Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

The long shadow of Empire has cast a pall over the EU referendum

The cry of 'Rule Britannia' reveals not a yearning for sovereignty, but a lament for the loss of empire.

Screenshot from Hannan's film 'UK Independence Day' Screenshot from the short film 'UK Independence Day'. (Fair use)

In a campaign dominated by nostalgia and hyperbole, nothing quite matches Daniel Hannan’s extraordinary short film ‘UK Independence Day 2017’. Stirring music accompanies images of regal pomp, as a news ticker touts unlikely headlines (“Unemployment falls by 20% according to the Office for National Statistics”), before Hannan intones a Wordsworthian ode to the pastoral, and declares England “a blessed country” whose “story is not yet told… whose song is not yet sung”. In amid the bombast, one can discern a quiet grief: that Britain has yet to come to terms with the fact that it no longer rules the world.

A visitor to Washington D.C. or Beijing senses that, for all the legion problems in both capitals, they are energised by a belief in being able to forge the future – even if neither prospect offers a vision of global justice. What the British are mourning is not their sovereignty, but their dominion – just ask the subjects of the Empire how our “song” sounded when they heard it last.

The following little-known poem by W.H. Auden is not one of his finest, but it is profoundly revealing of this nation’s mindset of mourning. It was written in September 1932, as economic depression engulfed Europe and the British Empire was beginning to crumble, from India to Iraq (which declared independence in October of that year).

I have a handsome profile
I’ve been to a great public school
I’ve a little money invested
Then why do I feel such a fool
As if I owned a world that has had its day?

You certainly have a good reason
For feeling as you do
No wonder you are anxious
Because it’s perfectly true
You own a world that has had its day.

I’ll throw my money in the gutter
I’ll throw it all away
I’ll throw it where the workmen can pick it up
Then nobody can say
I own a world that has had its day. 

The workmen will never get it
Though you throw it all over the town
The armament firms will collect it all
And use it for shooting them down
To save a world that has had its day.

I’ll get a job in a factory
I’ll live with working boys
I’ll play them at darts in the public house
I’ll share their sorrows and joys
Not live in a world that has had its day.

They won’t tell you their secrets
Though you pay for their drinks in the bar
They’ll tell you lies for your money
For they know you for what you are
That you live in a world that has had its day. 

I’ll book a berth on a liner
I’ll sail away out to sea
I’ll settle down on an island
Where the natives shall set me free
I’ll leave a world that has had its day.

Most of the natives are dying
They’ve sampled your sort before
It gave them no satisfaction
They’re in no mood for more
Who come from a world that has had its day.

I’ll hire a furnished attic
A room on the top floor
I’ll spend my mornings writing
A book that will cause a furore
About a world that has had its day.

You may be a little genius
You may be doing your best
To tell us about yours truly
But where is the interest
It’s just a world that has had its day.

I’ll attend when the parson is preaching
I’ll tell all my sins to the priest
I’ll do exactly as they ask
I’ll go to heaven at least
After this world has had its day.

You may sit down under the pulpit
You may go down on your knees
But you don’t believe them any more
And they won’t give you ease
They’re of this world that has had its day.

I’ll go down to the brothel
Stick a syringe in my arm
I’ll go out poaching on my own estate
Then I shall feel perfectly calm
About my world that has had its day.

It’s no use turning nasty
It’s no use turning good
You’re what you are and nothing you do
Will get you out of the wood
Out of a world that has had its day. 

Remember you’re no old soldier
Remember that you are afraid
Remember you’d be no use at all
Behind the barricade
You belong to your world that has had its day.

Your son may be a hero
Carry a great big gun
Your son may be a hero
But you will not be one
Go down with your world that has had its day.

I am not a pessimist by nature, nor do I think that the British should imitate Auden’s resignation. But delusion is dangerous; it nurtures paranoia and ends in anger. I prefer the modest, earnest Englishness of Billy Bragg, who will be voting

Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand.
For theirs is a land with a wall around it,
And mine is a faith in my fellow man…

Imperial Britain has had its day. But Europe can have a future – with Britain an influential leading voice and beneficiary. As a viral Remain poster puts it: “I don’t want to take my country back, I want to take it forward.”

About the author

Benjamin Ramm is editor-at-large of openDemocracy. He writes features for BBC Culture and presents documentaries on BBC Radio 4. He tweets at @BenjaminRamm


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.