Viewing Brexit as part of a longer history of Anglo-Saxon racial and cultural exceptionalism, this article reflects on what Samuel Butler’s satirical novel Erewhon, or Over the Range (1872) can tell us about the utopian impulses informing Brexit’s neoimperialist ideology and hence about British identity politics today. Set in an inward-looking, socially homogeneous, and postindustrial society somewhere in the colonial southern hemisphere, Erewhon provides an anachronistic simulacrum of both an isolationist “Little England” and an imperial “Global Britain,” critiquing the idea of the self-sufficient, ethnonationalist “island nation” by demonstrating the extent to which it relies on the racial logic of White utopianism, as well as on a disavowal of the non-British labor that supports and sustains it.
Cancelling the Political Future
Taking off from a 1940 speech by Winston Churchill, I explore the shifting sensibilities underwriting the twin impact of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting that a component of the current period turns on a disabling incapacity to think about a determinate political future.
This article examines the enduring influence of Charles Dilke’s Greater Britain (1868), which persists today in the ambitions of Brexit’s proponents. Dilke characterized Britain as the center of a world system bound together by a common identity. Yet his explanation of that identity was riddled with inconsistencies. While he cast it mainly in racial terms, he also proposed cultural and linguistic criteria. These inconsistencies would complicate the efforts to define and delineate the reach of Greater Britain by those who followed in Dilke’s footsteps. This includes the leading Brexiteers who have advanced Greater Britain’s modern iteration, the Anglosphere, as an alternative to EU membership.
When Was Brexit? Reading Backward to the Present
This introductory article lays out the stakes of thinking through the temporalities of Brexit history across multiple fields of vision. It makes the case for books as one archive of Brexit subjects and feelings, and it glosses all the articles in the special issue.
J. G. A. Pocock’s magnum opus, The Machiavellian Moment, seems an unlikely contender as an intimation of Brexit. Published in 1975, his study of the revival of classical Republicanism in Renaissance Italy and the struggle to uphold a universal ideal of active citizenship could not be further removed from Britain’s departure from the European Union forty-five years later. But the wider production context suggests that it might be worth probing the possible connections. This article examines Pocock’s protracted reckoning with Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community in the early 1970s amid the ruptures of empire’s end. It seeks to tease out the existential underpinnings not only of the latter-day exigencies of leaving but also of the persistent habit of harnessing that ambition to a reimagining of Britain’s global coordinates.
The 1959 election and the politics of the people
Charlotte Lydia Riley
This article explores Mark Abrams, Richard Rose, and Rita Hinden’s 1960 publication Must Labour Lose? in order to demonstrate that contemporary debates around British identity and political culture are nothing new. The concerns about political, party, and national identity in this book clearly prefigure 2016 debates about Britain, not least because a specific question—how to vote—became a conversation about a broader set of ideals. This article explores how Must Labour Lose? constructed an image of British politics in 1959. It interrogates its silences around racial identity and argues that we must read race into this book and others like it. And it concludes that research like this enables a much wider understanding of the British electorate than simply how they voted.
The lead-up to and the aftermath of the 2016 referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union have been characterized by particular psychic reactions and affective states: shock, perplexity, anxiety, guilt, paranoia, anger, depression, delusion, and manic elation. The debate over Brexit has played out largely in an affective register. Scholars and journalists in search of explanations have reached for psychological concepts such as amnesia and have cited feelings, specifically nostalgia and anger, as major factors. Paul Gilroy’s Postcolonial Melancholia provides a more useful analytical framework for constructing histories of Brexit beyond the usual narratives of reversal, unexpected rupture, or liberation, and for unearthing the psychic attachments and affective dynamics underlying such narratives. Gilroy’s conception of postimperial melancholia allows us to see the links between Brexit, anti-immigrant racism, and the obsession with national identity, and the unacknowledged and ongoing legacies of empire and decolonization in contemporary Britain.
Barbara Pym’s fiction has been viewed as an anthropological approach to the social mores of postwar Britain. In this article, I use one of her last novels, Quartet in Autumn, to sharpen that reading to think through how Pym articulated an aesthetics of decline by trumpeting the dying world of the White English spinster. Quartet fictionalizes the agony of what Ramon Soto-Crespo calls “decapitalized Whiteness,” that is, where economic loss and a sense of racial disenfranchisement go hand in hand. The transatlantic desire it satisfied for a world that was lost yet redeemable through good old-fashioned English “women’s” literature prefigures the nostalgia for a preglobal Britain that has underwritten much of Brexit’s affective appeal.
Black Women’s History and the Archive of Brexit Britain
Kennetta Hammond Perry
This article takes Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe’s The Heart of the Race (1985) as an invitation to consider the conditions that routinely mark formulations of Brexit Britain as they operated in the lives of Black women in Britain during the early 1980s. It explores how the text engages Black women’s lives as an index of how the welfare state was both structured and experienced in such a way that demarcated racialized internal borders of Britishness, citizenship, and belonging. It also argues for the importance of embedding Black women’s narratives into histories of Brexit’s unfolding.
W. T. Eady’s I.D.B. or The Adventures of Solomon Davis (1887)
The anticosmopolitanism that Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May endorsed as a guiding ideology of Brexit has a long history in British discourse. This article links the anticosmopolitanism alive in Brexit to late-nineteenth-century antisemitism, racism, and antiglobalization by examining the content, context, and reception of W. T. Eady’s I.D.B. or The Adventures of Solomon Davis (1887). As an effort to lampoon diamond magnate Barney Barnato’s rise in society, the novel throws up warnings about how deserving English will be impoverished when Jewish immigrants and other so-called “cosmopolitans” take advantage of the mobilities enabled by British entanglements with the larger world. The novel shows how fears of globalization and European immigration coming led with a racialized sense of Englishness, all intimations of Brexit discourse.