, including London, the old metropole; Scotland, the source of many settlers and administrators; Manchester, not just the empire’s industrial centre but its liberal intellectual heart; and the port cities of Liverpool and Bristol.
Inland Birmingham voted to leave, as did the countryside and market towns of Deep England.
A brief look at the map of which districts voted In and which voted Out reveals that a large chunk of rural and small-town England did in fact vote in favour of remaining in the EU; a whole tract from Gloucestershire through to Berkshire and down into Hampshire and Surrey. Some of this is affluent commuter territory but not all of it; the country between Oxford and Cheltenham is largely off-rail, away from the motorways and doesn’t make good commuter land, especially for London. True, the rural areas of East Anglia, the West Country and Midlands did mostly vote to leave, and the strongest concentration of Leave voters was around the Wash. But really, the idea of “deep England” rather suggests some sort of rural idyll that looks like the set of Lark Rise to Candleford (which wasn’t all that idyllic, actually), which is untouched by the march of progress since the middle of the 20th Century, is ridiculous: rural England watches the same TV, listens to most of the same music, uses the same mobile phones, drives the same cars along roads made of the same material and wears the same clothes as the cities. It’s just whiter and has fewer students (unlike in Wales, small-town England rarely has universities). England is not a big place and almost nowhere is fewer than 50 miles from at least a small city.
When was Nation 1.0?
What those communities seem to want is Nation 1.0 — the sovereign statehood that predated the globalised era, when the population was more homogenous and the economy less exposed to foreign competition.
This is rather a myth. Sovereign statehood is rather a new concept: the self-contained ‘nation state’ that does not owe allegiance to a higher power, such as the Pope or an Emperor or Caliph. Recent examples include places like Poland and the Czech Republic after the collapse of Communism and before accession to the EU. These places did not regard their isolation as freedom, other than by comparison with the Warsaw Pact, which was by then dead; they regarded it as a disadvantage, and so did their population who seized opportunities to work abroad, including in Western Europe. The modern “silo state” convention has produced numerous open-air prisons, particularly in parts of the former colonial empires in Africa, whose populations are denied either economic opportunities or the opportunity to seek prosperity elsewhere, which is the source of the present-day refugee and migrant crisis.
Britain never was a self-sufficient nation-state. Before joining the EEC, it had the Commonwealth and before that, the Empire. Before the beginnings of Empire, England was part of Catholic Europe; it was our isolation from that under Elizabeth I that Britain looked for both trading partners and territory into which to expand further afield. At no time in the modern era has Britain not been part of a wider bloc that provided a source for raw materials and a ready market for its exports. It’s impossible to just “make the world go away” or to deal with it wholly on one’s own terms; an isolated “free” country would not become a prosperous rural idyll but an impoverished silo that the young, poor and enterprising would try to escape from.
Untouched by Empire?
It was not only London and a few other major cities, plus Bristol, whose prosperity derives from connections to the Empire. The Industrial Revolution depended very heavily on imports from the Empire; the garment industry, for example, whose factories can be found in small towns throughout the North, depended on cotton that was imported from India. Many of these places voted to leave the EU, as did many outlying areas of the large cities mentioned. Many of them have large ethnic minority populations, mostly originating from the former Empire; indeed, large industrialised towns, as opposed to large cities, with ethnically diverse populations from south (e.g. Slough, Swindon) to north voted in favour of leaving, while some more prosperous and less diverse areas, especially in the south, voted in favour of remaining. There is some suggestion that rebuilding links with the former Empire was a motivating factor for the ‘ethnic Brexit’ vote, in particular the suggestion that shutting off eastern European immigration would allow for a more liberal visa régime for people from the Indian Subcontinent, something the pro-Brexit Right never suggested was on their agenda.
Janan Ganesh is right in that most people who voted in favour of Brexit did not imagine a return to the “glory days of Empire”, as only the oldest people in Britain now remember it, and even then, it would be the last remaining large colonies such as those in Africa, rather than India, let alone Australia or Canada. However, the idea of “freedom” most people think we had before we joined the EEC, that we were once a “free country” that nobody told what to do, is false; we were the “mother country” of a large sea-based empire and then a Commonwealth, and we can never get that back. Years ago Dick Gaughan, a Scottish folk singer, sang a song about Scots who entertain “lies of a past that we know was never real” and politicians who talk about being “proud to be Scottish by the way, with the glories of our past to remember”; many English (and Welsh) believe similar lies about the past, about old glories a “freedom” that never was. They will be in for a rude awakening if Brexit really happens, and we are cast adrift with no ready markets and no new frontiers to explore.
One more thing: an important reason for setting up the predecessors of the EU was to ensure peace in Europe, and indeed the Franco-German wars which were a feature of European politics up until the mid-20th century have been banished. If we are only the first to leave and those wars come back, they will certainly not leave Middle England alone.
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