HT 2021: The Mental Maps of Brexit Britain: Conflicting Imaginations of Britain’s Role in Europe and the World since the 1970s

HT 2021: The Mental Maps of Brexit Britain: Conflicting Imaginations of Britain’s Role in Europe and the World since the 1970s

Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands (VHD); Verband der Geschichtslehrer Deutschlands (VGD)
hybrid (München)
Vom - Bis
05.10.2021 - 08.10.2021
Stephen Foose, FB06 - Geschichte und Kulturwissenschaften, Philipps-Universität Marburg

The 20th Century marked a period of broad change for the United Kingdom and its position in the world. From the end of its formal Empire and increased migration to the joining of the European Economic Community and later the European Union, struggles over self-perception, national identity, and internal and external belonging have raged. Within these debates, contentious and contradicting mental maps have been drawn by various individuals and groups to argue for perceived ways of restoring the lost position of Britain’s, or in some cases England’s, historical past. Traced within these maps were also competing formulations of ambiguous terms such as Englishness, Britishness, character, or values, to which Europe was increasingly framed as the contrasting image. The 2016 Brexit referendum reignited many of these same discussions and drew on several maps that have been often overlooked in historical debate. A selection of these maps made up the focus of the panel, organized by Tobias Becker, Bernhard Dietz and Martina Steber.

In his opening statement, TOBIAS BECKER (Berlin) touched precisely on these issues by highlighting that Brexit was, at least in part, a struggle over historical interpretation. This, he pointed out, demands increased historical analysis to accurately redraw the various mental maps that were used over the past century to imagine the relationship between Britain and Europe, as well as to the wider world. Given that maps are not stagnant representations of space, Becker argued that their transmutable reflections of differentiated knowledge and interpretations can provide insight into how they form and influence political decisions, who develops and drives them, when certain ideas are relevant or not, what concerns they address or overlook, and which local, national, or global contexts they exist within. Thus, by looking at these maps, we can gain important insights into how Brexit, as we know it, came to be.

In the first paper, BERNHARD DIETZ (Mainz) focused on the mental maps organized under the catch-all phrase ‘Little England’. Here, Dietz traced the boundaries of a long history of insular thinking that framed England as a historically homogenous nation, corrupted by external others. His first example identified the ‘Neo-Tories’ of the 1930s, a group of anti-democratic and anti-liberal politicians and intellectuals, who aimed to prevent the perceived decline of the nation by returning to a notion of ‘timeless Englishness’. For them, the idealized identity and character of Englishness was rooted in the period before 1688 and was most visible in the historical English state that had been eroded by modern liberalism and the British Empire. In his second example, Dietz drew on similarly framed insular, anti-foreign sentiments in the 1960s and 1970s, represented by figures such as Enoch Powell. While this later reiteration drew on many of the same borders, such as a veil of anti-empire, there was a much more pronounced racial element visible on this map. Here, Dietz argued a perceived English national decline was formulated because of non-white, colonial immigration, and the possibility of integration to the European Economic Community, both of whose interests were being put above that of true, white England.

Laying these maps over those in the Brexit debate, Dietz demonstrated that three important borders were shared. First, Englishness was defined through a variable mythicized and homogenous past that was articulated in historically distinct ways. Second, a notion of self-victimization was used to claim that the interests of the true English or England were under threat by modern liberalism, immigration, or Europe. Finally, that despite references to a broader idea of Britishness, for the ‘little Englanders’, Englishness was consistently being subdued to it, first via the imperial context and later by multiculturalism or metropolitanism.

In contrast to the insular mapping of ‘Little England’, MARTINA STEBER (München) retraced the mental maps of ‘Global Britain’; maps that placed Britain at the center of the world with Europe at its edges. Emerging in the early 1990s, Eurosceptic neo-liberals imagined maps that placed Britain at the center of a free-market global economy. Here, politicians and academics mainly associated with the Thatcher governments, framed Britain’s global path forward as defined by free and unregulated economic expansion, and in opposition to European integration. By the end of the 90s, however, the term was turned on its head. Under Tony Blair’s New Labour, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook led efforts to redraw the map to establish a new national identity based on multiculturalism and metropolitanism. With this new inclusive identity, Britain would take a global position through acts of ‘humanitarian interventionism’, with the weight of Europe behind them. This redrawing was similarly short-lived due to the events of 9/11. In the period thereafter, the term fell to the wayside, with a new internal focus on defining citizenship and national values emerging. It would, however, reappear under Gordon Brown, who used some of the borders of both previous maps. Here, Steber demonstrated how Brown lightened the lines of multicultural liberalism, and instead drew thicker ones around the economy and Europe, emphasizing Britain’s leadership position in the latter.

In considering these maps in the Brexit debate, Steber was careful to point out how despite an emphasis on the global, British imperial history played little to no role in drawing global boundaries. When it was referenced, it was largely sanitized and uncritical. Instead, ‘Global Britain’ drew on an imagined global, free-market economy that would reposition British power away from a regulated European continent and back onto the rest of the map. This is strikingly visible in the current usage of the term by the Johnson Government, whose targeting of new economic agreements with the wider ‘English-speaking world’ (many former British colonies) aims to quell any fear of economic loss.

In the final presentation, ROBERT SAUNDERS (London) rolled down multiple mental maps to demonstrate how the differences between Britain and Europe have been drawn and redrawn again and again. Rather than the difference itself, by historicizing the idea and presentation of difference, Saunders argued that it can be better understood how the 2016 referendum was successful, while the 1975 referendum on British membership to the European Communities failed. Before analyzing his maps, however, he was insistent on historicizing the mere idea of comparing Britain and Europe. This, Saunders pointed out, has only emerged since the mid-20th Century; while previously Britain was compared with individual nations on the European continent, Britain and Europe were largely seen as having a shared legacy of Christendom, Greek and Roman tradition, and imperial expansion. The geopolitical shifts of 1945 and after, resulted in new mental maps of difference being drawn that oscillated between Europe as a stable or unstable neighbor. The first of such appeared in the 1950s, when Britain framed itself as better off without Europe, due in part to the continuation of Empire and Commonwealth economic ties, alongside the self-perception as more religious, politically stable, and economically powerful. By the 1970s, however, the lines were redrawn to show Europe as the stable neighbor, while Britain became marred in political violence and economic downturn. Then, in the 1990s, Europe was framed as unstable and economically limiting, as Steber’s presentation attested too, with Eurosceptics beginning to redraw maps away from Europe and back into a global perspective. This trend, Saunders pointed out, continued throughout the 2000s and into the Brexit debates.

Historicizing how the various mental maps of difference between Britain and Europe have been configured, Saunders argued can provide new insights into the referendum result and campaigns. He pointed out that in each of the maps he discussed, contemporary economic conditions and imagined alternative economic opportunities were key for framing Europe as stable or unstable compared to Britain. This was picked up on by pro-leave campaigners who were careful to quell the fear of economic upheaval and instead focus on ‘cultural identity’ issues. In conclusion, Saunders argued that the Leave campaign was able to pick up on the other maps mentioned previously, by framing Europe as an other, aiming to take away sovereignty from a mythicized, homogenous independent United Kingdom via articulations of self-victimization.

Following the three papers, ANNE DEIGHTON (Oxford) provided a brief and succinct comment that added a new layer to the panel. As Becker had in the opening, she underlined Brexit as a partial debate over historical interpretation and pointed out how each of the mental maps discussed contained their own debates over historical interpretation that framed their perceived path’s forward. Deighton did question, however, if there was not more space to consider the category of race in several of these mental maps or to consider more definitively on Britain’s imperial past. Here, she argued that while Brexit may not have come out of simple ‘imperial nostalgia’, it was undoubtedly influenced by the echoes of the British Empire. Finally, she encouraged the panelists and audience to consider not only how the differences between Britain and Europe are framed, or why Britain considers itself global and other European nations do not, but how such differences are experienced in the everyday.

The panel concluded with a brief discussion on the issues raised by Deighton and audience questions. Several of the comments focused on how best historians can interpret the role that such mental maps play in the everyday lives of Britons, how the idea of an ‘empire of the mind’ may have played a more subtle role both in the maps presented and in the Brexit debates, and to what extent further attention should be paid to the remain-campaign, instead of only the successful leave result.

The panel’s discussion of mental maps was insightful and informative, demonstrating how the Brexit debates drew not only on contemporary political issues but also on historical framing of Britain’s (self-perceived) position in the world. Yet, it should be noted that in the majority of the mental maps presented, individuals from marginalized Black, Asian or minority ethnic British communities did not appear. The inclusion of mental maps from such communities can help better inform our understanding of not only the Brexit debate but also the framing of ideas of belonging and inclusion, as well as the legacy of the British Empire on shaping British and English domestic politics.

Panel overview:

Panel Organizers: Tobias Becker (Berlin) / Bernhard Dietz (Mainz) / Martina Steber (München)

Chair: Wencke Meteling (Marburg/ Washington, D.C.)

Tobias Becker (Berlin): Introduction

Martina Steber (München) Global Britain

Bernhard Dietz (Mainz): Little England

Robert Saunders (London): Britain and Europe

Anne Deighton (Oxford): Comment

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