Brexit as Nostalgia for Empire 

by | 19 Jun 2016

The run up to the EU referendum has shown Britain for what it is. Woodwork: the washed-up bracken of the British Empire, and the ugly flotsam of its legacy of racism.

Zong Massacre

The Zong Massacre of 1781

This week Jo Cox, a pro-immigration Labour MP was brutally murdered by a man who shouted Britain First as he killed her and who gave his name in court on being charged with her murder as “Death to traitors. Freedom for Britain”. Jo Cox was killed a week before the referendum on Britain’s EU membership and following months of campaigning which has been dominated by the topic of migration. This referendum has not felt like an exercise in democracy. There is something painfully undemocratic about denying EU citizens from other Member States living in Britain a vote. The message to them is that they do not belong here. Their neighbours, co-workers, friends and family decide on their future for them. Worse still, the referendum has licensed the expression of racism and xenophobia, which has been unleashed with deadly consequences. The racist discourse that has defined the Brexit campaign must be understood in the context of Britain’s imperial legacy. The terms on which the debate around the referendum have taken place are symptomatic of a Britain struggling to conceive of its place in the world post-Empire.

In this context waiting for Lexit is to be the frog in that cautionary tale — the one that sits in boiling water until it is too late. I have taught EU law for many years and have always tried to instil in my students a healthy scepticism about the EU. I have worked to show them that it is possible to be critical of the neoliberal, capitalist, imperialist EU and not fall into the anti-migrant, sovereignty-fetishising UKIP camp. When the EU referendum was first announced, I made a Lexit argument when the topic came up. A vote for the EU is a vote for capitalism, austerity and militarised borders, I’d say. The reality is that argument has elicited only the minutest of echoes. The Brexit campaign has been entirely dominated by the ugliest form of Euroscepticism imaginable. As Priyamvada Gopal has put it, a vote for Brexit is a vote for the “magnificent lie that exploitation, austerity, greed and impoverishment have all come to Britain from the nasty outside”. Lexit is a dream that has not been realised. Waiting for Lexit is like waiting for Godot — in more ways than one. Graham Hassell has aptly described Beckett’s play of that name as “a metaphor for… mainland Britain, where society has ever been blighted by a greedy ruling élite keeping the working classes passive and ignorant by whatever means.”

The “means” adopted by the Brexit campaign in a bid to sway voters have primarily consisted of scare-mongering on the issue of migration. Despite the rhetoric about migrants being a drain on resources, HMRC tax figures for 2013–14 show that migrants contributed £2.5 billion more than they took out in benefits, but I will neither myth-bust around migration nor be drawn into a debate about whether or not migrants enrich the societies in which live because fundamentally that is a racist question — it erases the history of the British Empire which has set in motion the migration of today and assumes a pre-existing, static society, membership of which can only be validly determined by birthright. Migrants tend to have the least capital and so are easiest to exploit. We have seen this in the unrelenting scapegoating of migrants that has characterised the Brexit campaign, a convenient distraction from the material consequences of the current government’s austerity measures.

It is not that I expected better of Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. I merely hoped they would not succeed, as they have, aided by the British mainstream media, in drowning out the possibility for a Left movement in opposition to the EU to emerge. It is difficult to choose a low point in the Brexit campaign. Was it when Nigel Farage had the gall to say to a black woman who challenged him on the racist rhetoric of the Brexit campaign in the course of a live televised debate that he is “used to being demonised”? Or Michael Gove’s Islamophobic rant about Turkish birthrates and criminality? Or UKIP donor-funded Leave.EU’s recent tweet, “act now before we see an Orlando-style tragedy here before too long”? Or Farage’s latest poster depicting non-white refugees crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015 along with the slogan “Breaking Point”, which has been reported to the police for inciting racial hatred?

Being faced with a choice between between David Cameron and Nigel Farage is a nightmare scenario for any anti-racist and anti-capitalist. With the debate on the referendum eclipsed by the topic of migration, it is no surprise Cameron is struggling to hold the fort having spent the last five years peddling the lie that migrants are to blame for society’s ills rather than his government of millionaires and their penchant for cuts to vital public services. But if Britain votes Leave, it does so on the terms of the racist and xenophobic Brexit campaign. A Leave vote would provide a mandate for Brexit leaders to push for Fortress Britain, which already exists insofar as it can as an EU Member State. Britain is the most fortified of all EU countries. It is not part of Schengen. It has a flexible opt-out from all EU law on immigration and asylum, which it has consistently exercised to opt into restrictive measures that further strengthen its capacity to exclude and out of those aimed at enhancing protection standards.

There is no “refugee crisis” in Britain. Britain has barely increased its resettlement quota in light of the movement of so many desperate Syrians, and a similar number of asylum applications have been made in Britain this year as in 2008 unlike the higher numbers we see in other EU countries. Britain has been the strongest advocate of the EU Dublin Regulation, which sees people seeking asylum confined to Southern Europe, sometimes under conditions found to constitute inhuman and degrading treatment by the European Court of Human Rights. We will see no loosening of Britain’s borders if it leaves the EU, quite the opposite. A Leave vote would provide a validating framework for the enactment of the ugly promises the Brexit campaign has made — take their wish for an Australian style immigration system for example, an idea originally proposed by Tony Blair, inspired by Australia’s “Pacific Solution”. We know what that looks like, visas for the white and privileged while brown and black refugees self-immolate in prisons on remote Pacific islands.

Nor is there a “migration crisis” in Britain. The only crisis identifiable is that caused by a capitalist system which sees the ongoing enrichment of the few and impoverishment of the many. Capitalist and imperialist structures enable oppression on a mass scale. Leaving the EU is not going to ameliorate this. In fact, the British government was so afraid that the EU might empower British workers that it negotiated an opt-out from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights because it guarantees the right of workers to take strike action. Unlike in other EU countries, there is no right to strike in Britain. Successive governments have legislated to curtail the possibility for industrial action, the most recent assault being in the form of the Trade Union Act 2016.

The run up to the EU referendum has shown Britain for what it is. Woodwork: the washed-up bracken of the British Empire, and the ugly flotsam of its legacy of racism. From this woodwork the Brexiters have emerged. They have long romanticised the days of Empire when Britannia ruled the waves and was defined by its racial and cultural superiority. It is no coincidence that Farage has a preference for migrants from India and Australia as compared with East Europeans, and has advocated stronger ties with the Commonwealth. This referendum has not been about Europe, but about Britain and its imperial legacy. For Brexiters, turning their back on Europe and turfing out their neighbours is a step toward salvaging the shipwreck of the British Empire, which saw the exploitation of peoples, their subjugation on the basis of race, a system that was maintained through the brutal and systematic violence of the colonial authorities. The violence in the Brexit rhetoric of “taking back control of our borders”, of excluding others for self-interested goals at a time when thousands of refugees are dying at sea, is resonant of the racism that pervaded imperial Britain at the time of the 1781 Zong massacre which saw slaves thrown overboard by their captor to save a British slave ship and in the interest of profiting from an insurance claim. If what we want is to live in a more equitable society, it is dangerous to begin by voting for an outcome which has been driven by racism. A nostalgia for empire is no starting point for emancipatory struggle based on solidarity with the oppressed.

Nadine El-Enany is Lecturer in Law, Birkbeck Law School, University of London. Twitter: @NadineElEnany


  1. Sadly though, the general hostility to all things European is shared by shared by a lot of post-colonial thinkers, who are even more obsessed by the British empire.

    • What do mean, “even more”? They’re the only ones who are.

    • The Empire Strikes Back! Its all about democracy and belief The author of this article doesn’t live in the real world. The people are always right and academics, are just that, academics.

      • Sure, the people are always right. Just like when the people of Germany elected that guy with the little mustache.

      • The Empire Strikes Back? What a JOKE!! You are one of the Nostalgia for Empire dreamers. WAKE UP! IT’S GONE!

  2. Would that we were in a “post” colonial moment. Excellent article, placing the EU debate exactly where it should be: in an historical and global context. Well don.

    • Rubbish. Bringing the empire into a debate where it has no relevance is the exact equivalent of comparing your opponent to Hitler – it shows you have nothing meaningful to say and have lost the argument.

      • Sometimes I really ask myself, how can somebody be that stupid!?!

    • And “an historical”? Seriously?

  3. I don’t see how reinforcing the stereotype of Brexiters as racist helps the Lexit argument. This is nothing more than consent being manufactured. If the voice of Lexit is being drowned out how does this article help? He’s fallen into the trap of doing the opposition’s bidding.

    • Er… Firstly, last time I checked, people named “Nadine” don’t tend to suit the pronoun “he”.

      Secondly, this piece neither reinforces any stereotypes (the events of the last few days have laid bare the rotten undercurrent beneath the “Leave” supporters on the Right for all to see), nor does it seem to be attempting to make a progressive argument for leaving the EU in spite of that apparently being the author’s natural inclination up until now.

      Thirdly, the tone of this piece seems to suggest what I hope is a growing realisation amongst those of us of a leftie/progressive bent that for all the incestuous relationship between the EU and multinational business and capital may be distasteful (for the record I’m voting ‘Remain’, but harbour no illusions about this state of affairs needing to be fixed), the reality is that the alternative offered by the “Leave” campaign is no more nor less than an even more breakneck pursuit of the neoliberal Thatcherite project’s goals (in itself essentially turning the ‘divide and conquer’ tactics used to loot the Empire upon the home front), and as such would be far worse for the people of this country, the people of Europe and of the world.

      • Thanks, very good.

  4. What a load of claptrap.

    I will be voting leave, because the EU policies are failing. The Euro is causing mass unemployment in Southern Europe. Schengen is falling apart and facilitating terrorism, the war in Ukraine was provoked by EU expansionism, and the CAP is an environmental disaster.

    None of the above would matter if the EU was open to change, but it is persisting in the face of the facts. The fact they can’t account for the taxpayers money they spend is another negative mark.

    That is why Leave will have my vote.

    • So wouldnt you consider the death of Jo Cox as terrorism? Your own white race.

      • The E.U. was created to stop wars causes by food scarcity. Winding up metphorical drawbridges sometimes worked before gunpowder nowadays the intelligent seek negotiation not isolationism.

  5. Let’s not forget the post-Brexit fantasies. There is a deep empire nostalgia and colonial mindset in assuming that all these Asian and African countries can’t wait to sign glorious trade deals with the old motherland.

    Brexiters see former colonies like India lining up to open their markets to Britain like in the good old days. After all, they are a bunch of underdeveloped people, and Britain the greatest country that ever existed. And if someone suggests otherwise, like President Obama, then this is because he is part-Kenyan and hasn’t quite understood that the tough love Blighty gave his people back then was for their best.

    • This is just projecting your own fantasies onto others. Show me where any Brexiter has said anything like this.

  6. What is Lexit?

    It sounds line you’re making a good point but I’m not sure about what.

  7. Please show me a single example of a Leave campaigner being nostalgic about the empire. It’s only ever brought up by Remainers, in order to accuse Leavers of being obsessed with it. In other words, a blatant straw man. And no one who makes such blanket, ignorant criticisms of an entire country can accuse anyone else of racism.

    • If you can not be bothered to look then you show you significant ignorance. Here a clue. Reread the last comment you replied to.

  8. “It is difficult to choose a low point in the Brexit campaign.”

    Whereas the low point of the Remain campaign is easily identified – it’s the use of the murder of Jo Cox to try and gain political advantage, in which this article is wholly complicit.

    • The lowest point was flying the Leave banner behind a plane flying over the Jo Cox’s memorial surely.

  9. The lowest point was Herr Farage posting a photo on Twitter the day before she was murdered of her husband on a boat going past the Tower of London’s Traitors Gate, waving ‘Remain’ banners in opposition to the Leave flotilla accompanied with the word “Traitors” in the tweet.

    Given what happened later that evening, Perhaps that might be considered incitement?

  10. 1. I have to out myself: I’m German – sorry for that.
    2. This means my English is quite limited.
    3. It also means that I’m living in the EU Center of national protectionism (“Germany first!” Schäuble).
    4. Non of the leading EU Countries managed better than Germany to transfer the Billions it spends for other countries in the Southern and Eastern hemisphere of the EU back into its own export orientated economy.
    5. At the same time already my generation (*1963) heard over decades “We have to tied the belt.” Of course this went along with Thatcherism, but don’t forget Schmidt, Kohl, Schröder, Merkel, their neoliberal agenda and their attacks on Unions, the social well warfare state etcetera.
    6. If we want to put it into an extreme, Germany colonized the rest of Europe by its export-substituted economy.
    7. Well, GB isn’t much better except the fact that the orientation was less in the field of industrial production, but more in the financial sector.
    8. This means that national protectionism isn’t the solution, it is the origin of the European crisis. It is the origin of the transfer of the national income into transnational operating companies, which in the meantime established their global, legal, private hemisphere of jurisdiction.
    9. This means, that national laws could only control the financial private sector, civic rights etcetera, if they “translated” them into international agreements between nations. It is incredible naive to believe that regulations, which are limited on the national level, nowadays could be able to achieve a level of control, which could protect national interests against transnational operating, economic entities.
    10. In final we have to force the politization of Europe, instead of falling back into dull nationalism.
    11. Racism is the ideal configuration for populists who final aim to protect the privatization of the financial sector without mentioning it.
    12. And of course this dull nationalism is the best sublimation to ignore, that our access to cheap, global goods based on the deaths of the worker class on the other side of the planet.
    13. The entire process in Europe is very scary, very reactionary and without any concept than to escalate conflicts as the “Brexit-Battle”, the right-wing flashback (France, Netherlands, Germany (AFD, Pegida), Poland, Hungary, Romania, not to forget the proto-fascistic government in Turkey …), the militarization of the public sphere, the new arms race and the construction of fear by terrorism shows.
    14. The most uninteresting of the decision to leave the EU are the economic consequences. What is much more painful, is the lost of political solidarity between the people in Europe and abroad its borders.


  11. The author’s claim that the fact that non citizens being denied a vote in the referendum is undemocratic doesn’t make sense. In almost every country around the world only citizens of those countries can vote in elections. Their is nothing exclusive about non citizens not being allowed to vote in the referendum despite the vote affecting them. British citizens are able to vote without distinction of national origin.

    • first: Europeans didn’t apply for citizenship even if they live in this country for years, because this country used to be a part of EU. So no one even bothered or need to be bothered.

      second: Commonwealth citizens were able to vote, even if they arrived to this country a month ago, over the life of a European who have lived in here for 15 years.

      third: In no where in the civilized world, country make referendums for a part of community to be expelled and be stripped from their rights. Be it sans papier travellers, or any other expat/migrant community. This is not election. This is referendum over lives of others. We know that if you give a group of people (UK citizens) to vote over lives of the minority (EU citizens) this can create only xenophobia, and racism. As it did indeed.

  12. The problem is the racism has been created by the ruling class who in order to distract from their own agendas, have consistently blamed all the woes of this country on the immigrants. I don’t blame the people that voted, I blame the politicians and the media who did such a good job with their lies that so many people actually believed them. Outside of London, the country has been forgotten about. This vote was one of racism, but also of dissent for the establishment. I voted leave, and despite the horrors that we are seeing in the media, we can’t forget that these horrors were in part created by them. And just because the ruling class succeeded in burying the Lexit campaign, surely this was an even greater reason to stand by ones convictions and vote leave, to carry on fighting despite being silenced. Or, that is my opinion at least.

  13. How is the EU imperialist? They haven’t invaded in middle eastern nation over claims of WMDs, nor over they building islands in the south china sea and to claim that body of water.


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