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History and Politics Dialogue with Sophia Gaston and Helene von Bismarck

Nostalgia, Nation-Building and a Political Vision for ‘Global Britain’

On the eve of Germany assuming the presidency of the EU Council and Brexit negotiations entering their conclusive phase, Körber-Stiftung invited experts from throughout the continent to join in a History and Politics Dialogue with social and political researcher Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group, and historian Helene von Bismarck.

Centred on challenges that the United Kingdom needs to confront in its past while forging a new vision of its envisaged future as “Global Britain”, the exchange started with Gaston’s assessment of the social and political developments that led to as well as the trajectories that followed from the Brexit decision, taken four years ago. Far from the revelry of the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012, which encapsulated the modern British experience in a flurry of Union Jacks and a diverse representation of the British people, the referendum of June 2016 compelled British society to consider its identity in a more fundamental process of self-reflection.

A misplaced understanding of class and deepened social competition

mong other factors, a misplaced understanding of class and deepened social competition in the wake of the austerity measures of the financial crisis contributed to a polarisation that culminated in, and has continued to define British political culture since the Brexit decision. The referendum and the public debates surrounding it have shown nostalgia to be a potent cultural and political force, especially among parts of society that experienced discomfort with the pace and nature of social change. While both the leave and the remain campaigns built their positions on historical narratives of Britain’s identity and role in the world, the leave campaign ultimately proved more successful in shaping a vision of the future that was at once rooted in the past while promising a dynamic approach to the future.

Gaston observed that, while the campaign and subsequent government programme centred on the idea of a “Global Britain”, the project is, in itself, profoundly domestic in nature. This aspect has gained in significance against the backdrop of political changes in the global “Anglosphere”, most notably in strained relations with the United States, and social and economic repercussions and looming divisions in wake of the of the Corona pandemic. In this setting, the central challenge faced by the current government is to succeed in uniting a polarised and fractured society around the idea of “Global Britain” as a generational project of historical magnitude.

Nostalgia will necessarily play a role in that process, as Gaston pointed out. Current protests that call for a sincerer reckoning with the colonial past show how difficult the road ahead is, as the “iconography of Empire” will need to be critically assessed in shaping a confident narrative of Britain’s society and place in the world.

A British Sonderweg?

In her first comment, historian Helene von Bismarck sounded out the shoals that the “Global Britain” project needs to navigate. While a cornerstone of the current government’s foreign policy, the complicated nature of Britain’s global past means that this forwardly enterprising vision cannot succeed if it is blinded by historical romanticism. Also, its allusion to a “choice” between Europe and the Globe has never presented itself as clear-cut as it appears today – and is unlikely to become so in the post-Brexit future. Von Bismarck cautioned that the British-European relationship will need to regain a secure footing, and that this would also call for a critical review of the notion of British exceptionalism vis-à-vis Europe.

Britain needs to “look into the mirror”

In the ensuing discussion with participants, the importance of British society reaffirming an understanding of its social and political unity was stressed. Participants called for a meaningful conversation of where and who “Britain” is in 2020, with an inclusive and balanced understanding of the past and future prospects, and remarked that the government would need to open spaces for such a debate to take place. Britain needs to “look into the mirror” and confront itself with the image, or images, that are reflected. The fragility of the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as a result of resurging independence movements was identified as a matter of urgent concern, as was Britain’s need to evaluate relations with the US, Europe and China in the testing geopolitical circumstances of 2020.

In their concluding statements, Sophia Gaston and Helene von Bismarck emphasised that Britain needs to bring Europe back into its focus – even if conceding that this would only happen once the current situation of “pushing away” would end.

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