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'An Historic Moment' - Brexit And The History Of Global Britain

31/03/2017 11:43
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Since becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May has been advancing a view of history: a history of 'Global Britain'. This history grounds her case for Brexit, because, for May, where we are going is intimately bound up with where we have been. May's view of history is designed to do a variety of jobs. It has to justify optimism in the future, by pointing to a past golden age, whilst simultaneously explaining why the present is so unsatisfactory. It must also gloss over episodes which it is no longer fashionable to dwell upon, let alone celebrate. Consequently, it's a selective history: mythology and amnesia in equal measure.

May's 'Global Britain' has a profoundly moral history. After all, 'it was Britain' May argues, 'that took an historic stand to ban slavery two centuries ago'. Britain, then, has a history of 'projecting' it values across the world. For May, British 'history and culture is profoundly internationalist'. Consequently, 'Global Britain' has 'ties of family, kinship and history to countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and countries across Africa, the Pacific and Caribbean.' Although this list points in the direction of Empire, May never uses the word, nor any of its cognates. To refer to Empire would, of course, raise difficult moral issues. Therefore, May refers to the Commonwealth. Sometimes, it would seem, she uses it as a euphemism for Empire. In fact, if May's history is to be believed the Commonwealth has been around for more than a century, and has included India since around 1914.

Not only did Britain play the leading role in the abolition of slavery, Britain has played an important role spreading freedom and democracy. This, May claims, was Britain's gift to America, a gift that America perfected. Quoting Winston Churchill, she argues that the 'joint inheritance of the English-speaking world' which includes the 'Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law, find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence', a document which May calls 'the textbook of freedom.'

The foundation of America, was a game changer for Britain's global role. From then on, May claims, Britain and America have been partners, 'bringing peace and prosperity to billions.' '[I]t is through our actions' she argues, 'over many years, working together to defeat evil or to open up the world, that we have been able to fulfil the promise . . . of freedom, liberty and the rights of man.' It was the Anglo-American partnership that won the First World War, and defeated fascism in the 1940s. Similarly, the Berlin Wall fell and the people oppressed by Communism were liberated by 'the freedoms that President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher brought to Eastern Europe.'

Notably, in May's history of Britain c. 1833 to 1990 European nations play a wholly negative or passive role. Fascism in Germany and Italy had to be defeated, France and Poland had to be liberated. Nor is there any sense that European institutions played a role in guaranteeing peace or safeguarding democracy. Rather, 'the Special Relationship . . . made the modern world.' Here May refers to the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and NATO, institutions that she claims have been the cornerstone of global peace and prosperity in the golden age which lasted from 1945 to 1990, or thereabouts.

From this perspective, Brexit is wholly unproblematic. For it is the Anglo-American alliance, a combination of British values and institutions, and US power, which led to global peace and economic growth.

Turning to more recent history, May's history is less rosy. The fall of Soviet Communism, was accompanied by new difficulties. First, 'across the world, ancient ethnic, religious and national rivalries - rivalries that had been frozen through the decades of the Cold War - returned.' What is more, since the early noughties, '[n]ew enemies of the West and our values - in particular in the form of Radical Islamists' have emerged.

The noughties, May claims, were the time when the seeds of the current crisis were sewn. The invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 was a major mistake. Indeed, '[t]he days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.' On top of this, globalisation failed to benefit working people, and the 'financial crisis and its fall out', made matters worse. Together, these troubles have led to a 'loss of confidence in the West', at the very time when China and Russia, 'countries with little tradition of democracy, liberty and human rights' have become more assertive.

But there is hope. May takes her inspiration from the 1980s, the last decade of uncomplicated Anglo-American triumph: the period in which Reagan and Thatcher won the Cold War. Their victory was achieved 'not just through military might, but by winning the war of ideas.' Brexit, then, is crucial not just to Britain's renewal, but to the global victory of 'open, liberal, democratic societies.' May's implication is that 'the United Kingdom's place in the European Union came at the expense of our global ties'. Therefore, by leaving the EU, Britain can once again play the role of a Global leader. It seems she imagines herself and Donald Trump as a latter-day Thatcher and Reagan, transforming the world through the power of ideas.

A renewed Special Relationship, May claims, will allow Britain and America to 'rediscover our confidence together.' At the same time Brexit will allow Britain to take on a new 'even more internationalist role' once again championing 'international cooperation and partnerships that project our values around the world.'

Theresa May is no historian, nor is it necessary to be a historian to see the huge holes in her narrative. But May's history begs a question: if her understanding of the past is so fanciful, how much faith can we place in her vision of the future?

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