Western politics is haunted by spectres of twentieth-century catastrophe. In America, the election of Donald Trump is often seen by his critics as an echo of the rise of pre-war Fascism in Europe. Corbynism is a cipher for 1970s-style stagnation. Brexit is given the same treatment and presented as a post-colonial identity crisis of the kind famously identified by Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State. Out of office, Acheson remarked in 1962 that “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role”.
That rather neat sixties aphorism has mutated into a widely-heard explanation for the Brexit vote in 2016. As in Sussex University academic Gurminder Bhambra’s assertion: “What we are currently witnessing with Brexit is what the end of empire looks like.” And Gary Younge, writing in The Guardian, sees parallels between buccaneering Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage and the over-confidence that led to the 1956 Suez crisis: “Preferring to live in the past rather than learn from it, we find ourselves diminished in the present and clueless about the future.”
But the idea that Brexit is about a desire to return to empire is daft. The British Empire really is gone, and Brexit is not Suez