Did the sun really set on the British Empire?

“Empire 2.0” is the Brexit plan now being touted by the UK Government. The term was coined by sceptical officials, worried about the importance given by ministers to creating an African free trade area ahead of Brexit negotiations with Europe.

Some are holding the comment up as everything right about the promise of Brexit. Yet this remark was meant as a detraction, not as a bolstering affirmation of a post-Brexit Britain. It’s a laughable prospect, not least because it exposes the dark underbelly of ignorance about atrocities done in the imperial name.

Nevertheless, there was always a natural inevitability to the idea. For Brexit supporters old enough to remember, the European promise supplanted the decline and fall of the British Empire. Britain was to be a towering, proselytising giant at the heart of Europe, but it never came to be. Instead, the question of what Britain’s role in the world is, 50 years after we lost an empire, has never been wrestled with.

For many British expats, the shadow of the original is not far away. The ability for millions to not only travel but to set up lives in other countries is a remarkable fact, particularly since most people in the world speak smatterings or fluent English.

And that’s the point. Empire’s are seldom militarily-based. Power is no guarantee of prestige and global hegemony, although it does help, but there is much more to it than ‘might is right’.

Economically, as well, Britain is already the sixth largest economy in the world (it actually slipped behind France after the EU referendum). Brexit has, with some irony, threatened that robust position with the financial uncertainty it’s brought to global companies based in Britain.

It begs the question then what a new British Empire would look like. Is it a Union Flag fluttering over colonies and imposing our will in foreign lands? The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have already demonstrated what we can do militarily and Britain already operates its own nuclear deterrent, none of which has anything to do with the European Union.

Culturally, Britain sits at on apex of preeminence. As any expat English teacher will attest to, the cultural, or soft power tenants of Britain are the most ubiquitous of any country in the world.

The English language and the osmosis of British music, film and fashion around the globe create the usurpable fact that Britain’s reputation and influence are already second to none. If Brexit is not about economics or military dominance or cultural hegemony then what precisely are the imperial designs ministers have?

What could be more imperial than what we already have?


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