The Long Shadow Of Empire Has Cast A Pall Over The EU Referendum

The cry of 'Rule Britannia' reveals not a yearning for sovereignty, but a lament for the loss of empire.

In a campaign dominated by nostalgia and hyperbole, nothing quite matches Daniel Hannan’s extraordinary short film ‘UK Independence Day 2017’. Stirring music accompanies images of regal pomp, as a news ticker touts unlikely headlines (“Unemployment falls by 20% according to the Office for National Statistics”), before Hannan intones a Wordsworthian ode to the pastoral, and declares England “a blessed country” whose “story is not yet told… whose song is not yet sung”.

In amid the bombast, one can discern a quiet grief: that Britain has yet to come to terms with the fact that it no longer rules the world.

A visitor to Washington D.C. or Beijing senses that, for all the legion problems in both capitals, they are energised by a belief in being able to forge the future – even if neither prospect offers a vision of global justice.

What the British are mourning is not their sovereignty, but their dominion – just ask the subjects of the Empire how our “song” sounded when they heard it last.

The following little-known poem by W.H. Auden is not one of his finest, but it is profoundly revealing of this nation’s mindset of mourning. It was written in September 1932, as economic depression engulfed Europe and the British Empire was beginning to crumble, from India to Iraq (which declared independence in October of that year).

I have a handsome profile

I’ve been to a great public school

I’ve a little money invested

Then why do I feel such a fool

As if I owned a world that has had its day?

You certainly have a good reason

For feeling as you do

No wonder you are anxious

Because it’s perfectly true

You own a world that has had its day.

I’ll throw my money in the gutter

I’ll throw it all away

I’ll throw it where the workmen can pick it up

Then nobody can say

I own a world that has had its day.

The workmen will never get it

Though you throw it all over the town

The armament firms will collect it all

And use it for shooting them down

To save a world that has had its day.

I’ll get a job in a factory

I’ll live with working boys

I’ll play them at darts in the public house

I’ll share their sorrows and joys

Not live in a world that has had its day.

They won’t tell you their secrets

Though you pay for their drinks in the bar

They’ll tell you lies for your money

For they know you for what you are

That you live in a world that has had its day.

I’ll book a berth on a liner

I’ll sail away out to sea

I’ll settle down on an island

Where the natives shall set me free

I’ll leave a world that has had its day.

Most of the natives are dying

They’ve sampled your sort before

It gave them no satisfaction

They’re in no mood for more

Who come from a world that has had its day.

I’ll hire a furnished attic

A room on the top floor

I’ll spend my mornings writing

A book that will cause a furore

About a world that has had its day.

You may be a little genius

You may be doing your best

To tell us about yours truly

But where is the interest

It’s just a world that has had its day.

I’ll attend when the parson is preaching

I’ll tell all my sins to the priest

I’ll do exactly as they ask

I’ll go to heaven at least

After this world has had its day.

You may sit down under the pulpit

You may go down on your knees

But you don’t believe them any more

And they won’t give you ease

They’re of this world that has had its day.

I’ll go down to the brothel

Stick a syringe in my arm

I’ll go out poaching on my own estate

Then I shall feel perfectly calm

About my world that has had its day.

It’s no use turning nasty

It’s no use turning good

You’re what you are and nothing you do

Will get you out of the wood

Out of a world that has had its day.

Remember you’re no old soldier

Remember that you are afraid

Remember you’d be no use at all

Behind the barricade

You belong to your world that has had its day.

Your son may be a hero

Carry a great big gun

Your son may be a hero

But you will not be one

Go down with your world that has had its day.

I am not a pessimist by nature, nor do I think that the British should imitate Auden’s resignation. But delusion is dangerous; it nurtures paranoia and ends in anger. I prefer the modest, earnest Englishness of Billy Bragg, who will be voting:

Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand.

For theirs is a land with a wall around it,

And mine is a faith in my fellow man…

Imperial Britain has had its day. But Europe can have a future – with Britain an influential leading voice and beneficiary. As a viral Remain poster puts it: “I don’t want to take my country back, I want to take it forward.”

This article was republished from OpenDemocracy.net.

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