Why Brexit? Because Empire.

Updated: Sep 27, 2019

Liberal Unionist Party poster depicting the perils of following a free trade policy, 1905-1906

Before he became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, Foreign Secretary, and a loud supporter of the Brexit movement. Educated at both Eton College and then Oxford University, his beliefs about British exceptionalism are often expounded in his public speeches.

During the Conservative Party conference in 2017, Johnson laid out his ideals of the British future – alongside his rosy belief about its past:

“The only way to win the future is... not to abandon globalisation but to play our part, as we always have, in making the world safer and freer – and therefore more prosperous.”

Britain has been alive with debate, arguments, and controversies since the result of the Brexit referendum in June 2016. The slim majority vote (51.9%) which initiated the impending exit of Britain from the European Union has dragged parliament into an endless cycle of shouting, posturing, and all-around raucous chaos.

As we watch the constant turmoil of Brexit politics, many of us sit here wondering, why?

The rhetoric promoted by politicians and Brexit supporters has been very clear:

Britain has lost its former prominence and its place in the world.

Arguments for Brexit expounded the loss of British sovereignty and economic independence. Polls on the day of the referendum found that nearly half of leave voters believed important decisions about the UK market were dominated by the EU. The more emotional arguments were based on nationalism and a belief that Britain was accepting too many immigrants.

All of these reasons demonstrate a longing for the prominence and control that came with the imperial past. The economic status of Britain was created through its imperial power and the wealth of overseas colonies. For politicians such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, it could regain that glory by reconnecting with these territories.

Maritime Postcard from the Early 20th century

The implications of Johnson’s words are clear: 'to play our part, as we always have, in making the world safer and freer...'

Britain is seeking to re-establish its Commonwealth power.

The United Kingdom’s top financial place in the world today is well recognised. Comprising 3.3% of world GDP, it is ranked as the 6th largest national economy in the world by nominal GDP.

This prominence was gained in large part from a historic income of imperial wealth spanning centuries. In one national income report published in 1855, Britain recorded its total income as £203 million. Of this total, £79 million (39%) came from India, while £40 million (20%) came from other colonial possessions.

It is no surprise then that the British government acted swiftly to assert even stronger power after the 1857 rebellion. Other colonies it already held at this time included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Barbados, Ireland, Burma (now Myanmar) and Hong Kong, amongst others.

Over the next half century, Britain continued to expand its income through imperial practices which added more land, export markets, and tax-paying citizens to its fold. It engaged in increased military campaigns across Asia and Africa.

Territories formerly under the influence of the British Empire

Utilising these colonial markets has always been a significant part of British economic policy, allowing it to maintain free trade within its empire, while simultaneously collecting wealth from its foreign territories.

In his 2016 speech after the outcome of the Brexit referendum, Boris Johnson pronounced “it is absurd that Britain – historically a great free-trading nation – has been unable for 42 years to do a free trade deal with Australia, New Zealand, China, India and America.”

These words echo the goals of former Prime Minister Joseph Chamberlain, who was the first to push for a British system of internal imperial trade. By the 1920s, the Empire Marketing Board was born, and an official system of Imperial Preference was established. Below is one marketing image from the Empire Marketing Board in the 1930s, titled “Making the Empire Christmas Pudding.”

Making the 'Empire Christmas Pudding'

Leave supporters have returned to this idea of the colonial market, believing that commonwealth trade will replace the EU markets and maintain Britain’s economic stability. Nigel Farage famously claimed that “only by leaving the EU can we open up and re-engage with our real friends across the world, and by that I mean those Commonwealth nations who are really our friends.”

Brexiteers do not just want to leave the EU. They are clearly longing for a past connection to their imperial prominence, and a time when ‘friendship’ was defined by economic dominance in the world. In their minds, it is once again time to make the “Empire Christmas Pudding.”

Further reading:

Danny Dorling and Sally Thomlinson. Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire. London: Biteback Publishing, 2019.

Will Jennings and Martin Lodge. "Brexit, the tides and Canute: the fracturing politics of the British state." Journal of European Public Policy 26, no. 5(May 31, 2018): 772–789.

Philip Murphy, The Empire's New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Sally Tomlinson. Education and Race: from Empire to Brexit. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Stuart Ward and Astrid Rasch (eds.). Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

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