Regardless of political affiliation, of class, or even of race, ask any American what the United States represents when it is at its best and the answer will be roughly the same. The ideals of freedom, democracy and prosperity are concepts hardwired into the DNA of the country. Whilst American history has mostly consisted of the total and utter negation of those same ideals, the story of a new republic unshackled by religion or hereditary monarchy continues to possess a romance that entices millions here and abroad. The national motto, E Pluribus Unum, speaks to the balance of unity and individualism that the country hinges delicately on – ‘from many, come one’. The American Ideal – enshrined in the constitution and the Bill of Rights, protected by the separation of executive, legislature and judiciary, – embodies the most daring and ambitious project of nation-building ever undertaken in human history. The propensity for many Americans to see their country as exceptional is because the nation’s success often feels indicative of humanity as a whole – if these huddled and tired masses from all across the world can truly break free, then perhaps so can everyone else?
The point is not whether this has in reality ever been achieved. The experiences of African-Americans and the indigenous population may be enough to suggest that the project has already been an irreparable failure. But what is important is that those most damaged by America’s failings often still look to what America can be at its best. They believe that the hard won liberties and rights, that represent the best of America’s history, prove that the arc of the universe will eventually bend towards justice, even in this country built on the backs of slaves. Furnished by the westward expansion of the frontier, and by the language of discovery and exploration that came with it, the American ideal has always been firmly rooted in the future. Though unlikely to ever come to full fruition, it still very important that this ideal exists at all.
The British equivalent of this American Ideal, the condition to which the country aspires, is much less clear. Whatever Britain was when at its best, the consensus is that that point is now behind us. The backwardness of our politics is a result of an obsession with an invented past. We have no British Ideal to aspire to, no imagined future to work towards.
Unlike the United States, Britain draws its historical pride and sense of identity not from revolution and republican renewal, but from imperial domination. The idealisation of empire has two important consequences. The first is an obsession with decline, now that the empire is gone. From Suez, through the Falklands, and all the way to Brexit, British foreign policy since the war can be viewed in the context of the last desperate gasps of a dying world-power. The sense of superiority that came attached to world domination for the British aristocracy of the 19th century has been passed down the generations and disseminated to the wider public – helping to fuel outrage that this once-great nation could ever be subordinate to bureaucrats in Brussels. From Take Back Control to Make America Great Again, the simple power of a message that speaks to a lost (but reclaimable) status is large.
The second consequence of Britain’s obsession with its imperial past is that many of the stories we tell ourselves about our national history are rooted in falsehoods. Robert Saunders has written in the New Statesmen about how many of the Brexit cheerleaders like to frame Britain’s departure from the trading bloc as part of the country’s great tradition as a free-trade nation. Saunders notes how these vague salutes to ‘free trade’, ‘liberal economics’ and ‘private enterprise’ hide the violent and coercive structures that underpinned them. Conflations of our past imperial greatness and policy of free-trade imply Britain fought fairly to attain its eminent position on the world stage. Trinidadian historian Eric Williams has instead shown how much of Britain’s industrialisation was financed by the slave trade and plantations. The same politicians who heap praise on what Frank Trentmann calls the ‘secular religion’ of free trade, also fail to mention why the consumer products that flooded English markets in the late 19th century came at such reasonable prices. The centrality of empire to the national consciousness thus creates an inescapable sense of decline, whilst the recasting of our imperial history in terms of liberal free-trade, and not military aggression, hides the true nature of this period in our history.
The antidote to the narrative of British decline in the public consciousness has been war. Our culture is awash and obsessed with the sacrifices of the previous century – from 1917, to Dunkirk, to Darkest Hour. Whilst we fret that today our standing on the world stage is diminished, the triumphs against the evil continental empires of the 20th century have much greater appeal. The author James Meek suggests that two great myths sustain the British imagination. Firstly, the St. George myth; that when called upon England will do its duty and strike down its foes, in order to protect the weak. Secondly, the Robin Hood myth; that Britain is at its heart a fair country, where justice will eventually prevail and the rich and poor will be given their just deserts. Meek argues that the Second World War and its aftermath maintains such a vital place in the national memory because it satisfies both myths – the defeat of fascism and the establishment of the welfare state. But of course the war would not have been won without the help of our Soviet allies and American friends. Whilst the victory over Nazism should of course be a reason for celebration, it is hard to escape the feeling that what we are celebrating is not the defeat of an evil ideology, but instead the victory of Britain over Europe and evidence of our supremacy.
As long as we remain stuck in a misremembered past, it becomes easy for Johnson, Farage and Cummings to keep making appeals to it. In the long-run, this false vision of what Britain once was and can be again is doomed to failure – instead of a glorious return to the late 19th century, the path we are on will leave us a sad little country, waving plastic Union Jacks and shouting at passing onlookers. What delusions of prosperity and returns to greatness there are will only briefly last, and will fail to mask our growing insignificance. Progressives have to articulate a new vision of what Britain should strive to be – a new British Ideal.
What we aspire to be in the future has to be based on a realistic reading of our past. This should begin with an end of the neglection of the context of empire to British history. There is no distinction between British history and imperial history. Through violence, plunder, coercion, and enslavement, Britain has linked itself to the destinies of hundreds of countries and peoples around the world. We have to remain open in all senses of the word to those we have damaged – the 1948 Nationality Act enshrined in law that all members of the British empire are subjects equal to us. Our history and futures are thus forever connected to these nations, and an appreciation of this would help prevent any repeat of the Windrush scandal and encourage a more nuanced and more understanding approach to immigration.
A new reading of history has to be accompanied with political reorganisation – a separate discussion. Britain, like America, should embrace its rich regional diversity and accept a more federal system that would allow for stronger local and devolved government. Lastly, even if Britain never becomes a republic in name, we must embrace the principles of republicanism. In 1941 George Orwell pronounced Britain riddled with an obsession over class – what has changed?
In short, the new British Ideal has to be open, democratic and equal. A concrete vision of what a country is, and can be, offers hope at the worst of times, and is a guiding principle at the best. America knows what it must strive to be, and this vision has offered a light to those who have fought when the country has denied them their chance at achieving this promise. Britain has to work out what it is fighting for, before it can begin the fight.