Written by Felix Faillace
So, here we are. Time for a big bowl of Brexit. At the time of publishing, Parliament is holding the vote and soon we will have made a long overdue decision on the toxic relationship it has with Brexit. It is a binary decision, a small change, one of staying or leaving, much like deciding to stay at a party for a while longer or catch the last train home. Except that the party is the EU and the last train home doesn’t let immigrants on board.
Where did this all start? Was it Farage, was it Cameron? Our answer lies deep in our glorious British history (God Save the Queen). From the late 17th century until the early 20th century Britain was the most powerful nation in the world, and by the end of the 19th century Britain ruled over 25% of the world’s population and controlled the global economy. Over the centuries, the Empire faded and a grand disparity developed between the memory of Britannia and the UK of today. In the face of modern challenges, we are left with a superiority complex in our national psyche, and the fact that we can now, in our situation, think we would somehow be better off without the EU, is baffling. Often we like to think that we dominated the globe because we are better than foreigners, but really it’s because we were better bankers.
Past Glory, Thanks to Immigrants
In the early 17th century the newly formed Dutch republic was able to fund the finest trade expeditions through the East India Company. They had established innovative economic instruments, such as the first stock market and the ability to issue bonds to the public, thereby delving into national debt. Holland dominated world trade for a number of decades, winning multiple battles against Britain in the process. However, on the 5th of November 1688, there was a crucial turning point in history as Willem Hendrik van Oranje, better known as William of Orange, landed on British shores and instigated “the Glorious Revolution” in which the Dutch noble took consenting control of the budding empire. Into his new domain, van Oranje imported the pioneering financial institutions of Holland and thrust Britain into the driver’s seat of globalisation.
Prince of Orange Landing at Torbay, engraving by William Miller after J M W Turner (Rawlinson 739), published in The Art Journal 1852 (New Series Volume IV). George Virtue, London, 1852
Today, we are once more at a crossroads in British history, and in the same way these noblemen committed treason and replaced their king, brave politicians must now disregard party loyalties and the “democratic” result of the referendum. There will undoubtedly be change; it is simply a case of whether it will be a return to sanity or a nosedive off the edge of Europe and into economic ruin.
By 1698 Britain had a thriving stock market and the state-funded East India Company was beginning to develop monopolies on the trade between Europe and Asia. Britain even had the money to emerge victorious over France, Spain, and Russia in the Seven Years’ War from 1756 to 1763. Both sides were fairly evenly matched but Britain was able to borrow funds, whilst all the French could do was raise taxes. This war was pivotal in European geopolitics, as the bulk of France’s colonial territories were given to Britain. This failure was felt most acutely by the poorest in France, setting the stage for the French revolution 26 years later.
Britain prospered as a result of the war and they had their financiers to thank for this. Yet most people in Britain perceived their prowess as a result of their innate superiority. They were not aware of the benefits of the stock market – all they saw were the headlines screaming “VICTORY”.
As the nation began to take control of world affairs, the toxic idea of god-granted supremacy began to take root in the British consciousness, a place where it has remained for over 250 years. Of course, the majority of the modern British public doesn’t understand that the glorious Empire was primarily a commercial free trade operation, and this is why it created so much wealth. It was first and foremost a single market, with a single currency, free movement of goods, services, capital and people, and with a single legal framework based on Common Law. Sounds an awful lot like the EU doesn’t it?
The Selective Memory of A Nation
Most of Britain’s success comes down to luck. We have been truly blessed by our geography. As an island, this country is far less susceptible to foreign invasions, and access to the sea allowed his or her majesty to literally rule the waves. This military security meant that Britain was able to focus on other endeavours, such as industrial innovation or improving domestic opportunities. The Magna Carta, Bill of Rights and English Common Law fostered political, economic and civil stability, at a time when other countries were finding their footing as nation states.
While in the 19th century the rest of Western Europe was busy unifying (Germany and Italy), fighting off revolutions (France and Spain) or modernizing from a feudal system (Russia), Britain had already secured a strong national identity and functioning parliament for centuries, keeping the Queen or King in check through heavy dependency on taxation. These are among the most easily identifiable reasons as to why Britain came to dominate, especially for a historian, but, throughout history, it was much easier for the average Brit to point to an inherent national and moral superiority.
For example, we have always ranted and raved about how we ended the slave trade. It is true; the British did blockade the West African coast throughout the early 19th century in order to stop merchants from continuing the trade, whilst being amongst the first European nations to abolish slavery entirely. These actions fully enshrined this effort and many Brits now point to these events as indicators of the morality and benevolence of the Empire.
Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795)
As you might guess, that wasn’t actually the case. In 1793 Britain engaged in war with France and the battles were fought in India, the Caribbean and the Americas, and Britain needed those native populations to support the war effort. Ending slavery was perceived as a move which would raise the overseas political capital of British rule. Slavery was also becoming less and less profitable as mass industry took over, with the slave populations deemed more costly and difficult to control. Successful revolutions had already occurred in territories such as Haiti. Even the forcible ending of the slave trade by the Royal Navy was mainly due to the fact that Britain did not want Brazilian sugar producers to gain an unfair competitive advantage through the use of slave labour.
Again, it was all about the money.
We must not delude ourselves into thinking that it was some moral epiphany that hit British politicians as they walked into the House of Commons one day and realised that enslavement is abhorrent. British authorities have a long tradition of downplaying “their central role in the transatlantic slave trade, while claiming credit for ending slavery.” They preferred to credit the change of heart to Christian lobbying groups such as the Clapham Sect, thereby making the government appear to be both pious and progressive.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, there was a steep increase in immigration from ex-colonies and this has led to a visible flaring of racial tensions when combined with the inferiority complex induced by our diminishing imperial might. The two have arrived on British shores simultaneously and led to a staggeringly ironic victim complex, whereby Brits feel colonized in their own land by immigrants from the old colonies. These migrants serve to help the British economy by taking often low-paying jobs and increasing the multiplier effect, never mind the long overdue justice in allowing them opportunities in Britain after centuries of colonisation.
The British public has not been capable of any level of critical introspection or reconciliation, rather remaining begrudged at our new position in the world, as we seek to regain control of our borders at extreme personal cost. However, this sentiment does not exist independently from other factors. It has been greatly exasperated in recent decades by certain economic policy errors, such as not joining the EEC in 1957 at the precise time when the Empire was dissolving.
“We love immigrants. They make great scapegoats.” Photo by Alisdare Hickson
Future Glory, Thanks to Immigrants
Failure to integrate the working class communities of Britain into our increasingly globalized world, followed by harsh austerity imposed on the nation’s poorest, has left many feeling disillusioned and eager to find a scapegoat upon which to drop their insecurities and anger. Politicians such as Margaret Thatcher have redefined the values of modern Britain and have given a legitimate voice to those disillusioned conservatives who simply wish to return to our imperial pre-eminence. However, going back to the old ways implicitly attacks those who represent the new Britain: the hundreds of thousands of economic migrants.
Nowadays, the glory of Britain can be found in our diversity and multiculturalism, but instead, we blame our problems on the social changes experienced in the wake of decolonisation. Many who voted for Brexit did so out of this sentiment. We wish pointlessly for Britannia, yet miss the crucial point that British power was based entirely on free trade and movement of peoples. What 6 words better describe the EU? Perhaps if we were better educated on the true nature of the Empire and not our innate supremacy, we would not have voted to leave the very organisation which continues its legacy.