A leave voter at the Save Brexit Rally wants Brexit so that Britain can “get back to being a British Empire”. Are his views a product of ‘cultural dementia’?
At the Save Brexit Rally in Harrogate on 20 October 2018, Sky News interviewed a leave voter who explained his support for Brexit by saying it would help Britain to “get back to being a British Empire again”, and that the British “stood alone for years” – and therefore did not need the EU.
Historian David Andress is familiar with these views. In his book ‘Cultural Dementia‘ and in a recent interview with Dan Snow, Andress clearly explains the impact of fantasy being deployed as history.
Andress: “My book is called Cultural Dementia and it argues that a proper historical understanding that a society should have, is coherent in the way that a person’s individual proper memories are coherent. They do actually remember how their personal past and their present fits together.
“But dementia in an individual breaks all that down in terrible and tragic ways. I think currently, societies like Britain, like France, like the USA… are in danger of falling into a state which is metaphorically dementia. They lose sight that their past isn’t of uniform glory and success.”
The pasts that are being lauded by populist politicians are “completely ficticious, imagined, demented. A vision of the the past where nothing ever went wrong. It’s a course of action that can only be catastrophic. It’s an attempt to recreate a fantasy of a historical past in a world where other powers will never let that happen.”
“It’s often people remembering certain highlights – the benefits of being powerful in the past without understanding the costs of achieving that.”
“A lot of the social democratic wealth that kept the [UK] going was a product of its previous imperial position, and that imperial position was disintegrating violently all over the world through that same period of the 1950s and 60s which now looks like a golden age of prosperity and happiness.”
“It’s a question of only understanding half the history, only understanding the bit of it that lets you feel good about yourself and missing out of understanding what was really happening alongside that.”
Andress on the artificiality of nationalism as a set of ideas: “These ideas of hermetically sealed nation states… and at the same time be expansionist and dominant – these are fantasies of 19th century politicians looking to build their own power bases. It’s a political ideology, not a description of reality. But it’s so embedded within our understanding of what makes a society because of the success of it as an ideology in the last two centuries, that people really struggle to see past it. And it becomes a fall-back position, the default, to assume that if you did seal up the borders and stop all this troubling flow of people and things back and forth then everything will be ok.
“But it’s absurd. All the major powers of Europe and the world are built on continuous flows of immigration and emmigration. People moving around in their millions through the 19th and early 20th centuries. They’re built on change and flexibility and flow and interplay.”
What causes cultural dementia?
In the interview, Andress lists four causes of the West’s amnesia:
“Because we’re old [as societies] – a sense of long-term historical continuity that can be taught and emphasised but which no longer reflects our real position in the world. So much is said about Britain being an extremely wealthy country but we are in that position because of what happened in the past, more than what happens now.”
Denial – because we don’t want to consider the costs of our wealth – the pollution etc.
History education – exams and fact-cramming strip out complexity. “There’s a terrible lack of understanding in the world.”
Technological change and complexity, “life and the world around us has become almost literally incomprehensible”.
“But the problem is that we’ve accepted over simplified stories instead of making more of an effort to understand that the national story, the conspiracy theory, the yearning for a strong man leader – all of those things, at an emotional level, are an understandable response to everything being so strange and problematic and traumatic. But we ought to be trying harder to understand it all.”
Demolishing the nationalist myths
Andress: “The history of Britain and its relationship with the rest of the world is extraordinary. The small damp island becoming a global power. But it’s vital to understand that it can’t happen again. The things that came together to make [British dominance] possible – from the discovery of the Americas, the depopulation of the Caribbean by disease, the openness of west Africans to slave trading because of the long history of slave trading in the Islamic world – all of these things are really complex, contingent foundations for the British empire, the industrial revolution, the massive scientific achievements of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“Without other things that other people did in other places none of that could have happened here. Britain could never have developed that sense of itself as extraordinary and unique and special – we need to turn the perception on its head – to understand how much we are indebted to everyone else for the fact that we were top nation for such a long time and to start thinking about how we have a relationship with the rest of the world, when they’re soon going to figure out that we’re nowhere near being top nation any more.
“Everyone needs to understand that no country stands alone.”
Listen to the interview here: