In the Victorian Age, Britain’s confidence was based on its belief that it had a gift for government. The French cooked better food; the Italians wrote finer music; the Americans invented the telegraph. But as the rise of the House of Commons proved, and as Joseph Chamberlain put it, the British were “a great governing race.”
That confidence endured, fortified by victory in two wars, into the late 1950s. But after 1945, popular expectations of Western governments changed. Governments were now justified in the people’s eyes by the benefits they provided and the economic growth they oversaw.
Unfortunately, post-war Britain chose poor economic policies. And in this new era, nothing could have been more damaging to Britain’s Victorian confidence than its failure to maintain a respectable rate of growth compared to Western Europe and the United States.
Worse, by the late 1950s, Britain’s under-performance began to be seen as the result of deep-rooted cultural and social deficiencies.
In a word, the diagnosis was that Britain was not a “modern” nation. The cure, naturally, was a program of “modernization.”
To sample the flavour of this cure, read Harold Wilson’s “white heat” speech of 1963. But “modernization” was far more than a political issue.
Its obsession with concrete reshaped British cities—look at London’s Westway. It was echoed by the leading councils of British business. It remade British culture—like John Osborne’s “The Entertainer,” which embodied Britain in a dilapidated music hall.
Britain’s malaise is often attributed to the Suez Crisis. The evidence for this is weak. The British people cared a great deal about their kith and kin in the Dominions.
They cared far less about Egypt or even India, especially since politicians retailed the comforting myth that Britain’s imperial mission had culminated in a successful transition to the Commonwealth.
For too many in Britain’s elite, the cure for all Britain’s problems, both real and imagined, was to join the EEC. For some, it offered an alternative to Britain’s imperial mission. It purportedly embodied a modern, superior form of governance.
Above all, it was supposedly the key to matching Western Europe’s economic performance, which is why, from 1961 to 2016, political Europe was always (and deceptively) sold to the British people as a fundamentally economic project.
Britain duly entered the EEC in 1973, at its post-war low point, when it was struggling to keep the lights on for three days a week. It entered as an expression of despair at its supposedly fundamental problems and its inability to find a convincing alternative.
Not surprisingly, the EEC was never popular in Britain. For its continental members, the EEC offered something valuable. It afforded West Germany, for example, an opportunity to prove it was civilized. But in Britain, the EEC offered only two things: the steady erosion of the role of the elected House of Commons, and proof of its own decline.
Britain’s recovery of its confidence began with Margaret Thatcher. It helped enormously that Thatcher obviously believed that Britain wasn’t finished. But, more fundamentally, she had the courage to make the economic policy choices that Britain had fluffed since 1945.
No government since 1990 has undone her legacy of lower taxes, trade union control, better regulation, and economic openness. Britain’s massive national debt is a repudiation of Thatcher’s vision, but it has not (yet) been enough to swamp Britain, mostly because many of its European competitors are even worse off.
Britain’s economic revival led to a recovery of cultural confidence. It’s easy and right to mock Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia.” But we should remember that in the 1970s being British was no selling point. By 1997, it was.
Today, British chefs offer cooking lessons to the world. Manufacturers use the Union Jack as a sign of quality and modernity. What a welcome change.
As Britain recovered, its underlying distaste for the EEC’s successors naturally emerged.
In fact, Britain’s alternative to the EEC was there all along: better policies, government through its own institutions, and working cooperatively with its friends.
For all its twists and turns, Brexit is basically an expression of Britain’s recovery of its own confidence.
The problem is that many of the British elite today still cling to their diagnosis of British failure.
As Theresa May recently put it, they see the very British desire to control its own government as a sign of moral failure and evidence of “isolationism.”
What Brexit offers Britain is the further opportunity to travel down the road it has been on since 1980, which is the road of governing itself—and, all things considered, governing itself well.
But opposition to Brexit will live on among the cultural elite—the embedded opposition.
For them, the E.U. embodies a modernity that is based on the assumption that much of Britain’s history is irrelevant at best, or a mistake at worst. In Brexit, that elite has taken a beating.
But it would be unwise to believe that Brexit has ended their desire to direct Britain’s destiny.
This piece originally appeared in Express.