Nobody ever uttered the words ‘British Empire’ in the run-up to last year’s EU referendum in the UK, but you could hear them in almost everything team Leave had to say. Naturally, when a country is as hung up on its size and influence as Great Britain is, conjuring vague memories of superior days lends appeal to the argument. All the times someone for Leave made a case for British exceptionalism, all that talk of reclaiming national sovereignty, the official Vote Leave slogan ‘take control’—these triggered in the British (particularly English) unconscious a secret, unspoken desire to return to the hallowed days of Empire, a time when Britain didn’t seem so small—precisely because it wasn’t. At its height, the British Empire ruled over 412 million peoples, some 23% of the global population, in lands altogether covering almost a quarter of the Earth.
Today, Great Britain accounts for not even a full percent of the world’s population, and what land is British is no bigger than Victoria Island (that would be only Canada’s second-largest island). It didn’t matter to the many Brits attracted to the notion of Brexit for nationalistic reasons that even in the days of Empire, the common British person never felt the benefit of all that amassed territory and wealth; being poor and powerful is, ostensibly, still better than feeling poor and weak. So on Jun. 23, 2016, in a bid to make the affix ‘Great’ ring less hollow, Britain voted to leave the European Union so it might, as the Brexiteers promised, once more be the envy of the world.
Nicholas Boyle recently wrote in The New European of “the terrifying truth that membership of the EU presents to the English and from which for centuries the empire insulated them: that they have to live in the world on an equal footing with other people.” His suggestion is that perhaps England, along with its “appendages” Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, could never bear to just be a ‘part’ of something. Great Britain—Rule, Britannia—must always feel that it has superior standing on the world stage. If it cannot dominate, if it must share burdens like the migrant crisis with the rest of the continent as though it were just any country, Britain becomes uncomfortable. No nation on Earth has a greater Napoleon complex than Great Britain. Today it is a small island state with minimal impact, which has for decades been unable to shake its delusions of grandeur.
Hard Brexit ought to do it. Lately, we have found out what leaving the European Union will really mean for Britain: the UK completely detaching itself from the EU by leaving the European Single Market, so that the country might have better control over immigration. It goes without saying that cutting loose from a major trading bloc, the largest economy in the world with a single market of a half-billion people, as well as formally rejecting the major players on the European continent, now puts Britain in a desperate position. For the sake of shrinking its immigration figures, Britain has elected to commit economic seppuku.
Business prepares to flee to Europe, while those pesky ‘experts’ say hard Brexit will cost the UK £66 billion a year (or 9.5% of GDP), after $1.5 trillion was already wiped off household income because of Brexit in 2016 alone. Some say Britain will in its desperation now become a supersize Cayman Islands, taking what it can get from more successful countries who choose to use it as a tax haven. Summing up, Vanity Fair’s Henry Porter writes that, at best, it “seems certain that the fall of sterling and inflationary pressures will impoverish Britons; that many jobs will be lost; and that a likely dropping off in tax revenues means there will be less money to spend on services like the NHS.”
Theresa May is optimistic, because there’s a whole world outside of Europe to do business with. Unfortunately for her, this means that the UK, along with those Brits who voted on the promise that Brexit was going to make Britain Great again, is set for a reality check. Rather than dictating terms as the British Empire in all its might once did, Great Britain 2017 is a nation seeking assistance. And from some unsavory characters, too: already having controversially established closer ties with Xi Jinping’s China and Narendra Modi’s India, the British government of late has been accused of grovelling to Donald Trump and signed contracts with Turkey’s President Erdogan, two men whom the UK was until recently critical of. Meanwhile, foreign minister Boris Johnson indicates Britain has had a change of heart on Assad and Putin, too. Now that the UK needs financial help, and fast, getting chummy with dictators apparently doesn’t sound so bad.
Here is the greatest irony of all. Those British voters that closed their ears to the truth and dreamed of Empire—the days when Britain dominated and/or casually brought conflict to the likes of America, India and China—voted to cut Britain loose from a new empire in which it had clout. Now Britain, adrift from Europe, looks to America, India and China—super-states with far more bargaining power today than Britain—to help reclaim its greatness. Such countries, once under the thumb of Britain, will now determine the former master’s fate. As Britain looks to the world for handouts, rejecting foreigners as it simultaneously begs for foreign help, it had better hope its former colonies don’t have any Empire hang-ups of their own.