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England’s post-imperial stress disorder

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Britain is on the edge of its most existential vote yet.REUTERS

The campaign to get Britain out of the European Union is hard enough to understand if you are British. For foreigners, it must be quite incomprehensible. Although Scotland, Wales, and Ireland are all solidly in favor of remaining, English attitudes toward Europe have become as delusional, and as powerful, as American attitudes toward gun control. We are suffering from national psychosis: post-imperial stress disorder.

Three dates are useful in understanding the deeper roots of what is happening to this country — 1945, 1956, and 1966. 1945, when the Second World War ended, still feels like yesterday in the English imagination. We were bankrupt, with our cities bombed to rubble and hundreds of thousands of young men killed or wounded. Food, clothing, and petrol were all rationed and would be for another five years. But when you ask if British society was better then, a huge majority of the English people think it was. The overall figure is 51 percent worse today to 27 percent better, and when you break it down it is only those under 24 or nonwhite who think things have really gotten better since the war. Otherwise men and women from every region of the country believe that British society has got worse in the 70 years of European peace and unimaginable prosperity since the war.


The problem, you see, is that this peace and prosperity did not come on our own terms — which brings us to the second crucial date, 1956. That was when the British Army, in collaboration with the French and the Israelis, invaded Egypt to recapture the Suez Canal. I was there, though only a year old: My father was at the time the British consul in Ismailia, on the canal. He'd known things were going wrong for months, ever since he received a top-secret coded cable asking where the post office was in Ismailia — something that showed that an invasion was being planned, but that no one had any maps for it.

Suez was the last attempt by Britain to behave as if it were still an independent superpower. It ended after a fortnight under American pressure with a humiliating diplomatic defeat and a military retreat, and, ever since then, British foreign policy has been run by realists, although in compensation England has enjoyed a lively fantasy life about its place in the world. Tabloid newspapers play in this country the role that Fox News does in the United States, and the world they depict is still one where Britain stands tall and no other good country could act without our help and advice. But the referendum makes me fear that my country has forgotten every single thing it might have learned in my lifetime.


As the Suez adventure made clear, we can now fight wars only with American permission or as American clients. We can no longer dictate trade terms to our partners but must submit to the whims of foreign bureaucracies. Ever-increasing amounts of the country's infrastructure is owned by foreigners and operated for their benefit. The same is true of our capital city, where the housing market is now insane. All these things are blamed, not on globalization, and still less on the Americans, but on "Brussels," which has come to stand for the unspeakable unfairness of a world which no longer operates, as it did for several centuries, to the benefit of the English people.


In 1945, things were dreadful, but everyone knew their role and knew what their country should do. Now things are very much better, but no one knows where they belong. The post-war consensus and much of the optimism lasted until about 1973 but collapsed altogether under Margaret Thatcher. In a sense, this campaign is the last outworking of her legacy. Both sides of the argument are the children of Thatcher, who opposed the European Union rhetorically and emotionally but did as much as any political leader to knit us into the single market.

The Remainers are largely those who profited from her revolution: the rich, the skilled, and the educated, especially those who live in London and the South East portion of England. At the same time, they tend to be the people who resisted and were repelled by her message and her instinctive social nostalgia. They are, in a word, Blairites: He largely continued her policies but switched the rhetoric 180 degrees to welcome a future as quite glorious — and imaginary — as Thatcher's vision of the past had been.

Under both Tony Blair and Thatcher, and under their successors, the rising prosperity of London and the South East has been accompanied by an astonishing loss of jobs, hope, and self-confidence in other parts of the country. There, in the traditional heartland of England, is where the Brexit movement draws its emotional strength. The Leavers are mostly those who lost out from what Mrs Thatcher did but drew nourishment by what she said. So they felt doubly betrayed in the post-Blair era, when the economics of the new order went on hurting them, and the rhetoric turned against them, too.


But the Leavers are not a homogenous group. Take away their English nationalism, and they fall into two profoundly opposed groups. By far the largest are the foot soldiers, small-c conservative and genuinely hostile to immigrants of every sort. (More than half the immigrants in this country are from outside the European Union.) The ordinary Leavers are found almost everywhere outside London, in all the places where globalization has devastated the economy and where many of the jobs that are left have gone to foreigners.

They are nourished by the extraordinary and unremitting hostility to "Migrants" in some parts of the press. The Daily Express, a traditionally patriotic tabloid now owned by the pornographer Richard Desmond, has run 37 front page splashes warning about migrants this year alone. Few were based on anything anyone else would recognize as news. The Daily Mail, its more respectable competitor, has run more than 20. Even if you never buy these papers, the front pages are displayed in every supermarket, and their effect is cumulative. My mother, who is still alive but rather confused, asked me the other day, as I drove her through the English Tourist Board poster countryside, where all the migrants were. Why couldn't she see any since they were invading the country?


Among the leaders of the Leave grouping, though, are a splinter group of Thatcherite true believers for whom the problem with the Thatcher revolution is that did not go far enough. Their followers dream of a restoration, but what they want is more and greater disruption. They dream of an internationalist and almost entirely deregulated state, something like Singapore although perhaps without the authoritarianism. They have nothing against immigration: Without it, where would the servants come from?

The resemblance to the modern Republican coalition is pretty obvious — but the Brexit coalition, unlike the Republicans, does not have to hold together. All it has to do is to win this one referendum.

The relentless hostility of large parts of the press has also cowed the BBC to the most extraordinary extent, so that in its quest for "balance" it has largely abandoned its obligations to the truth. A lovely example came over the radio news the other day, when one report started "Leave campaigners have attacked a claim by 17 Nobel Prize winners that leaving the European Union would damage British science." Framing the matter this way suggests a complete equality between the people who actually know what they are talking about and anyone else with an opinion.

In fact, the Leaver narrative is so completely deranged, so detached from the facts, and so full of inner contradictions, that it is obviously expressing something inexplicable in terms of traditional politics. It's tempting to dismiss this as a pathology: post-imperial traumatic disorder. But this apparent irrationality may have its own logic.

A very important part of the Leave campaign is the rebellion against authorities of any sort, whether these are experts or politicians. It is assumed that they act only from self-interest and that this never or very seldom corresponds to the self-interest of the ordinary person. This is a general phenomenon across the Western world, of course, but it is rendered particularly acute in England by the collapse of the old Imperial state and the eclipse of traditional patriotism.

The extraordinary militarism of English society had obvious drawbacks, for us as well as for the rest of the world, but it did promote social cohesion as nothing else could. If you look at the war memorials that stand at the center of almost every village in the countryside, there will be names from every social class. The upper classes will have been the officers, and the poor will have been the ordinary soldiers, but they are all just as dead, and they are remembered side-by-side because they all acknowledged the common authority of a particular kind of patriotism.

Nothing in my lifetime has come near to replacing that as a narrative to hold the country together.

Thatcherism certainly did not. It broke down authority in the same way that it broke down consensus. This happened within both main parties but in the Conservatives the insurrection against "Europe" has been rumbling for 20 years. In Labour the collapse of authority and consensus only really became obvious in the last five years, first under a weak leader, Ed Miliband, and then an almost surreally incompetent one, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn doesn't really believe in the European Union, and Miliband does. This is irrelevant. What matters in the referendum campaign is that traditional Labour working-class voters don't believe in either man.

This is a much bigger and less controllable phenomenon than the old left-wing critique of the European Union as a capitalist conspiracy. That never had much purchase in a country where most people felt capitalism was working pretty well for them. But now that post-Thatcher capitalism no longer seems to work for large parts of the country, there is no one on the Left who can say convincingly, as Bill Clinton did, "I feel your pain." In fact, none of the Westminster politicians — (Boris Johnson is one exception) — seem able to feel anything that normal people do. Instead of "feelings," which come from the inside, they talk about "values," or "passions," which are completely devalued terms that most people use only when selling themselves and are lying.

Against this, the sheer craziness of Brexit offers a guarantee of authenticity, of fellow human feeling. The "leave" narrative offers a first-person perspective which has been lost in technocratic democracy. And so we reach the last important date: 1966.

That didn't happen in England but in the new imperial power, the United States. It was the year when Bob Dylan stopped singing recognizable protest songs in favor of something less coherent and much more powerful. "How does it feel?" he howled. "How does it feel?" — and that is the cry of the grass-roots "Leave" campaign.

It feels really satisfying to sing along. But then you remember how the song goes on: "How does it feel to be on your own — with no direction home — a complete unknown?" We wait to find out. One thing the campaign has shown us for certain: There's no direction home for England now, and it's desperately, desperately looking to find one.

Andrew Brown is a Leader writer and editorial board member for The Guardian newspaper. The views stated here, however, are his own.