The prime minister’s request to the Queen to suspend Parliament for up to five weeks frustrates anti-Brexit legislation and sends a clear message to Brussels: the current government is serious about leaving the EU, deal or no deal. While the probability of a hard-Brexit scenario has massively increased, Johnson’s threat is more than an extreme negotiating strategy. It reflects a clear and distinct world view that sees British interests as better promoted outside Europe, and which gets its lifeblood from the national myth of the island nation. Understanding it helps rationalise Boris Johnson’s confrontational approach.
The British prime minister is essentially playing the nostalgia card to shape the UK’s future. Since the Brexit referendum, in order to make Britain’s future outside the European Union appealing, he has referred to the UK past in a way that inflates the true power and influence of his country. Just a few days before the Brexit vote in 2016, he urged his fellow citizens to back leaving the European Union in order ‘to take the chains off the giant, unshackled Britannia and let the Lion roar again’ and win the ‘battle for British democracy’. Quite paradoxically, the battle for British democracy has now led to the curtailment of the British Parliament.
Carried through, Brexit would indeed transport the country back in time. At a minimum, a divorce from Brussels would bring it back to 1973, when it first joined the European Economic Community. But the late 1960s and early 1970s do not represent the United Kingdom’s golden days. The economy was stagnant, the empire was collapsing, Europe was coming together, and Britain was slowly becoming more marginal in the international system.
“The British prime minister is essentially playing the nostalgia card to shape the UK’s future.”
It is really the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when the empire was at its apogee, that Johnson is referring to as a sort of nostalgic template. He’s been explicit about that; when he left his job as foreign minister in July 2018, over his disagreement with the Brexit deal that Prime Minister Theresa May had reached with Brussels, Johnson said that the true spirit of Brexit had been lost. Britain had to rediscover the dynamism of the Victorian explorers and go back out into the wider world, ‘to find friends, to open markets, to promote our culture and our values’.
Johnson’s historical ramblings coincide with a concrete, albeit utopian, political project: rebuilding Global Britain. The strategy roughly consists of rekindling old friendships in the Commonwealth, relaunching the so-called special relationship with the United States (more special for London than for Washington, to be honest), and strengthening links with Asian economies. The Global Britain grand strategy, in its essence, is part of a national mythology that emphasises the country’s status as an island nation.
The ‘island nation’ idea encapsulates the defining features of the United Kingdom: internal unity, military security, global reach, and continental separation. The island is a symbol of openness and closeness, independence and resilience. It’s Britain’s isolation that has led to its exceptionalism: not only does it stand apart geographically from a crowded continent, it also stands out historically.
The British pride themselves on an exceptional history of continuous freedom, self-government, and the rule of law. This is the elect nation that has honored its civilising mission by spreading its democratic institutions to the rest of the world. It has exported freedom, the rule of law, and representative government. From this self-glorifying perspective, the legal and institutional alignment imposed by the European integration process represented a contamination of British institutional purity.
“Brexit would indeed transport the country back in time.”
Geographical isolation also implies that the Anglo-Saxons have emerged as something different from their continental peers. In many ways the idea of a unified West is a political construct of the Cold War era. It disguises almost two millennia of fratricidal wars between European powers, but it also overlooks at least three centuries of military confrontations between the Anglo-Saxon world and continental Europe.
Given the island nation myth, a no-deal Brexit does not scare Johnson. The Global Britain strategy clings nostalgically to the idea that Britain would go from being an ordinary European Union member state to a modern version of the old global power. Thanks to the diplomatic legacy of its colonial era, the UK would find itself at the centre of a dense network of relations with its true kin, while enjoying a position of greater influence than it ever had within the EU.
Outside of Europe, Britain could work on building an Anglosphere with the English-speaking countries that are committed to common law, democracy, and free markets. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States would be the natural candidates for open trade and exchange of people. Beyond the Anglosphere, Britain would revive its relations with the Commonwealth, which Johnson sees as an underutilised asset.
“A no-deal Brexit does not scare Johnson.”
Within this strategic framework, Europe would still play a role, but a secondary one. To Johnson’s eyes, the European Union is a doomed, crisis-prone project. As in past centuries, continental Europe will continue to be a source of problems for the United Kingdom. Clearly, it will remain a key market to absorb British goods. But its relative importance will decline over time as a result of the emergence of more prosperous markets and more assertive global powers like China. Better for Britain to cultivate its own interests abroad, independently.
However, Global Britain rests on many untested assumptions. In particular, and notwithstanding the ideological affinity between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, the special relationship with the US might turn out to be much less special than London seems willing to acknowledge. It is true that both Trump and the Brexiteers catalysed similar forms of discontent, but with different purposes in mind. Brexit was predicated upon a free-market, multilateral paradigm; Trump endorsed protectionism and unilateralism (‘America First’).
While the island nation narrative is appealing and internally consistent, Boris Johnson risks finding himself lost in a time that no longer exists. The past, especially a glorious one, can hardly suit an ordinary present.