The Mental Maps of Brexit Britain: Conflicting Imaginations of Britain’s Role in Europe and the World since the 1970s
Mainland Europeans were gazing with disbelief at the Brexit drama that had been unfolding across the Channel since 2016. They were particularly disconcerted by interpretations of British national identity, which often had very little in common with the ideas of other European nations. Some Leavers dreamt of a “Global Britain”, ‘sovereign’ and free of all multilateral chains, while others cited ‘English values’ as the key to renewing the political clout of the UK. Meanwhile, the Remain camp tied itself up in knots attempting to work out Britain’s place in Europe. But whether they have been fighting over the UK’s position in today’s globalised world, Britain’s cultural and political significance in Europe or the future of national identities in a ‘United Kingdom’ of four nations, Remainers and Leavers have been entrenched in a bitter war of interpretation. The virulence and even violence of these interpretative battlegrounds can only be understood by examining their historical context. They are the culmination of various self-positionings, each politically and ideologically coded and each with a number of internal contradictions that Great Britain has adopted since the 1970s in an increasingly globalised and connected world. This session examines the conflicting imaginations of Britain’s role in Europe and the world by focusing on the ‘mental maps’ of Brexit Britain. By doing this, it will contribute to the ongoing project of historicizing Brexit. It analyses the three most significant mental maps: ‘global Britain’, ‘little England’ and ‘Britain in Europe’. They have been disputed vigorously in public discourse since the 1970s. The papers analyse the genesis, the plurality and the internal contradictions of these mental maps and identify their central actors and forums of debate. Which topics are central to the debates on the UK’s position on the imaginary map of the world? What role has been played by global transformations, economic ideologies, or transnational cultural networks?
‘Global Britain’ evokes memories of empire and imperial grandeur whilst insinuating both British liberal internationalism and pride in British global dominance at once. Brexiteers have relentlessly been painting a picture of the nation’s golden future as a sovereign, wealthy and highly influential Britain in the world. This paper will, firstly identify the sources the mental map of ‘Global Britain’ draws from and show how deeply it has been entangled in a search for a post-imperial national identity after the end of the Cold War. Second, it will argue that its persuasiveness is due to its political openness, having been coined by left-, liberal- and right-wing actors since the early 1990s.
For hundreds of years, English national identity was embedded in two further powerful collective identities: Britishness and the Empire. At the end of the 20th century, English nationalism re-emerged particularly on the political right and England as a distinct mental map resurfaced. This paper seeks to analyse this resurgence of Englishness and will argue that the confident global Britain fantasies that fuelled the Brexit debate are paradoxically driven by an inward-looking but unstable English national identity: on the back of ‘Global Britain’ we find its much littler sister: ‘Little England’.
In the British imagination, ‘Europe’ is an idea, not a place. Britons talk of ‘joining’ or ‘leaving’ ‘Europe’. They ‘go to Europe’ on holiday, and study ‘British’ and ‘European’ history as separate subjects, and usually use ‘Europeans’ to refer to other people. Yet this has not always fuelled Euroscepticism: Black and Asian voters, for example, rarely define as ‘European’ but strongly backed Remain in 2016. This paper explores the shifting relationship between British conceptions of ‘Europe’ and attitudes towards European integration, focusing especially on popular understandings of history and the relationship between Europe and Empire.