Ever since the British voted to leave the European Union in 2015, the country has struggled to articulate a vision for its future. Yet, the recent revival of the alliance of democracies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has opened up an opportunity to redefine the nation as a leading member of the democratic coalition of states.
Meanwhile, defining the nation around its central role in democratization has the potential to transform its domestic politics.
The United Kingdom has been a monarchy and an empire, a federation and a member of the European Union. Yet, it has never been a single nation bound together by a state. This was the idea behind Brexit, but it was premised on a return to an imagined past, which as many commentators noted never existed.
In this sense, it was a naive project that was bound to fail, as most educated observers recognized. It was also a racist project that sought to preserve the nation by offloading its most ambiguous members. Yet, the real problem with Brexit lay in the way it exacerbated core social tensions.
Modern British history is a story of a monarchy transforming itself into an empire. Yet, it is also the story of an increasingly democratic nation, binding itself together around classically liberal ideals. In this way, its history is ultimately the story of a great contradiction, and it is a contradiction that Brexit was supposed to solve.
The contradiction is common to many empires.
Over the course of the modern era, citizens of the state enjoyed an ever increasing panoply of liberal rights and freedoms. However, the expansion in liberal rights and freedoms came coupled with brutal exploitation within the colonies. Then when the country needed laborers for reconstruction after the Second World War, it internalized its contradictions by recruiting the very same people it had been exploiting in the colonies. Suddenly, the empire had been brought home, and its vast diversity of peoples soon pervaded the sites and smells of storied cities, like London and Manchester.
Yet, at the very same moment, the country was relinquishing its empire.
The nation had long defined itself in relation to its imperial possessions, and this leant to it a sort of cosmopolitanism. The British could look out on a vast empire comprised of people from every corner of the globe, knowing that they were all bound together in one vast commonwealth. Great Britain was the universal nation, upon which the sun never set. Yet, it need not get too close to the peoples over which it ruled, nor look too closely at the crimes against humanity that were such an essential part of maintaining the empire.
When immigration picked up pace after the Second World War, the nation was thereby able to focus on its cosmopolitanism.
Now, it had shed its imperialism and united with cosmopolitan Europe. In this way, the UK became a great melting pot in which people from all over the world adapted to its well functioning institutions. However, as the number of immigrants increased, and as an increasing number of immigrants remained apart, the social system became strained. It was an uneasy social compact premised on an integration that required formally subject people to relinquish their own ethnic identities, which were often not easy to shed.
The strains were exacerbated by increasing inequality, brought about by a two generation long attack on social programs, like the National Health Service, which began in the eighties under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This hollowed out the middle classes, leaving everyone on the margins. The inequality meant that immigrants were often left with little nation into which they might assimilate. Meanwhile, the inequality led previously assimilated citizens to wonder why they suddenly felt left out in the cold.
It was a common story felt across the world, where neoliberalism would contribute to rising rightwing nationalism and fascism, as people the world over sought to unite around a core ethnic identity. Rising inequality was tearing every society apart, and in every major region of the world it was being blamed on the ethnic other. But the tensions were exacerbated in the UK by the interplay between high and low culture.
At least since the time of Shakespeare, one can identify a high and a low British culture. The high culture has been unusually refined and repressed; the low culture has been unusually uncouth and drunken. The two were always in tension, and the one could easily be seen to be a release from the other. High culture tended to hold the upper civilized hand, and it kept watch over British institutions, but low culture kept its haughtiness in check. At least this is how many writers depicted the society, and the dynamics can still be observed today.
Then Brexit smashed the social compact to pieces.
Brexit represented the victory of low over high culture, and it represented a victory of insular over cosmopolitan culture. This left immigrants marginalized, but to be a marginalized outsider to British culture is to be exploited, because that’s what the British did with marginalized outsiders over the course of hundreds of years of empire—and now they were reverting to form.
Suddenly, minorities came to assume the roles of exploited colonial peoples. Meanwhile, a drunken and rowdy low culture came to attack Britain’s refined high culture, which was increasingly defined by immigrant professionals, taking advantage of the opportunities provided by Britain’s strong institutions, and liberal members of the creative classes.
The dramatic cultural transformation also killed something far more deep and subtle.
British culture has long possessed a sensitive and quiet interiority. The interiority is both personal in the sense that the British can be reflective and often quite introverted. Yet, it also shows up in the intimate spaces of gardens and pubs. This sensitivity could be found in all dimensions of British culture. And while it is artfully depicted in everything from Jane Austin to Downton Abbey, the writings of John Stuart Mill to the poetry of Wordsworth, it is perhaps the most essential element of the culture that outsiders tend to miss.
Unfortunately, rowdy low culture cannot help but walk all over this quiet sensitivity, if only because it typically comes out when people are drinking. And outsiders who might have previously participated in it were pushed out. As a result, they began to overlook the quietness that remained, seeing instead the not so subtle manifestations of an all pervasive racism. And it was all the worse when covid came along, because masking and social distancing made it so hard to pick up on subtle social cues.
Hence, the problem for the British is not simply that their nation has been cast adrift in a search for itself that hardly anyone is up to. Their most laudable attributes have also been trampled upon by the very same people professing an undying love for the culture. Meanwhile, a vast population of minorities has been transformed into hostile outsiders, and inequality has only deepened the tensions. However, President Biden’s reinvigoration of the alliance of democracies, and its rebuke to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, may have provided an opening to a new path. Participation in a wider alliance of democracies can draw from the best British traditions while situating the country in a wider community of nations.
It can also give the nation a sense of purpose in the global fight to preserve institutions that it was often at the forefront of pioneering. And in fighting for democracy, the UK may be able to preserve some of its own, which Conservative rule has so often threatened since Brexit.
The UK can serve as bridge between the European Union and America by pulling closer to its wealthier former colonies like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Yet, it can also help integrate into the alliance a multitude of former colonies, which are now democracies. These include Ghana, Belize, Malta, Cyprus, Grenada, Botswana, Namibia, Malaysia, Barbados, Bermuda, South Africa, Honduras, Mauritius, Somaliland, the Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Meanwhile, India remains the crown jewel, whose democratic institutions in recent years have been weakened but far from spent.
In short, the UK can triangulate the US and EU while helping integrate a multitude of other states into the alliance. In this way, it can define itself as uniquely British while remaining part of a wider international project. And it can restate its relationship to its own minorities by once more embracing a more cosmopolitan identity. Finally, it can make these ties more concrete by using them to form a wider trading block.
In this way, even if the core of Great Britain breaks up through the loss of Scotland and perhaps Northern Ireland, England will not simply collapse into its ethnocentric core. Rather, the story of Brexit will be like stepping back to get a running start in the leap into a richer and more cosmopolitan world.
The UK will never be an empire again, for the days of empire are thankfully long gone But it can be the lynchpin in a wider alliance of democracies, and it can use its position to redefine itself as essential to freedom in the world. Meanwhile, it can use the process of redefining itself as a means of reintegrating its minorities and renegotiating the social compact.
If that seems too visionary to be realized, that’s simply a measure of the delusion that Brexit has fostered. For the country is already a lynchpin to the association of democracies. All it need do now is recognize the importance of its role and redefine itself accordingly.