Brexit: A Reminiscence of British Imperialism?

The ideology of Brexit was built on the foundations of racism, and the white working-class secured its support as the Labour party shifted its political identity towards a more nationalist right.

Brexit was the name given to the process of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, which was decided via the 2016 referendum where 52% of the population voted to leave the EU and 48% voted to remain. When examining the context of the Brexit ideology, Virdee, and McGeever in ‘Racism, Crisis, Brexit,’ (2017), argue that race and nationality strongly associate with the yearning of Empire that is aligned with the importance of ‘Englishness’ during England’s era of expansion. Therefore, this ideology of Brexit was built on the foundations of racism, and the white working-class secured its support as the Labour party shifted its political identity towards a more nationalist right. Brexit is then catalysed by making use of a well-crafted narrative that portrays white working-class victimhood in the face of an ongoing problem of immigration. This is also assisted by the historical ignorance of leave politicians who strategically utilize racism to gain votes. However, there is speculation as to whether Brexit should be associated with the longing of a British empire as the ambitions of the Leave campaign can be interpreted to varying degrees, one of which focuses on democratic empowerment rather than nostalgic colonialism. It can also be argued that assumptions are purely based on conjecture due to the lack of evidence and historical inadequacy, which will be further explored in the article.

Despite these counterarguments, it seems that Empire is significant in understanding the Brexit ideology. There has been discussions of what it means to be ‘British’ throughout recent years, which consequently leaves minorities marginalised and brings ‘Englishness’ into question. A conditional description where some fit the criteria of obtaining British values while others do not.

Brexit is an attempt to return to an old ‘Englishness’ associated with Empire by limiting  immigration as the white working-class find themselves shifted into the trajectory of identifying themselves ‘into the camp of the anti-immigrant right…’ (Virdee and McGeever, 2017). Therefore, while the immigrants are seen as an economic and domestic threat, right-wing politicians encourage the white working class into voting to leave the EU, a vote to limit immigration and remove the foreign threat. Britain’s decision to leave the EU over matters of border control and immigration is implicitly nostalgic and demands to be viewed with scrutiny. The evidence to support this is shown through the leave campaign’s insistence on claiming to ‘take back control of its [Britain’s] borders’. This anti-immigration stance is reminiscent of Britain’s attitude in the mid 20th century. Firstly, it is a reminder of the 1948 British Nationality Act, which controlled who could be defined and live under the guise of the British as it provided citizenship to nationals from Commonwealth countries and British colonies. This portrays a particular interest in controlling who is and who is not British; a feeble attempt at keeping intact what was left of the British Empire. However, what more explicitly shows an effort to control immigration and valid ‘Englishness’ is the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act which ultimately limited entry into Britain to those Commonwealth citizens born in Britain. Following the restriction of non-white Commonwealth citizens entering Britain, what came next was to seek out opportunities that would boost economic growth. This took fruition in the form of Britain becoming a member of the EU, and while opposing the free movement of EU citizens, Britain insisted on maintaining control over immigration, much like the desired immigration control behind Brexit. Thus, ‘Britain’s impending departure from the EU now sees it turning once again to the Commonwealth’ (DuninWasowicz, 2017). This reminiscence of a colonial period is what Paul Gilroy (2004) explains as an ‘unhealthy and destructive post-imperial hungering for renewed greatness’. Therefore, it can be said that Brexit and the anti-immigrant position that it posits is very much similar to the attitude of a post-colonial Britain whose Empire was slowly being dismantled. This similarity between the two eras manifests itself in contemporary society where British values and the racial undertones of ‘Englishness’ take priority in politics, subsequently demanding an evaluation of who it is that is inherently British and who is not.

However, in contrast to this perspective, Richard Tuck (2019) explains that ‘through much of the 19th and early 20th century, the empire was not supported by the British working class’. Thus, it can be logically claimed that nostalgia towards Brexit is absent amongst the white working class that voted to leave the EU. However, even though this is a sound argument, it is also worth considering that the working class’s lack of support towards the Empire was due to the lack of labour rights and a democratically working government. When analysing contemporary British society, the same cannot be said as the white working-class of today may enjoy the idea of Empire rather than viewing it with contempt because of the very change in the political landscape between today and the 19th century.

Although it can be perceived that it is not imperative that ‘nostalgia’ of a pre-existing British empire is associated with the Leave campaign, many voters while voting for the same cause may do so for reasons that vary across a spectrum. Thus, the opposite can be claimed, that not all leave voters vote for Brexit on the terms of nostalgia for a lost colonial empire. John Lloyd (2019) argued that leave voters withhold the key principle that ‘decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK,’ and so to vote leave is to vote for democratic empowerment rather than the yearning and restoration of lost colonies. Thus, Brexit can be viewed not as a fantasy to restore colonial rule but more as a liberation from the colonial status that Britain withheld. This being a reasonable claim as ultimately, the reason behind Britain’s entrance into the EU was to save the remnants of its Empire in addition to participating in a peace project as a result of the two world wars. Nonetheless, Brexit is undeniably depicted as an exit route from the shackles of the EU that have restricted Britain’s potential to act in accordance with anti-immigration policies. Overall, it can be convincingly argued that the narrative of the victimised white working class have been swayed to give racism and thus Brexit, political legitimacy to revive Britain as how it was previously being an empire. Therefore, whilst the reasons behind voting leave differs from individual to individual, what Brexit mainly stands for is to epitomise ‘Englishness’ in the form of racism. This is motivated by numerous politicians that unknowingly show their historical ignorance when advocating Brexit.

To revisit Britain’s glory days of superiority comes from ignorance as politicians seem to whitewash Britain’s history. This is shown by home secretary, Liam Fox (2016) who took to social media to proclaim that ‘The United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history.’ An unenlightened statement made to minimise Britain’s colonial impact on the rest of the world which intends to portray the Empire in a good light. Alongside Fox (2016), education secretary Michael Gove, shows much of the same ignorance when proposing a new history curriculum to introduce the ‘clear narrative of British progress with a proper emphasis on heroes and heroines from our past’ (Walker 2013). A clear glorification of the British Empire that seeks to diminish its true colonial history. Brexiteers therefore, seem to willingly forget the reality of the Empire and in doing so, remember and long for its lost glory instead. This is reason enough as to why remembering the past is so crucial when attempting to understand the present (McGeevy, 2019). By understanding contemporary Britain, it is evident that Brexit encompasses itself with the desire of returning to a much forgotten and ill-remembered past. 2016’s British prime minister, Theresa May (2017) adequately supports this claim as she speaks regularly of a ‘global Britain,’ much like her successor, Boris Johnson who confers that ‘Brexit frees us to be a truly global Britain’ (Johnson cited in Verhofstadt, 2019) which implies a remembrance of the British Empire as heroic and globally superior, a tribute to an era where Britain was a power state which it currently no longer is. As Britain is no longer the superpower it once was it has led Brexiteers to come to one conclusion; if ‘England is not an imperial power; it must be the only other thing it can be, a colony’ (O’Toole 2018) Thus comes the eagerness to make ‘Britain great again’ and regain its lost prestige through Brexit. It is exactly this historical ignorance combined with subtle racism that has allowed for culmination of a racialized politics submerged in aggressive nationalism.

Whilst the advocacy of Brexit by several politicians lies on the basis of nostalgia for imperialism seems apparent, it does however remain debatable. Firstly, to claim that all of those advocating to leave have nostalgia for Empire seems reductionist as it cannot be applied to all voters as well as those politicians who are in support of Brexit. It can also be argued that such a claim that accuses politicians of imperial longing is over-exaggerated, and the minimal emphasis put on globalisation by politicians is maximised to portray them as nostalgic for Empire. Despite these counterarguments, they hardly seem credible as the evidence implies that the nostalgia for imperialism is, whilst being implicit is still detectable amongst politicians. It is these politicians who are able to catalyse the Brexit cause by the elusive referencing of bringing about a larger more’ global Britain,’ the revival of Britain as a superpower. The effect of this nationalism has allowed for racism to be permitted within a political framework, this shown by UKIP’s breakthrough in 2015. By allowing such ferocious nationalism has come with it racism and thus the ridding of all things not English, once again suggesting that the cause and motivation behind Brexit is very much associated with a deep nostalgia of British Empire. Therefore, whilst it can be said that the assumption that Brexit stems from the foundations of a nostalgia for imperialism is weak, being supported by little evidence, this argument remains convincing as the evidence continues to unravel in the long term in the events that follow the referendum, rather than the supposed evidence being shown in the immediate aftermath. In addition to the impactful nature of historical ignorance shown by several politicians, it is also argued by Virdee and McGeever (2017) that the use of racism is used as political tool to reshape the thoughts of the masses. Virdee and McGeever (2017) argue that the ‘realignment of politics to the right has therefore created an environment in which racism…resonates with the cultural and political logic of our time’ Using racism to prompt support for Brexit became useful after the events of 9/11, the 2003 Iraqi war and the 2008 economic collapse. These events portrayed Muslims as an economic and social threat, a community of people that were perceived to threaten the British way of life. The racism that came in the wake of these events were used to galvanise a negative reaction towards minority groups thus allowing for Brexit to take on a convincing political position amongst the British public. This claim along with the supposed threat of diversity is conveyed by David Cameron where he argues that multiculturalism is fostering extremist ideology, creating feelings of racial division and segregation as Muslims are incompatible with the British way of life (Virdee and McGeever, 2017). Cameron, therefore, quite clearly states his dislike of a multiculturalist state as those that don’t hold British values within the core of their lifestyles are subjected to be domestic threats. This explanation of Cameron’s speech is supportive of Videe and McGeever’s (2017) claims that racialized nationalism takes a ‘defensive character’ that comes from ‘a deep sense of loss of prestige.’ Hence, the multicultural state that Cameron speaks of with such distaste is no longer recognizable as ‘British.’ This exclusion of non-whites is perpetuated by Labour PM, Gordon Brown as pointed out by Virdee and McGeever (2017). Brown’s slogan against the crisis of unemployment was ‘British job for British workers’ (Summers, 2019). This exemplifies a racial divide between those that are British and those that aren’t, a further emphasis on ‘Englishness,’ motivated by racist intent.

However, in spite of Virdee and McGeever’s (2017) claims, it can be argued that racism in the form of political manoeuvring has little to do with the leave campaign within Brexit. It could simply be the case that these politicians are ferociously nationalist and when referring to Britons, this may encompass all British nationals, whether white, Asian, or black. Also, once again, as such statements made by politicians give only a slight hint of racist intent, it can be argued otherwise that this is a misinterpretation. Therefore, it should be acknowledged that the statements made by Cameron and Brown are not racist but rather nationalist and are simply made in the best interest of Britain as a whole. In fact, it can be interpreted that it is not the leave supporters who are nostalgic for Empire but Remainers. Tuck (2019) pointed out that the governments of Macmillan and Heath decided to enter the EU in an attempt to still hold on to it and exercise political influence as the EU came at a time when colonial empires were beginning to collapse, such as Britain itself. Thus, it can be argued that the leave campaign is in pursuit of emancipation from Britain’s colonial history whilst it is the Remainers who wish to stay put, so it is the Remain campaign that is nostalgic.

This, however, seems far-fetched as there is more evidence to support the claim that it is Brexit supporters who are nostalgic, not Remainers. As previously mentioned, racism is voiced by many politicians, one of which is Nigel Farage alongside David Cameron and Gordon Brown. In an attempt to revive Britain in what seems similar to its imperialist era, Farage turned to Britain’s Commonwealth ties as he seems more favourable towards immigrants from Commonwealth countries such as India as opposed to immigrants that are American or Eastern European. This depicts a clear nostalgia of what Britain used to be, having had Commonwealth countries under its influence; Farage shows his reminiscence of Empire under the guise of Brexit. In addition to this, racism seems unmistakably a key factor behind Brexit as racially motivated attacks skyrocketed by 41% (Forster, 2016) as an unfortunate consequence of the Brexit vote. For example, following the referendum, attacks were made at Finsbury Mosque which is a blatant attack on the Muslim community along with numerous other attacks on other minorities, such as that of a Polish man that was beaten to death by a group of young people. The racist attacks that came post-referendum implies that the vast media coverage on anti-immigration attitude has had a potent effect on the British public allowing for a spike in racist hate crimes. Therefore, overall, such arguments posed against Brexit, like that of Virdee and McGeever (2017), exhibits that racism is used to mobilise and pursue Brexit is convincing as the evidence portrayed by politicians supports it. While politicians may subconsciously voice that the racial undertones are still present, therefore allowing Brexit to be reminiscent of the Empire, which also exerted racism and prejudice.

To conclude, having analysed Brexit, it can be seen that the British Empire is essential in understanding Brexit as the two are intimately linked with one another. Brexit as a political movement is motivated by a reminiscence of the British Empire, this being a claim made on the supporting evidence shown by politicians and the British public alike. Politicians from left-wing to right wing convey a historical ignorance that paints the Empire as a glorified heroic state. While the British Empire was a superpower in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it should not be glorified. The colonialism and imperialist attitude inherent within the historical background of the Empire should be acknowledged. Many politicians, however, fail to do so as they view the Empire through rose-tinted lenses and so romanticise the Empire, consequently whitewashing it. This fatal mistake amongst politicians has a significant impact. As Virdee and McGeever (2017) argue, racism is used as a catalyst to mobilize support for Brexit and so this comes as a result of forgetting the reality of the Empire and trying to return to it while forgetting its colonial history. As a result, racism is granted political permission to achieve Brexit. This explains how racism is used as a tactical tool to gain the support of voters. Nonetheless, it is essential to acknowledge that not all politicians hold the same motives in advocating Brexit. However, the speeches given by key ‘leave politician’s and the hate crime that came after the referendum, show that Brexit is a nostalgic reference to British imperialism as the evidence reveals itself in the long-term. This evidence is also supportive of the argument that white working-class individuals are told that they are victims at the hands of extremist radicals, such as Muslims that threaten their livelihoods and the social fabric that keeps Britain intact. In fact, 64% of working-class Britons and 53% of the white population voted to leave the EU (Statista Research Department, 2016), thus substantially supporting the claim that white working-class victimhood was strategically used to secure votes for Brexit. Therefore, in critically assessing the motivations behind Brexit, it is apparent that the context of the British Empire is crucial in understanding Brexit as a form of reminiscence for British imperialism.


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Nuzhat Choudhury is a B.Sc. Sociology student at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences. Her research interests include human rights, race relations, and gender inequality.

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