In November last year, Boris Johnson gave a widely derided speech to business executives in which he praised, at length, a theme park devoted to the cartoon character Peppa Pig. Though it was rambling and incoherent – even for him – it contained many of the hallmark features of his political brand. A fetish for improvisation and practiced amateurishness; boosterism for perceived British success; a preference for rhetorical fancy over fact.
The Peppa Pig fiasco is not mentioned in Simon Cooper’s indictment of a certain kind of elite in British politics, Chums, but it encapsulates many of his major themes. Since Winston Churchill stood down as British prime minister in 1955, all but two of his 13 successors (James Callaghan and John Major) attended university. But of those 11 graduate prime ministers, all but one went to Oxford, and five of that number to Eton.
Whatever these statistics say about the state of social mobility in the UK – and they don’t say anything good – Cooper, a Financial Times journalist and writer who himself went to Oxford, has an even more specific complaint. The current generation of English Conservative politicians manufactured this way have been specifically shaped not just by the otherworldly, medieval surroundings of Oxford (and often Eton) but by the debating chamber of the Oxford Union, where Johnson mastered glib irony, and others such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Daniel Hannan and Michael Gove learned orotund, faux-Victorian rhetoric and insincere politeness.
More than that, their major achievement, Brexit, was shaped by habits of mind and study reinforced by the fabled Oxford tutorial system, its reliance on hastily assembled essays and the three-in-one undergraduate degree favored by the establishment: politics, philosophy and economics (PPE).
Of the many quotations assembled by Cooper to make the prosecution case against allowing a caste of overconfident toffs to dominate public life, former UK ambassador to the EU Ivan Rogers is the most withering. Brexit was a “very British establishment sort of revolution. No plan and little planning, oodles of PPE tutorial-level plausible bullshit, supreme self-confidence that we understand others’ real interests better than they do. ”
That last part hints at another part of the story: the imperial context. Not only were elite institutions historically linked to the British empire, as training grounds for colonial administrators – and beneficiaries of colonial loot – but more recently they have sometimes become Petri dishes for a certain kind of colonial nostalgia. The most persistent Brexit pamphleteer, Daniel Hannan, who grew up in Peru – far away from either Britain or British empire – embodies what Kuper calls “camp nostalgia” for empire, which takes contemporary form in enthusiasm for something called the “Anglosphere”, a construct involving largely white, English-speaking rich countries that Britain used to rule.
Nostalgia as a motivating force in British politics is nothing new, as Hannah Rose Woods demonstrates in her engaging survey, Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain. But there is a new and discernible tension in public discourse: as academic and pop-cultural examinations of empire become ever more critical, political defenses of empire become more strident, and more profitable. At the 2016 Tory conference, then Foreign Secretary Johnson bragged of sitting in the foreign office and (apparently) joking about the “178 nations of the world we either conquered or invaded”.
He may have been indulging his fetish for undergraduate irony, but large numbers in the hall cheered him on – which was of course his intention. His intentions were less insured when he wrote of Africa that the problem was “not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more”. The same column contained his infamous racist depiction of “flag waving piccaninnies”, for which Johnson has never apologized. He is not so much interested in actual imperial or Victorian history, or even nostalgia for it – few Britons alive now can remember anything but the very end of empire – but in the rhetorical and therefore political force of what Woods calls “feel-good jingoism ”.
Although it has become axiomatic to say that Brexit was fueled by nostalgia, it remains true – but nostalgia for different, and sometimes contradictory, things. A mix of dimly remembered imperial status (“Global Britain”) and a distorted emphasis on the empire as merely a project to expand the benefits of free trade (while leaving the world’s largest free trade zone) sat alongside the equally distorted second World War memory of a small and largely white island nation pluckily holding its own against aggression.
Woods’ book moves backwards engagingly through successive nostalgic moments in British history, from Brideshead Revisited (both its publication and 1980s TV adaptation) to the arts and crafts movement and the Victorian vogue for Gothic to attempts to place the English Reformation in a longer tradition of English anti-papacy. But while Cooper and Woods converge on several themes, one stands out more than any other: the unresolved moral legacy of Britain’s colonial past, and its refusal to leave the present.
Matthew O’Toole is SDLP MLA for Belfast South and a former Downing Street Brexit spokesman