The Sunday Magazine

Is the Brexit vote nostalgia for the bygone glories of the British Empire?

Oxford University historian Margaret MacMillan on "the morning after the night before" mood in post-Brexit Britain.
A European Union flag, with a hole cut in the middle, flies at half mast outside a home in Knutsford, Cheshire on June 24, 2016. The results from the historic EU referendum have now been declared and the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

After Thursday's Brexit vote, the Remain side is emerging from its state of shock, and the euphoria is starting to fade for the triumphant Leave side.

Historian Margaret MacMillan, the best-selling author of History's People and the warden of St. Antony's College at Oxford University, says Britons are realizing the referendum was not just a vote about how people feel about Europe, but a decision that will take Britain down a fundamentally different path.
Margaret MacMillan, author of such books as 'History's People' and 'Paris 1919'. She's professor of international history, and warden of St. Antony's College at Oxford University.

She tells Michael Enright that a nostalgic yearning for a simpler time that never really existed, and fading memories of the two world wars both contributed to the vote in favour of leaving the European Union. 

[The] memories of the war and the vicious nationalist passions that caused the war really have begun to fade. And so you have people now who don't really remember why Europe was important.  - Margaret MacMillan

The Leave campaign was littered with references to Churchill, the Dunkirk spirit, and the glory of the Elizabethan age. But MacMillan says the campaign relied on "very distorted history" and was fuelled by anxieties about loss of empire and influence on the world stage. 

One of the things that kept being said in the whole campaign by the Euroskeptics was that as soon as we free ourselves from the shackles of Europe, we will soar again as a rising power, and we'll resume our rightful place as leader of the Anglo-sphere.  - Margaret MacMillan

Those who voted 'Leave' expecting Britain to regain power and influence with English-speaking countries like Canada may be in for a rude awakening when they realize the rest of the world has moved on, she says. 

"You get these people standing up at meetings saying, We just want our country back. What they mean by that, I think, is probably a simpler time, a time when you had your cup of tea and your digestive biscuit and there weren't any funny foreigners around. But life never was simple in the past," MacMillan says. 

"Nostalgia is a dangerous thing, because it sort of has this hazy golden view of what things were like in the past, which is often very, very partial."

Click the button above to hear Michael's conversation with Margaret MacMillan.


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