The most influential text of late Victorian imperialism was J. R. Seeley’s The Expansion of England. In it, Seeley, a Cambridge historian, argued that underneath the surface of British political history - the stories of the rise and fall of Prime Ministers, great events and such like - was a deeper logic of logic of political evolution, that of the expansion of the English state. Through trade and war, England had acquired a mighty empire, within its own islands and across the oceans. Its key challenge was to hold it together: having lost its American colonies in the 18th century, how could it retain the rest of it settler dominions in the 20th century? Should it form an imperial federation to rival the rising states of Russia and America, and secure its unity?
It was not to be. The 20th century was a story of the contraction of England and the end of Empire. But only now is the reverse logic of Seeley’s master narrative being fully realised. England has voted to leave the European Union and in so doing has imperilled her own union. The wound of Irish partition has been reopened and Scotland now faces the prospect of another independence referendum. Only Wales has stood with England in choosing to leave the European Union.
Empire gave Britain command of the global economy, until hegemony passed to the US. Trade and finance flows kept Britain afloat as it ceded industrial leadership to the US and Germany. Foreign direct investment and the City played the same role after we de-industrialised. Today, our economic weaknesses stand brutally exposed: Brexit has caused mayhem in the markets and a run on the pound. As we adjust to the shock, we will become poorer.
What is England now? What is her role in the world? Alas, the referendum debate told us nothing of these things; it was sour, parochial and mendacious. It has destroyed a Prime Minister and there is rubble everywhere.