WHAT is this Europhile obsession with the British Empire? Donald Tusk was at it again this week.
In his farewell speech as President of the European Council, before an audience of student Eurocrats, he bemoaned the “longing for the Empire” which, in his imagination, motivates Brexiteers.
I’m getting slightly tired of being told why I voted Leave by people who backed Remain.
For three years, now, I have had it explained to me — Remainsplained, if you like — that Eurosceptics want the Empire back.
These imperialist Leavers are never identified. It is simply airily asserted that there are lots of them about. In fact, I haven’t met a single Leaver — not one — who wants Britain to run big tracts of Asia or Africa.
And I spend a lot of time with Leavers. I set up the Campaign For An Independent Britain as a student 30 years ago.
I was one of the founders of Vote Leave. I was out campaigning almost every day during the six months before the referendum.
I have, in other words, met a great many Brexiteers, both Labour and Conservative.
Some disliked the EU because it was undemocratic, some because it was expensive, some because it was too centralised. But, to my knowledge, not one of them wanted the Empire back.
It is possible, I suppose, that such people exist. There were, after all, 17.4million Leave voters.
In such a vast number, you can probably find one or two Empire nostalgics, just as you can probably find one or two who believe that the EU is secretly run by space lizards, that the moon landings were faked or that Elvis is still alive.
But, as a rule, if someone in the Brexit debate starts banging on about the British Empire, I can pretty much guarantee you are listening to a Remainer.
Supporters of the EU are closer to the mark with their other favourite insult, “Little Englander”.
The so-called “Little Englanders” were the people who opposed the Boer War — one of our more foolish overseas adventures.
It later became a catch-all term for people who didn’t care about the Empire, being content with this island.
It’s fair to say that there has always been a strand in British Euroscepticism that is suspicious of foreign wars and entanglements.
REMAINER EMPIRE CHATTER
Enoch Powell, for example, was a Little Englander in this sense. Sometimes, scepticism of overseas involvement is justified and sometimes it isn’t.
But, right or wrong, it is the precise opposite of imperialism. Yes, many Leavers want to exploit the opportunities that come with an independent trade policy.
Yes, we want to reorient towards the teeming markets beyond the oceans. And, yes, some of these markets are in Commonwealth countries.
But the idea that it is imperialist to want a free trade agreement with, say, Malaysia or New Zealand is too silly for words.
We have a great deal in common with these counties — a language, a legal system, accountancy rules, compatible school curriculums — and these similarities facilitate trade, especially in an era when distance matters less than in the past.
That ambition is fundamentally forward-looking. It is intended to bring Britain’s trade policy into the modern world, a world transformed by low freight costs, cheap air travel and the internet.
To call it “Empire Mark II” as sneering Europhile civil servants do, tells you more about them than about the people they imagine they are mocking.
Which brings me to the final irony. The people who seem keenest to harp on about empires are the Eurocrats themselves.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the former head of the European Commission, talked approvingly of the EU as an empire.
Guy Verhofstadt told a London audience: “The world of tomorrow is not a world order based on nation states or countries.
It is a world order that is based on empires.” Britain would have to sit on the sidelines while Europe, America and China slugged it out.
In his speech, Tusk himself quoted “an English friend” as saying that “Brexit is the real end of the British Empire”.
Assuming, for a moment, that this English friend is a real person, and was not invented for the purpose of the anecdote, he or she neatly makes the point that, once again, it is Remainers who obsess about the Empire.
Denis Healey had their number. Half a century ago, the bushy-browed Labour titan gave a devastatingly accurate assessment of the Euro-enthusiasts of his day: “Their Europeanism is nothing but imperialism with an inferiority complex”.
Spot on, Denis. Brexiteers don’t want our Empire back any more than they want to be stuck in a Brussels-run empire.
They want Britain to be a free, self-governing democracy, interested and engaged in the affairs of every continent, including Europe, but respectful of the sovereignty of other nations. Not such a difficult concept, really.