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Chris Trotter on how imperialism has set Britain apart from its European competitors and landed it in the mess it's in

Chris Trotter on how imperialism has set Britain apart from its European competitors and landed it in the mess it's in
Theresa May

By Chris Trotter*

There is something profoundly depressing about witnessing the extraordinary political spasms of the Brexit disaster. After all, this is Britain we are watching: our Britain; the once great nation that made us. Like a heavyweight boxer gone to flab, or a professor unable to recall the thread of his argument, the British state exudes an awful odour of failure and decline.

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, and her supposed alternative, Jeremy Corbyn, epitomise in equal measure the malady that is Brexit.

May has failed utterly to draw into the debate the broad range of parties and interests whose co-operation continues to be essential to the extremely difficult task of making Britain’s departure from the European Union, if not painless, then bearable. Tribal, mistrustful, high-handed and fatally unimaginative, the Conservative Party leader remains politically upright only because her job is now so hard and so thankless that nobody else wants it.

If anything, Labour’s leader is even less impressive. He had the opportunity to seize the historical high ground and to begin the long-overdue task of explaining to the British people their country’s true place in the twenty-first century. Which is to say he could have given the Labour Party an electoral lock on the future by making it the political vehicle of choice for all those young Britons, who will have to clean up the dreadful mess, which preceding generations have made of behaving like a sensible country.

It should not be forgotten that the Labour leader, Harold Wilson, went into the 1975 referendum campaign with 57 percent of British voters favouring withdrawal from the Common Market. By the time he had finished explaining to them what that would mean for Britain and Europe, fully two-thirds of the electorate were ready to vote in favour of staying put.

That’s what political leadership looks like. Where has it gone?

In the face of her government’s unprecedented 230 vote defeat in the House of Commons, it is tempting to rehearse all the familiar questions about why and how the British people got themselves into the apparently insoluble impasse that is Brexit. Why did David Cameron sanction another referendum? Why was the “Remain” campaign so appallingly mismanaged? How was the narrow 52:48 percent victory for the “Leave” option transformed into a decision that could not, under any circumstances, be reconsidered? Depending on whether one subscribes to The Telegraph, or The Guardian, the answers supplied to these questions will be very different. Among historians, however, a consensus explanation for Britain’s sorry state is gradually emerging.

The driving force behind the formation of what is now the European Union was the determination on the part of the European nations devastated by the Second World War to ensure that such a colossal human tragedy was never repeated. As the only major European combatant to escape the horrors of catastrophic defeat and occupation, however, Britain remained aloof from these unifying political currents.

The British state had emerged from “the audit of war” (a phrase coined by distinguished British historian Correlli Barnett) in what its political and cultural stewards believed to be pretty good shape. Untutored by the brutal lessons of military humiliation and political subjugation, the British ruling class had not felt the stinging lash of history’s judgement since the Norman Conquest of 1066. In the reassuring glow of their victory, the people in charge acknowledged no pressing case for root-and-branch reform of their nation’s core institutions. Labour’s Clement Attlee may have nationalised the coalfields and set up the NHS, but he saw no need to abolish the House of Lords – or equip Britain with anything resembling the modern and economically critical system of secondary and tertiary education that had made her German adversaries – soon to be competitors – so formidable.

Not every Briton was blind to the challenges which lay ahead. A British colonel, stationed in the Ruhr shortly before the German surrender in May 1945, wrote:

“I am almost frightened by the vitality these Germans show after what they’ve undergone. I believe, once they’ve been given the word GO, they’ll have a bridge over the Rhine in three months, and that in a short time their output of steel will be huge.”

The dramatic – almost miraculous – recovery of Britain’s former enemies, while Britain herself was forced to shed her empire and (after the Suez debacle) walk in the USA’s shadow, left a bitter taste in the mouths of those who in 1945 felt confident about Britain retaining her seat at the global top table. As the states of Western Europe – the old enemies of yesteryear – grew ever closer and stronger economically, the idea began to form in the minds of those who felt most keenly the loss of British pre-eminence that, somehow, Britain had been swindled out of her geopolitical inheritance.

Barnett, in his 1986 book, The Audit of War, describes the process of Britain’s slow decline in uncompromising – even brutal – terms:

“As that descent took its course the illusions and the dreams of 1945 would fade one by one – the imperial and Commonwealth role, the world-power role, British industrial genius, and, at the last, New Jerusalem [Labour’s longed-for socialist utopia] itself, a dream turned into a dank reality of a segregated, sub-literate, unskilled, unhealthy and institutionalised proletariat hanging on the nipple of state maternalism.”

What better description could there be of the grim, purblind alliance that came together on 23 June 2016 to take Britain out of Europe? The criminally self-destructive “Leave” victory had been secured by the vengeful remnants of an imperial ruling-class and their nostalgic middle-class enablers, bulked-up by an embittered army of impoverished working-class men and women left to rot amidst the rusted wreckage of a British manufacturing sector long since outstripped by its European competitors.

*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at He writes a fortnightly column for 

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Great bit of writing, I love it. Er, no mention of the, er, cough, War Debts to the US, or the, er, US decision to destroy the empire free trade zone. Germany and Japan had their debts, internal and external, extinguished, as far as I can tell; whereas GB (as it was then known) was kept on a leash, with the occasional jerk on the rope (Suez, join the Common Market, or else, sort of thing). I don't think Chris is wrong, just that it is a more complex tale.

Basically, North of Watford gap the EU is seen as a pestilence, south of it as a jolly good thing. The EU is a disaster zone. 25% unemployment for southern europe so as not to admit the French and German banks were bust was a criminal decision.

I agree Roger.

The problem with Chris's analysis is not that he is wrong about Britain being aging and incompetent but what he doesn't say about the EU and the US.

The GFC fatally exposed the EU project. The Euro will limp along until the next financial crisis but unless the EU undertakes fundamental reform, to create a proper EU government, with tax and spend powers, that is properly directly accountable to EU citizens by a democratic process, it cannot survive. But will the aging, grasping yet incompetent hands of Germany and France allow those reforms -doubtful.

So the European half of the democratic west is failing.

Meanwhile on the American half there is Trump!

The shining light of western democracy is fading fast...


Yep and nor is there any mention of the Marshall plan and what it handed to the Continent and that the UK still had too, huge debt to the USA compounding from WW1. De Gaulle never wanted the UK in the EEC. Perhaps he knew best. Always seemed at odds, and despite the dire warnings from Enoch Powell and others, that such a flood of immigration was seen as essential from commonwealth countries and then the same occurrence later from the east as the EEC expanded into the EU. Its the open slather nature of immigration that most of the British fear about the EU and that is not just in the North either.

It's interesting that the "Greatest Briton" had this to say about Europe post war -

“It is to re-create the European family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.

“We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”

No mention of Boris or Nigel.Are they in hiding somewhere.
Great to see May survive the no confidence vote.

Solely at the behest of a whack job party, who will no doubt extract more pounds of flesh from the Tories.

The brexiteers have mostly disappeared, not through Dover mind as they’re not really aware of its importance.....


The Brexiteers have not "disappeared"

Britons dont want to be ruled from Brussels by people not democratically elected, and quite rightly so .

The Swiss and the Norwegians are not in the EU and they are doing just fine trading with Europe on WTO terms .

The UK should simply leave and deal with the fallout when ( or if ) it happens

Could you outline which laws the EU have enacted that you don't agree with? Do you know any?

The UK has power of veto over a lot of them.

The EU is elected, each member nation elects MEPs the next vote is in May this year.

Both the Swiss and the Norwegians contribute to the EU, they are also under the Schengen Agreement - the UK are not as they opted out of it - as was their right.

They can also send back any EU national who claims benefit and hasn't worked for 3 months..

Raab, Davis, Farage, Johnson instead of stepping up when they "won" have been conspicuous in their absence. Farage is still going to claim his EU pension, despite having the worst voting record of all British MEPs.


You are wasting your time arguing with Boatman. He is rather like Hosking-the less he knows about a subject,the more he pontificates. As you late Grandmother used to say,empty barrrels make the most noise and Boatman is particularly noisy.

Ah to be honest, I’m not really arguing, I’m just correcting false narratives, which is what caused all the mess in the first place. If someone reads my reply and decides to fact check others’ statements then that’s good.

FWIW and to declare my own vested interests, I’m (in no particular order) from Sussex, English, British and European.

As an aside this Brexit that Britons voted for - according to YouGov, in 2 days time remain will have a majority - calculations here, doesn't allow for anyone to change their mind, just natural passing of voters..

That article assumes nobody who voted remain will change their mind. Well we know Niall Ferguson has changed his mind in that direction. Not sure enough will have changed their mind to balance the young 'couldn't be bothered to vote' group.
Maybe with age comes wisdom so the passing of a couple of years will have converted a swathe of middle aged voters to take the braver riskier course of Brexit.

I suspect a referendum on 'has the govt done a sensible job of organising Brexit' might achieve a unique zero to 50million ratio.

Whatever happens England will survive (maybe not as a United Kingdom) but it is hard to think the conservative party will survive.

You Gov is as Biased as the Guardian so not representative, sorry I hit the report button in error.

An independent panel is biased? Ok.

You are the problem.

Because something reports something that you don’t “believe” in does not make it untrue.


@David Chaston, you might need to work on the mobile site a bit, it seems to double post everything

What's Brexit?

The new moniker for a dessert formerly known as an Eton Mess.

I'd call it the beginning of the collapse of Anglo democratic system.

If you think about the democratic system run in the Anglo world, there are some features

1. Politician's job is get reelected but not to look after people's interests
2. Party's job is to look after cooperative interests first
3. Only less than half of population can benefit from any of the government's policies
4. Strategic long term planning is next none. Long term is redefined by 2 multiplying election cycle as oppose to generations of people



Well done. Credit points to you. Democracy looks bad, it is inefficient, there is argueing and washing of dirty laundry in public. It can be impolite and it tries to expose vested interest. Often it avoids difficult issues, leaving them to fester, until one day the dam bursts. It is messy and confused. It is an evolutionary system. So, in the short term it underperforms.

How many civil wars has your motherland endured since 1651?


More interesting question - does anyone trust China any longer - I certainly don't. The Democracy Index 2018 from several days ago is I think an accurate reflection of whom you can trust and whom you can't....

Isn't "A country does not have permanent friends, only permanent interests." a famous saying from a famous British leader?

What do you think of the level of trust from non-Anglo world to the Anglo world then?

But most of the non-Anglo world in the Democracy Index is either flawed democracy or some form of dictatorship. The actions of those in China imply they don't even trust their own leadership but have faith / trust in other jurisdictions rule of law to protect their property interests. Strange isn't it when your follow country persons undermine your argument about trust.

More Chinese and people from Middle east sh*tholes emigrating to (Flawed) Democratic Western Countries is putting your money were your mouth is.

It would help if we move to a 4 or even 5 year electoral cycle.

Not necessarily Xingmowang but I agree it is a possibility.

The UK may save itself by 'the skin of its teeth' as said by a former UK Reserve Bank Governor in a paper titled -'Mervyn King says May's Brexit Deal is a Betrayal of Britain'

There could be a global geopolitical reconfiguration.

The UK could join the outwardly oriented mid-size countries that want closer economic ties based around a rules based trading system. Countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Canada....

Meanwhile the EU is left to become the United States of Europe or not.

The US is going through one of its periodic, self interested, inward facing periods.

The BRIC countries are all to various degrees, already inward facing and self interested.

You mean those who want to cooperate versus those who want to dictate.....

Yes that is a good way to characterised it. The UK could join the cooperators and leave the dictators to dictate by themselves...

Since when, a group of countries can form a sustainable and inward looking trade pack only based on same/similar ideology, rather than the complementarity of goods and services traded among them, not even mentioning the limited market size and growth potentials in those markets that you mentioned?

Cooperatives do not believe in ideology!

I did not say the group of small to mid-sized cooperatoring countries would be inward focused. They would be outward focused. They could support the WTO or other 'rule based' multi-country trading bloc arrangements.

@xingmowang ...........dont hold your breath .

Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Quote by Winston Churchill

And I would stick with Democracy until a better and fairer system is found

Quote by Boatman

The world has long moved on since the Winston Churchill era and Boadman is a nobody compared with Winston Churchill.


And the world has moved on from Marx, Lenin and Mao as well - so what's your point.


I think Theresa May is working hard dealing with dysfunctional school boy behaviour in parliament. She's not the problem.
Chris Trotter also writes from the assumption that the Brexit idea was voted for by silly people, and the political class had failed to 'educate' them. No concept maybe the voters knew a thing or two really. With an inbuilt assumption like that his analysis will always be suspect

Good point. His ""embittered army of impoverished working-class men and women"" were the type of people that produced my parents, my grandparents and myself - that is certainly 2 out of 3 successes. Somebody needs to explain to Mr Trotter that you do not need a uni degree to learn how to think; in fact it often seems like the opposite since the most intelligent and well informed Kiwis I know include a chimney sweep who left school with no qualifications.

Face the facts there were many young who voted leave and old who said remain; the same applies to education. Just a small variation in stats - maybe the debate is still about the issue not the class of the voter.


One man's opinion, narrow focus, not much balance, and unfortunately with a strong whiff of schadenfreude.

The 'Audit of War' concept is very interesting. I recall when some dopey POTUS wanted to invade Iraq and the Germans and the French did not. DC went stupid with the creation of freedom fries and other idiot ideas. They criticised "Old Europe"
However the counter analysis was that Europe had via the convulsions of war completely renewed in recent history several times. The USA however was the oldest surviving system (1776) had become completely static and was showing the strains. One example was a completely legalistic system, but not brains. Very old arteries in it's brain.

while I can admire the historical analysis, i found CTs introduction to a bit too much of old, white colonial arrogance. i would like to think NZ has moved on considerably from the UK being the "mother country". The colonial excesses against Maori, and refutal of the Treaty of Waitangi, and our subsequent recognition of it (flawed though it might be) and efforts to try to deal with the consequences of colonisation, and the excesses of the early colonial governments, as well as the asian component of our population, some of whom date back to the earliest days of european settlement, and fanlly the snub when the UK joined the EU should all mean that the ties with them are tenuous at best.

Yes, a big part of our culture, government, and legal structure orignates from there, but loyalty has proven to be a tenuous and unreliable beast. So no it is no longer "our Britain", but it is intersting to watch, and what ever happens thee will be opportunities to be exploited.


My granddad, born 1877, used to refer to the UK as 'home'. But that was then and we are thoroughly New Zealanders now. But Murray you can give up on the white guilt thing. Best thing that happened to Maori was the arrival of Europeans. European democracy has been a gift to the world, despite extreme and obvious shortcomings in practice from time to time.

I have no white guilt. But I am appalled by the treatment of 'natives' anywhere, just as much as I am appalled by the treatment of people who are the victims of political and/or racial arrogance today. Such treatment can and usually does have long standing adverse consequences. For example one of the outcomes of the US war in Afghanistan was the identification that one of the best recruiting tools for the terrorists was the US bombing campaigns hitting innocent civilians. Consider if you will the true origins of too many Maori appearing in too many negative statistics and ask your self why, and keep asking why until you get to the root cause.

Certainly worth asking about Maori negative statisitics. Of course some +ve stats could be found - you seem to be more likely to be an All-Black or sporting champion if you are Maori. Certainly we should be doing whatever we can to improve all New Zealanders of whatever origin in negative situations (prison, suicide, health issues, drugs, etc) but do realise that you will only achieve zero differences once there is a single culture. In other words some statistical issues (good and bad) will remain so long as Maori culture survives.

Sort of agree. I don't think Maori Culture is the predicating requirement though. What i am pointing at is that the early colonial governments systematically dispossessed Maori of their traditional way of life by appropriation of the land on which they were dependent on. Essentially a monetarist culture was imposed on their agrarian tribal one. The usual arrogance went with it - the colonists assumed their way was superior, and could not see the harm they were doing. It was the culture of the time. In some respects the militarist conquest aspects and imposition of another set of tribal rules on a group was also a part of the way of life in NZ at the time. But the colonists gave them a treaty to stop the warfare, and now in the current world we have to deal with both the damage from beating and subjugating Maori and giving them a treaty to address the consequences.

You are right however that when we all agree on one common culture then things should improve. However the Treaty has become a separatist tool to ensure that won't happen.

I also think that Maori culture is something to be proud of as a Kiwi, but am concerned that some are getting too precious about it.

Your comment make sense. I'd point out the conflict between UK empire and Maori tribes for both land and culture has been played out many times since in other lands - ref tribes in PNG coming to terms with a modern world. I'm cautious of putting the entire blame on deliberate actions by self-interested emperialists. Similar issues can be seen with missionaries on islands in the Bismarck sea within living memory. Native populations and their cultures have survived best where they have compatability with the invading culture (compare Maori and the original Tasmanians) and where a strong emperialist govt is able and willing to restrain some of the excesses of the new colonialists.

" Harold Wilson, went into the 1975 referendum campaign with 57 percent of British voters favouring withdrawal from the Common Market. By the time he had finished explaining to them what that would mean for Britain and Europe, fully two-thirds of the electorate were ready to vote in favour of staying put."

Arguably, had Wilson not corrupted the overwhelming view of the electorate in '75, Britain would not be facing this mess today.
The EU, and its predecessors, has been a mistake for the UK; it is today and will continue to be if the will of the people is 'explained' away again.

In spite of all the so-called well meaning people in Europe, the European project is sowing the seeds of the next war. The political elites on both sides in the UK (and the EU in Brussels) have shown their contempt for democracy and the will of the people. This is very clear. They are dodging the option of a no-deal withdrawal on WTO terms and, like the EU elites, are hellbent on ignoring the vote and staying in. I find it fascinating that many are calling for another referendum and even a greater "majority" vote. All they need to do now is create a 65% or 75% majority vote requirement and that will be the death of democracy and rule by the minority. The next step in the plan is to vest more power in the unelected leaders of the EU and then federalise it all. So, whether you're British, German, Spanish or any other EU national, you will be disempowered completely, because your political leaders in Brussels are far wiser than you and you shouldn't be able to vote on important EU matters. While this sounds crazy, it is the reality and it's happening as we speak. No empire in Europe since Alexander the Great has ever endured and this one will collapse into dust and misery as well, sadly. Nothing learnt from history, as it always was...

Wikipedia lists 48 large empires. Most have long gone. All (including UK & USA) have had slavery and women as chattels. It seems they all over-reach and lose their supremacy because the economic costs of running an empire are very high.

The EU had noble beginnings. Centuries of wars and everyone said enough. And to be fair, no wars for 3+ generations so far. But as all fine institutions seem to do these days, they eventually descend into legality & regulation & into their 'we know best' ways, which from what I can gather, is a recurring theme of human history. For us today in the 21st Century we also have the all-educated university systems now almost totally controlled by urban liberals & their 'higher form' of understanding, which is also helping to undermine the structures & traditions of our own society - great & flawed though it is - which is now very noticeable to many.
Freedom is a wonderful thing, but almost impossible to create & even harder to manage as we're finding out. It was good while it lasted though wasn't it?

Oh for goodness sake .............. anyone citing Harold Wilson in favorable terms needs his head read .

Firstly Harold Wilson was arguably the WORST leader the UK ever had . He was an absolute @r$#h()le of note , a left-wing rabble-rouser who gutted the UK'S ENTIRE industrial capacity by Nationalizing everything in sight .

The UK never recovered from this , to this day

Secondly , had he taken his cues from his people in 1975, the UK would not be in this mess today .

Basically , Britons dont want to be told what to do by un-elected bureaucrats in Brussels , any more than you or I would want to be told what to do by people in Canberra or Suva ............

Britain should sever this cord to Europe and adjust to the new order .

After all Switzerland and Norway are NOT in the EU , and the last time I checked , both these countries were doing just fine .

Both of those countries cited contribute to the EU in order to have trade access and they are both governed by certain elements of EU policy, but other than that you're absolutely spot on, by that I mean you're not at all right in anyway shape or form.

FYI here's the rankings of British PMs

The problem I have with that line of reasoning is if it is such a good idea, why do we treasure our independence? Wouldn't we be better off as a Chinese colony? I know a lot of well educated kiwis who follow your line of thought, but surely it is inherently dangerous?

Europe has far more history and alignment than China and NZ - intermarriage of powerful families, the Windsor (Saxe-Coburgs) being a prime example, invasions, fighting, making up, breaking up over millennia. If you DNA tested most Europeans I'd wager you'd find zero with "pure-blood" nationality.

Sadly I agree with you. The worst but also probably the brainiest. Common sense as per the less bright Maggie left the UK better off compared to the man who said a week is a longtime in politics. Holding onto power is pointless unless you are going to do something.

I support Lexit. The UK out of the EU has more scope to move in more genuinely social democratic economic direction i.e. nationalization of key infrastructure. The EU is not a civilising, stabilizing force. It is the economic destruction of Greece and neoliberal domination of the continent. Despite all the Ode To Joy propaganda and holiday houses in Tuscany.

Spending time in a nice stone house in the middle of a Chianti vineyard is a wondrous thing.

It surely is. But not something generally enjoyed by battlers surviving on zero hours contracts in deindustrialized northern towns. Hence the two fingers to the EU. Much to the chagrin of the europhile intelligentsia in Islington.

The insinuation that the EU is behind/supports zero hours contracts is simply not true -

The Northern towns were decimated by Thatcher, when the full de-industrialisation began.

Was not intending to blame EU for zero hours in UK (though they do like labour market flexibility and competitiveness via real wage cuts). My point is the EU is blamed for austerity in the UK by working class who don't partake in Tuscan villa weekends. And to be fair, the EU loves its austerity. But Osborne is to blame for the UK variety. Leaving the EU will give Corbyn more space to be radical with things like labour laws, nationalization and state investment.

Days to the General Election: 28
See Party Policies here. Party Lists here.