Rule Britannia?

The EU is a poor alternative to the UK’s glorious 19th-century empire

Roderick Parkes
20 May 2014

How typical. While the rest of Europe is re-enacting the power politics of 1914, Britain is off in an epoch of its own, reliving the traumas of the nineteenth century. And just as continental Europe looks set to repeat the disastrous mistakes of 1914, Britain seems hell-bent on repeating its own historic blunders.

Today’s Britain is stuck in oh, say, 1844. With relations to its largest captive market under strain, its political class is stuck in a hopeless three-way split: free-traders want to abandon the empire for new international markets; reformers claim to be able to revamp it by tinkering; and the only ones to see the perils of losing an empire – the liberal imperialists – have lost their authority to act.

Then as now, it is the free-trade politicians who are making the running. Their case for Britain to cut loose from its empire is straightforward: with vibrant new markets emerging in the Far East, there’s no point in paying for a captive imperial market. Better to trust in the bracing power of international trade than choose the false comforts of empire. These, in short, are archetypal globalists.

But in their drive to be rid of the empire they are prepared to compromise their principles. They have forged an unholy alliance with Britain’s working poor and its disgruntled middle-classes – people who dislike the empire precisely because of the competition it poses and because its international opportunities leave them cold, little Englanders with no interest in globalism.

And the free-traders are ready to stir up prejudice too. They complain that London provides its colonies with a security guarantee and they only reward it by picking fights; that Britain adheres to free trade only for the colonies to engage in protectionism; that Britain is facing a kind of “reversed plantation effect” whereby workers from the colonies flood the mother-country.

They meet few counter-arguments from the second group, the colonial reformers. These Whitehall pen-pushers view the empire as a management problem. They understand that the empire will only work if it is properly unified, but the hurdles to a common fiscal or defense policy are too large. Their idea is instead to align the empire’s Protestants and force its lazier cultures to buck up their ideas.

But they are fiddling while Rome burns. The shift of economic power away from the empire is heralding an altogether less genteel global order. The tempting emerging markets of 1840 will be the hard-nosed competitors of 1850, and Britain will soon be dependent on them for its resources. What looks like a new commercial dawn is really the unraveling of the Pax Britannica.

The trouble is that nobody is in the mood to boost the empire. Already drained by a decade of upheavals on the Continent (the Napoleonic Wars), Britain was enticed out of its early retirement and straight into a misguided foreign adventure (the Opium Wars). A year on, the British doubt their own integrity and liberal Imperialism is morally bankrupt.


Rule Britannia?


One hundred and seventy years on, it seems little has changed. UKIP’s globalists are in bed with the little Englanders. David Cameron’s pen-pushing reformists want to form some kind of Nordic alliance against the Euro-med. And after a decade of continental upheavals (German reunification to Kosovo), as well as a dismal misadventure (Iraq), Tony Blair’s liberal imperialists have squandered their authority to act.

And, of course, a more robust defense of European liberalism is just what is needed. Britain finds itself in the calm before the storm. The European Union’s current lack of economic oomph has made Britain cocky about cutting loose and going it alone. But with the shift of economic power away from Europe, emerging markets like Russia and China will soon be challenging the whole western order.

But most worryingly of all, in breaking with the EU, Britain is about to lose a second empire. This is clearly an outrageous statement. We all know the UK has difficulties with the EU precisely because the EU is such a poor alternative to its glorious nineteenth-century empire, an empire built precisely in order to avoid continental engagement. And it goes without saying that other EU members will not take kindly to the idea that they are part of a British-led bloc.

But let’s not romanticize the old British Empire in the same way that the politicians of 1840 romanticized their lost American colonies. The British Empire was a large market built by political ad-hocery, one inspired by British institutions but in which Britain was just one member state, and underpinned by a costly British security guarantee; a setup not unlike the EU.

It would be more surprising if the UK hadn’t built its European engagement around old principles of colonial management. But a failure to see that means Britain is repeating the mistakes of two centuries past.


Roderick Parkes heads the EU program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), where his research focuses on EU home affairs policy and British European policy. Before joining PISM in 2012, Roderick worked as a researcher at the German Institute of International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin (2006-2009) as well as establishing and running its Brussels office (2009-2012). Parkes had previously worked as a researcher at the Bonn Institute for Media Analysis (2003-2006) and completed an M.Phil at Cambridge and Doctorate at Bonn University. He is a Senior Fellow (non-resident) at SWP, a regular media commentator, and has given evidence to the European Parliament and the House of Lords.