Brexit and the decline of the British

Manuel Lucena. Profesor Humanidades. IE

15 September 2016

Not even two world wars, the loss of the empire, or social and ethnic tensions managed to alter the reformist and moderate character of the British Establishment. Until now.

In one of his most interesting books, Anglomania, historian Ian Buruma looks at the fascination Britain has held for continental European elites from the seventeenth century to today. With no little irony the author, Dutch by birth, has subtitled the book A European Love Affair.

His approach brings to mind the apocryphal headline attributed to The Times: “Fog in channel, Continent cut off.”

This Anglomania has come to represent both a legacy of past centuries, in which the European aristocracies and dynasties were linked by family and lineage, as well as a reflection of the classical training imposed on their offspring. Young noblemen learned Latin and Greek, plus French for diplomacy, as well as fencing and dance and how to socialize. At some point, they faced what anthropologists call a "rite of passage", a test that tested their knowledge of the world and the mettle of their character.

Among the English nobility, who were assiduous cultivators, this consisted of a trip, the Grand Tour, to continental Europe. This traditionally began in the coastal town of Dover, known for its impressive white cliffs. From there, they made crossing to Calais. That first contact with the "exoticism" of the continent left abundant evidence about the customs of its inhabitants: "How extravagant foreigners are", proclaimed one English noble soon after landing. In a specially purchased carriage, they then moved on to Paris where they took lessons in dance, horse riding, fencing, language and behavior in society, including more or less carnal relationships with "the fair sex".

They then went on to Geneva and the Swiss cantons, crossed the Alps by some difficult route that left them with indelible images and, after reaching northern Italy, roamed Florence, Pisa, Bologna and Venice. Comforted by the contemplation of their monumental and artistic splendor, they went on to Rome, where they studied the imperial ruins.

Naples became a mandatory stopover after the discovery by Prince d'Elbeuf in 1713 of the first remains of Herculaneum, which extended the grandeurs of Pompeii through systematic excavations promoted by Carlos VII, the future Carlos III of Spain. A visit to Vesuvius would be the high point of the tour, followed by a slow return home through Austria and southern Germany, with stops in Innsbruck, Vienna, Berlin and Potsdam to meet the Prussian court. A short stay in Amsterdam would be made, from where they would return to Britain by the channel to conclude a traveling experience that was, for many participants, the only one they would undertake.

The impressions formed along the way left not only a testimony of past greatness, but determined a vision of the future. In particular, after the Napoleonic wars and imperial expansion, in parallel to the industrial revolution, Europeans watched with envy the "Pax Britannica" and the way of life of the Victorian elites, who seemed to do little but play cricket and golf, their business affairs seemingly running themselves. This led to admiration of the social and political basis of Britain’s extraordinary ability to consolidate, through permanent reform without the need for revolution, a stable parliamentary monarchy. In the 1790s, the great Edmund Burke expressed his horror at the excesses of the French Revolution. Spain’s own Jovellanos admired its political system and Tocqueville believed that the backwardness of France compared to Great Britain was explained by English conservatism, as opposed to the revolutionary adventurism that had done so much damage to his homeland.

Anglomania emerged from two world wars unscathed and was reinforced by the exile of the European elites and middle classes who fled Nazism. One only has to walk through central London to find, at every step, commemorative plaques recalling the stays of presidents, ministers and writers during those terrible years. From the early twentieth century onward, Anglomania was further consolidated by the British pact with the emerging elites of the United States, establishing the Anglo-American "special relationship". But while this was decisively from 1942, with the entry of the United States into the world war, it soon became clear that the British Empire would be a victim of the conflict.

In 1956, with the clash over control of the Suez Canal, President Eisenhower made it clear to British premier Anthony Eden who the new masters of the world were.

Then begins a stage in which, in the accommodative and pragmatic tradition that has always characterized Britain, that what counts is influence. The empire gone, Britain turned to soft power, linguistic and cultural influence through pop music, fashion and cinema, all articulating the interests and presence of Britishness in the world. And to great advantage, it must be said. While France tried to manage its post-imperial phase through dangerous and exhausting revolutions, such as May 1968, Britain clung on to the gradualism of the inevitable.

The pragmatic Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, encouraged the UK to join the then European Economic Community, confirmed in a referendum held in 1975. This has proved to be one of the pillars of Britain’s continuing post-imperial decline.

Only recently has populist virus attacked the multisecular political architecture of the British monarchy itself: not even two world wars, the loss of empire or social and ethnic tensions affected a process of public administration marked by reformism and moderation.

It is remarkable that such a debatable procedure as a referendum was invoked to "solve" the question of Scottish independence, as well as to gauge public opinion about such a complex issue as remaining in Europe. Some observers have said the referendum split the country, and was swayed by London’s selfishness. The City, the financial sector, dislikes regulation, and its constant complaints against covert Brussels federalism are simply a mask for the supposed benefits of not playing by the rules or paying taxes.

What is striking in all this is the elimination of political gradualism, the speed with which the British have accepted change. Perhaps, as the great JB Priestley said: we live in a time when "minds of low penetration naturally remain above the surface of things." Even in Britain.


#IECampus, the Campus of the Future

See video
Follow us
IE Agenda
Most read
IE Business School | María de Molina 11, 28006 Madrid | Tel. +34 91 568 96 00 | e-mail:


IE Business School

María de Molina, 11. 28006 Madrid

Tel. +34 915 689 600