England’s last gasp of empire

Ben Judah

From Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, England was an empire. No more. Brexit has turned the twilight years of the reign of Elizabeth II into the final chapter in the history of Great Britain. What its partisans, celebrating with flag-waving in the street, tearfully called “Independence Day” will unravel the role that England has played since the 16th century as a great power, along with the City of London’s reign as a financial capital of the world.
After Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558, her merchant-venturers began an imperial quest. By Elizabeth II’s birth, Britain’s empire spanned nearly a quarter of the globe. Brexit’s fantasy of revived greatness — “taking back control” — will achieve the opposite. England’s wish to withdraw from its union with Europe appears now to have made inevitable Scotland’s eventual withdrawal from its union with England. It has also placed in doubt the status of Northern Ireland, where a majority also voted against leaving the European Union.
This misguided craving will turn Britain’s seat, created by Winston Churchill, on the United Nations Security Council into a rotten borough (as parliamentary constituencies that persisted despite low populations were known historically). The great powers will never allow this little England to exercise a veto right against their wishes. Why did England choose this? The key is not sovereignty but a rejection of ethnic change. “It’s not England anymore,” people told me as I travelled around the country covering the referendum. In Tonbridge and Grantham, in Romford and Witney, this is what I heard, hundreds of times: “We don’t recognise our country anymore.”
Middle England did not treat this as a referendum on European Union membership but as a plebiscite on one thing: “immigration.” For Middle Englanders, “immigrants” is also a synonym for non-white British. Identity, not austerity, motivated their vote to Leave. At her coronation in 1953, Elizabeth II also became the reigning monarch of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The non-white population of Britain then was probably less than 20,000. Over 70 percent of British workers were manual labourers.
Jews were expelled from Britain in the 13th century and barred from settling here until the 17th century. The extreme hostility to Jewish immigrants saw Britain largely close its borders to them in 1905, and later refuse asylum to hundreds of thousands of European Jews fleeing Nazism. In Wales, there was even a pogrom against Jews in 1911. Before World War II, only three waves left a demographic trace on this “island nation”: Huguenots from France and the Netherlands in the 16th century, Irish immigration in the mid-19th century and Jewish immigration in the later decades. The numbers were always small. Huguenots numbered about 1 percent of London’s population; Irish immigration, even at its 19th-century peak, amounted to less than 3 percent of the population of England and Wales. Fewer than 250,000 Jews migrated to Britain between 1880 and 1914.
In Tonbridge, I heard “Enoch was right” — a reference to Enoch Powell, the politician who scandalized party colleagues in 1968 but won broad public support for a speech that predicted racial strife resulting from mass immigration. In Grantham, Margaret Thatcher’s hometown, I was told Britain would “collapse with these millions of Turks.” In Romford, a suburb east of London, I was warned that “there’ll be a civil war between the English and the immigrants.” Since Brexit, a wave of attacks, arson and abuse has hit Britain. Historically, ethnic change is one of the most difficult things a society can go through. But why is this anger flaring with such intensity now?
Part of the reason is that the messaging of the Leave campaign suggested that Britain was under a camouflaged German diktat. A majority of those I met thought a tide of immigration from the European Union was imminent — thanks, they believed, to impending Turkish membership. This made the Brexit referendum eerily similar in emotional content to last year’s bailout referendum in Greece, which encompassed a similar psychodrama of World War II refought. And now the dreamers, unwitting, sickened with nostalgia, have torn down that last, threadbare vestige of Great Britain. This is the queen of England’s England no more.
— Courtesy: The New York Times

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