Most of the hardcore Brexiteers in the British Parliament are oddballs, but Jacob Rees-Mogg is probably the most eccentric of them all. The son of a journalist, with aristocratic affectations and bespoke (yet still ill-fitting) double-breasted suits, he is a walking caricature of Englishness. While The Economist has described him as “the blue passport in human form, the red telephone box made flesh, the Royal Yacht Britannia in a pinstripe suit,” others, borrowing a line from John le Carré’s Call for the Dead, have mocked him as “a barmaid’s dream of a gentleman.”
But Rees-Mogg’s personification of nostalgia is no mere sideshow. A key supporter of Boris Johnson’s successful bid to become prime minister, he sees withdrawal from the European Union as the means by which to restore Britain’s past glory. He would like nothing more than to return to the late-Victorian era, the apogee of the British Empire, before Britain was just another ordinary nation-state among many.
The Victorians is Rees-Mogg’s attempt to lend substance to his historical flights of fancy. If nothing else, his book illustrates the Brexiteers’ strategy of historical manipulation. Saturated in nostalgia for a time that no longer exists – if it ever existed at all – its aim is to delude Britons into believing that their country could be a preeminent global power if not for the straitjacket imposed by the EU.
A riposte to Lytton Strachey’s 1918 classic, Eminent Victorians, which pilloried four famous examples of the Victorian era, Rees-Mogg’s book includes essays on 12 figures whom he credits with building modern Britain. Among his picks are four statesmen (Lord Palmerston, Robert Peel, William Gladstone, and Benjamin Disraeli), two military leaders (Robert Napier and Charles Gordon), the jurist Albert Venn Dicey, the cricketer W.G. Grace, the architect Augustus Pugin, and an administrator of British India, William Sleeman. Were it not for the presence of Queen Victoria herself, this would be an old boys’ history through and through.
Rees-Mogg’s book is not a bestseller. In its opening week, The Victorians sold a mere 734 copies in the United Kingdom, despite the constant media attention paid to its author. Nor has it been well received by critics, many of whose remarks – such as “too pompous and too cliché-ridden” and “reads like it was written by a baboon” – are unlikely to grace the cover of future printings (assuming there are any). Some of this may reflect political bias against one of Brexit’s most fervid supporters; yet it is certainly true that anyone interested in the Victorian era (1837-1901) could find better treatments of it in any bookstore. Rees-Mogg’s history is riddled with inaccuracies and rife with brash generalizations, turgid prose, and odd omissions.
For starters, his selection of whom to feature is utterly arbitrary. His account of nineteenth-century Britain makes no space for novelists, poets, engineers, scientists, explorers, or feminist icons, despite this being the era of Charles Dickens, George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans), Charles Darwin, and David Livingstone.
Moreover, Rees-Mogg’s reductionist description of the period as a time of economic abundance and global reach is deeply misleading. If anything, the Victorian era was no less chaotic and destabilizing than our own. By the time the disruptions of the period had culminated in World War I, decades of rapid industrialization had produced displacement, poverty, discontent, and social tensions at home. And managing the vast territories of an “empire on which the sun never sets” was far from easy, given that other imperial powers – not least Germany and Japan – were scrambling for colonial possessions of their own.
Finally, despite the growing body of historiography revealing the predations of the Raj in India, The Victorians portrays British imperialism as a benevolent tool for bringing civilization to the world’s benighted peoples. In Rees-Mogg’s glowing description, Gordon, an army officer and colonial administrator who served in China, Egypt, and Sudan, believed that “spreading British civilization … was an intrinsic good in its own right.” And Prince Albert, we are told, believed that the empire was “founded on morality.”
In reality, British colonial rule robbed entire regions of their resources, caused or exacerbated famines that killed millions, and subjugated entire civilizations on the basis of race. There are countless examples of the British Empire’s brutality, from the Opium Wars and the slave trade to the use of poison gas against what Winston Churchill once described as “uncivilized tribes.” In fact, some of these crimes were perpetrated by figures in Rees-Mogg’s book. The Opium Wars, after all, have also been called Palmerston’s Opium War, because it was then-Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston who wrenched open Asian markets to British opium imports, with utter disregard for the native population.
By eliding these facts, Rees-Mogg unwittingly provides a window into the oblivious mind of the Brexiteer. Suddenly, one understands why Johnson felt no hesitation in reciting Rudyard Kipling’s imperialist ode, The Road to Mandalay, while on an official visit to Myanmar in 2017.
From an intellectual standpoint, Rees-Mogg’s selective hagiography is about as nourishing as a small basket of popcorn. But, then, The Victorians is not supposed to be a work of history, nor is its author seeking the approval of professional scholars. Rees-Mogg is a dyed-in-the-wool nationalist, so reactionary as to be revolutionary. Like Lenin, he sees history as something to be ransacked and exploited for political gain.
Rees-Mogg’s nostalgic narrative is meant to set Britain apart, not just geographically but historically, from the crowded continent to which its past, present, and future are inexorably tied. He wants us to see Victorian-era Britain as the exceptional nation that bestowed democratic institutions upon the rest of the world, exporting freedom, the rule of law, and representative government.
Like traditional nationalism, which idealizes and seeks to advance the collective interests of a specific cultural group, Rees-Mogg’s nostalgic nationalism sanctifies a particular moment in history, to which the nation is supposed to return. Spanning more than just the reign of Queen Victoria, his book presents the years between 1784 and 1922 as a “period of moral certainty, of success.” This description stands in stark contrast to contemporary Britain, which is paralyzed by “the forces of stagnation, trepidation and hesitation,” with an establishment that “has come to believe its job is to manage decline.”
To be sure, the idea of a past “golden age” is central to most national narratives. But for traditional nationalist movements, the return to the “lost home” is purely metaphorical. What makes Brexit such an extreme manifestation of nostalgic nationalism is that it is genuinely meant to turn back time, to restore Britain to “the bright sunlit uplands” of a bygone era.
At a minimum, the standard Brexiteer is expecting a return to 1973, when Britain joined the European Economic Community (the precursor to the EU) and supposedly surrendered full sovereignty over its domestic affairs. (Never mind that in 1973 the UK economy was in a dire state, just a few years short of requiring a bailout by the International Monetary Fund.) The hardcore Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg, however, see 1973 as merely a way station on the journey back to the nineteenth century. And some even take seriously the possibility of post-Brexit time travel. As one “Leave” voter told an interviewer from the think tank Demos, “We’re going back to the Victorian times. [They] had it better than what we have.”
The uncertainty surrounding the UK’s future outside the EU reveals the gaping chasm between Rees-Mogg’s restorative aspirations and political reality. Nonetheless, since the Brexit referendum in 2016, the leading advocates of divorce from the EU have portrayed it as the final act in a long-running war with continental Europe, from Henry V’s victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415 to the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. One could also include the triumph over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, but only by omitting the fact that the Duke of Wellington was saved at the last minute by the arrival of Prussian Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher and his army.
THE MAKING OF A MYTH
In continuing this endless conflict by other means, the Brexiteers have purloined national icons – from Churchill and Shakespeare to the Magna Carta – for their own purposes. The result is a national myth comprising four key elements: imperial pride, refusal to submit to others, Anglo-Saxon solidarity, and xenophobia.
Whether this myth has any historical basis hardly matters. The point is to distill the past into a single narrative of good prevailing over evil. Ironing out all of the historical complexities and ambiguities is precisely the point. As the philosopher Ernest Renan put it in 1882, “Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation.”
So far, Remainers have lost the battle of ideas because they have not offered their own national myth, effectively granting chauvinists and charlatans a monopoly over the interpretation of British history. Unlike the Brexiteers, they have neither identified their own historical heroes and proudest national moments nor rebutted the claim that Britain is locked in a perpetual conflict with its European peers. They have failed to tap into a sense of national identity that can contain past, present, and future all at once.
Consider Churchill, whose steadfastness, courage, wit, and defiance perfectly exemplifies Britain’s longstanding perception of itself. Yes, Churchill was ambivalent about a politically integrated Europe and the role the UK could play within it. But he was also among the first to call for European unity after World War II, in his famous “Let Europe Arise” speech in Zurich in 1946. Why has the Remain camp not seized on that moment?
One problem is that Churchill has long been claimed by the Brexiteers, most prominently Johnson, who published a book in 2014 called The Churchill Factor. And yet Johnson portrays Churchill’s lonely stand against appeasement of Nazi Germany as a political choice, rather than a matter of principle. This is rather telling, not about Churchill but about Johnson, the man who famously alighted upon the Brexit cause to advance his own political ambitions. It is almost as if he believes that, just in case, Churchill had a speech in his drawer called “We Surrender.”
Still, the fact is that the Brexiteers probably understood the character of the “nation” better than the Remain camp did. By emphasizing the glories of the British Empire, they can compensate for the lack of a proper British nationalism, which is really a confection of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish national identities.
Given that the latter three developed as a reaction to English imperialism, there arguably is no genuine collective British identity to speak of. After establishing a land empire in the British Isles, the English pursued their territorial ambitions overseas, and it was this outer empire that allowed the different national identities to converge. But once the empire dissolved, the English were left without a traditional national identity of their own. As Krishan Kumar of the University of Virginia argues, the English remained an imperial people, vulnerable to delusions of grandeur and salvation in the past.
THE REAL VICTORIAN ERA
Contrary to what Rees-Mogg contends, the second half of Queen Victoria’s reign was marked by a debilitating sense of decline, which prevented Britain from making key decisions about its future. As Simon Heffer shows in The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914, the entire imperial architecture was crumbling by the end of the nineteenth century. Heffer, another Tory Englishman with the wardrobe to prove it, is a far more honest historian than Rees-Mogg. And though his survey of the Victorian era is no less selective, the quality of his prose and the depth of his scholarship place him among the first ranks of historians.
Heffer describes how the superficial pomposity and self-confidence – what he calls the “swagger” – of the late-Victorian era served as a smokescreen for widespread discord and discontent. Some 92% of the national wealth was concentrated in the hands of 10% of the population, women were marginalized but also increasingly assertive, and the colonies were in ferment. For all of this, Heffer blames the pampered ruling elites with whom Rees-Mogg is so smitten. By squandering the economic and political legacy of their predecessors, they sowed the seeds for the empire’s decline.
Like Brexiteers who blame the EU for the broader effects of globalization, the late Victorians misunderstood the forces that were sweeping away their confected and brittle world. Yes, they extended voting rights, but only to a broader cohort of men, not to women. Meanwhile, they were too slow in making concessions to mitigate the effects of industrialization, thereby inviting some of the worst social unrest in British history. They underestimated the national aspirations of the Irish, ironically creating what is now the greatest obstacle to Brexit: the border dividing Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, itself a proud and prosperous EU member.
As Heffer makes clear, the late Victorians overlooked the domestic problems that were undermining Britain’s social and political cohesion, not least because they were obsessed with their own global ambitions. This trapped them in an endless debate about how best to sustain Pax Britannica. Whereas some called for the creation of a British imperial federation or a multinational commonwealth, others wanted a more formalized Atlantic Union, or even a new Anglo-American state.
What all these proposals shared was a deep-seated nostalgia, bordering on utopianism, and a disregard for the aspirations of the colonies. The motivation was to preserve something that was already unavoidably in decline. But it wasn’t to be. Nostalgia is an oversimplification of reality – hardly the stuff of enlightened policymaking.
FROM COMMONWEALTH TO ALONE AND POOR
In many ways, today’s hardcore Brexiteers are merely continuing that age-old debate, and even repeating the same old mistakes. They assume that “going global” can solve domestic problems, and that freeing their country from the fetters of a rules-based supranational political and economic order will enable them to reclaim control over Britain’s borders and rejoin their true “kith and kin.”
Yet while the rest of the English-speaking world may remain committed to the common law, democracy, and free markets, it has no interest whatsoever in a return to Pax Britannica. The US, Canada, and Australia have all gone their own way, and each knows that the global economy’s future lies in Asia. The idea that India or South Africa would wish to restore the lost empire and deep ties with the UK is risible, as former British Prime Minister Theresa May discovered when she tried that line on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Political strategies anchored in nostalgia will always lead nowhere, or to a new kind of hell, as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini demonstrated. An obsession with the past, no matter how glorious, is no way to live in the present.
(Jacob Rees-Mogg, The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain, WH Allen, London 2019 and Simon Heffer, The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914, Random House Books, London 2017.)
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