British 'Road Closed' sign.

Cristina Z Cortes  10th July 2023

In 1962, Dean Acheson, US Secretary of State, famously categorised our problem: “Great Britain,” he said, “has lost an Empire but not yet found a role”.  In the search for a new power base, the UK had already applied to join the EU in 1961, and finally joined in 1973. Just over 40 years later it changed its mind. But it still hasn’t found a role. 

In 1963, in a brilliant analysis of Britain’s identity dilemmas during the Cuba missile crisis1, John Mander described Britain as torn between being Great Britain or Little England – should it be America’s sidekick, align itself with the non-aligned countries, set itself up as the leader of an independent Commonwealth, or become a member of the European community? It is notable that several of these options only existed in the minds of British politicians.

What gets in the way of a clear vision of Britain’s options is that all of them are filtered through the lens of nostalgia. At the individual level, nostalgia is a downbeat mood; in the case of a nation, it is a collective emotional illness.

The UK has been steeped in nostalgia ever since it lost its Empire after winning the Second World War (with a little help from its friends and subjects). The British Empire lasted over 300 years, but was at its peak for slightly less than 100 (roughly sandwiched between PM Disraeli making Queen Victoria Empress of India in 1877 and India gaining its independence in 1947), while the 2WW lasted only 6 years (1939-1945). But, 75 years later, the Brits still hanker after a past that hardly any of us can personally remember. This nostalgia is not for the Empire in itself, but rather for the global prestige and leadership that it gave us. Our leaders behave as if Britain should still be regarded as a great power, even though nearly eight decades of political loss of influence and economic struggles to maintain prosperity should by now have taught us the lesson that, without other countries to push around or rescue, our global influence is reduced to that of other similarly sized European powers – condemned, like all other countries of medium size and importance, to wield power only in partnership with others. 

One of the deceits deployed by the Brexiteers in beguiling us to leave the EU was the illusion that Britain was sufficiently important to “go it alone” globally, that it would still be economically and politically important enough to be a global power. The reality is that, stripped of its political support base and the forum in which it genuinely had influence (the EU) the UK now struggles to be consulted by major countries (US, China and even India) even on matters that concern it.  One of the self-deceiving tools British leaders have employed for decades is the Commonwealth – “a surrogate, fantasy empire to console themselves for the loss of the real one … mistaking the shadow of power for its substance”(1). During Brexit, the Commonwealth was again trotted out as a factor, but the idea that it would continue to accept leadership from the ex-coloniser was always a non-starter; and its members are steadily leaving the fold – especially now that Queen Elizabeth II, the unifying foundational figurehead, is dead.

I am not underestimating the difficulties of “moving on”. Perhaps this is a phase that all ex-Empires have to go through – the Romans probably had the same outdated attitudes as they slid into history around 400 AD: feeling they were a great power, losing their way, annoyed at the altered power balance with the ex-colonies – including Britain! France has had to go through similar withdrawal processes – arguably even more painful than those of the UK. Putin’s scramble to re-assert control over the bits of Europe that used to “belong to” the USSR is another example of the colonial master resisting history. 

However, in time, others appear to have come to terms with their history – Italy is an important European state, but no longer aspires to an empire nor to lead the world by itself. The French, whose GDP is neck-and-neck with that of Britain (2), certainly continue to have global pretensions above their economic weight, but at least they have embraced partnerships such as the EU to give themselves extra leverage and a figleaf to hide their weaker state. By contrast, with Brexit we Brits have gone Full Monty with our power exposure, and have nothing to hide behind!

While many may sentimentally mourn the loss of status that went with Empire, even though they were not alive to experience it, there are many millions who regard the Empire and its legacy as a bad thing – and not just in the ex-colonies. It offends against many principles we in the UK now claim to hold dear – democracy, equality of opportunity, diversity. To be blunt, the Empire was a time when our colonial activities involved exploitation and slavery, which we now condemn. Given that our “greatness” was based on such abominable activities, is it something we really wish to celebrate and be proud of? On the other hand, if we are imagining that Britain could be as great again, but this time without the use of superior force and oppression, aren’t we deluding ourselves?

History is a fascinating subject – whether good or bad, it explains how we got to where we are today. But it is not healthy to live in the past. Nostalgia for something we cannot get back (and, many would argue, should never have had in the first place) is emotionally unhealthy and leads us nowhere. 

Living in the past is for rich fantasists like Rees-Mogg. For the rest of us, it is surely time to move on. We need to free ourselves from the burden of our own expectations – that we are somehow supposed to remain at the world’s top table. Having (albeit reluctantly) liberated our colonies, let us liberate ourselves from the yoke of great power status and start behaving like the responsible and useful medium-sized country we actually are. Brits have a huge amount to offer the world in terms of talent, expertise and accumulated wisdom – but we are tripping ourselves up by walking backwards into the future while gazing longingly at our past. 

Let us learn a bit of humility – let go of our hubris and nostalgic points of reference. This means we will have to work harder to gain the world’s attention; we will need to shout less and cooperate more with partners; but we will in the end be more comfortable with our identity, and our influence should be more acceptable and ultimately carry greater weight.

(1) Great Britain or Little England? John Mander pub. 1963 Penguin

(2) UK in 6th place with GDP of $3.1tn, France in 7th with $2.8tn. Source: World Bank 2022


It may be asking too much, but it might be healthier if we could differentiate our Empire “glory days” from our current status by adopting different terms for each. We already have a plethora of terms for our small island nations – Britain, Great Britain, the UK. A suggestion might be to reserve the term British Empire for the past and the UK for the here and now; with the term UK re-fashioned as The United Kingdoms of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Great Britain as a term is a part of the problem and should, in my view, be dropped regardless.

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