British nostalgia and politicians manipulation around Brexit

How Politicians Fooled the World Into Believing in Nations

National identities make us believe in ideas like democracy, money, and laws. The trouble is they are stories that can all too easily be manipulated for political power. Take Brexit...
illustrated by Ben Giles

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Borders Issue. The edition is a global exploration of both physical and invisible borders and examines who is affected by these lines and why we've imbued them with so much power. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

Winston Jones was 16 when he crossed the Atlantic to join his mother in London. Born in Jamaica in 1956, he came as part of what’s become known as the Windrush generation: tens of thousands of people from the British colonies in the Caribbean invited to migrate to the UK to help rebuild postwar Britain.


“My mother brought me here for a better life,” Jones said. “We all thought Britain was the land of dreams.” Jones threw himself into British life as a night trackman for the London Tube, then as a car mechanic. He voted, paid taxes, and did everything else expected of a stamped-and-filed citizen.

It wasn’t just that being a part of the Windrush generation meant to Jones that he might come to the mother country as a former colonial subject and be treated as an equal; the nation was selling a narrative to the rest of its citizens, too. In their minds, the invitation—extended by the 1948 Nationality Act—was the beginning of a new story Britain was telling itself. The horrors of war were over, the empire was decolonizing, and Windrush was a symbol of a Britain starting afresh—the prologue to a new story of an open and progressive nation at peace with itself and the world. It was to be seen as a feel-good chapter in British national history. And it could well have been.

Only, by the time Jones arrived in 1972, that story was already being overwritten with an older one. Four years earlier, the Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech predicted Britons would soon become “strangers in their own country.” Two years after that, the anti-migrant Conservative Party won a surprise electoral victory. And then the year after Jones arrived, a new Immigration Act to choke the flow of migrants from the New Commonwealth came into force. Over the next three decades, he saw economic inequality widen under Margaret Thatcher’s reign, creating a legacy of division that no successive government could shake. Soon, for many, crippling austerity measures to calm the 2008 financial crisis only rubbed salt into Britain’s wounded soul. “There was a lot of racism,” Jones said. “But we learned to get on with it.”


The nation was angry. And, as usually happens when nations grow angry, a cold front of nationalism swept in. This was the new story the British establishment decided to tell, and people like Jones just didn’t quite fit. Immigrants became targets, and the Windrush generation got caught up in policies by Theresa May’s Home Office designed to make Britain what she called a “hostile environment” to those deemed not to belong. Thousands of law-abiding British citizens who came to the country as part of Windrush became victims of xenophobia and bungled bureaucracy. Jones was among those unlawfully stripped of his citizenship and national identity.

In 2011, the father of two was declared an illegal immigrant. He lost his job and his home. He became ineligible for benefits. The stress, he said, led to a brain aneurysm, whereupon hospital staff told him he might need to cough up £5,000 (a little more than 6,000 USD) for his treatment. He couldn’t pay. He couldn’t even apply for a bed in a homeless shelter. So he moved onto the streets, begging for small change and scraps to survive.

“I nearly lost my bloody life,” said the 63-year-old, who asked for his name to be changed to protect his identity. “When I got the letter from immigration telling me I had to go back to Jamaica or be deported, my belly went whoosh. I’ve spent three quarters of my life in Britain. I love this country and can’t imagine living anywhere else. Plus, as a British subject, I came to Britain legally and officially, believing I was British.”


As powerful as Jones’s story is, for an influential cadre of British powermongers now shopping for a new British identity to suit changing times, it is the wrong story. But then, what is national identity, really? It is nothing more than a story, cobbled together from scraps of half-remembered history and whispered into our ears by political elites to make us care enough about our made-up borders to fight for them in wars. National identities are the invisible glue that holds nations together; they make us accept election results and care about millions of complete strangers we’ll never meet based on the slippery notion that language + values + borders = a nation.

Except we all know language doesn’t line up with borders, nor do generic human principles. So we tell ourselves stories. Stories that, while founded in history, often have little grasp on actual history at all. But then, history never happens in the moment. It happens later, long after the ink—or blood—has dried. It happens in our memory. And memory—especially in politics—lies. Which is why the influential political scientist Benedict Anderson described nations in 1983 as “imagined political communities… distinguished, not by their falsity or genuineness, but in the style in which they are imagined.”

This is not to say national identities do not matter. They do. They make us believe in ideas like democracy, money, laws, and orderly queuing. They can, in the right hands, encourage the kind of social trust to build giant welfare systems. They are, in short, the invisible glue that holds nations together.


The trouble is—as with anything that exists only in the imagination—national identity is fragile, and can all too easily be manipulated for political power. “The difference between a reasonably healthy nationalism and an unhealthy one is that the former knows it’s based on stories and an unhealthy one doesn’t, or at least denies it,” said the Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, author of Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. It only opens up for manipulation, he said, “when the story hardens into a notion that there’s some fixed national identity that’s been handed down to us from the past.”

To understand how national myths can be spun for political power, consider the most famous English legend of all. As any talented politician knows, there’s always more than one way to skin a story, and Robin Hood is no different. “That myth can be retold to fit at least two opposing political agendas,” said the historian Robert Saunders. “One is a populist, almost socialist myth about a band of outlaws, enemies of the system who steal from the rich and give to the poor. But there’s also a more conservative version in which Robin is the rightful Earl of Locksley, an aristocrat who’s been wrongly driven from his estates. In that version, Robin does what an aristocrat is supposed to do: He champions the poor and the oppressed, fights for the good king, Richard the Lionheart, and in the happy ending is restored to his estates to the cheers of his loyal people.”


His point: “Once these stories exist, you have to try to imprint your meaning on them and use them to your advantage.”


If the Windrush scandal was the prologue to Britain’s new national story, Brexit is chapter one. Because before you begin to define who you are as a nation, you must first clear up who you are not. “The problem with nationalism is one of definition,” said O’Toole. “The very thing it gives you—a sense of belonging—implies who doesn’t belong. This is where manipulation comes in. Politics doesn’t want to acknowledge that the ‘us’ bit is open and ambiguous and dynamic, so it ups the ante on the ‘them’ side, [saying]: ‘Whoever we actually are, we know we’re not those fuckers.’ Only then do you have to say something about who you are as a nation. It doesn’t have to have any real connection to history. [You just have to] create a static, mythological version of it.”

According to Saunders, “The dominant folk memory of British history is of ‘plucky little Britain,’ standing with its back to the wall in the face of overpowering odds.” Saunders covers this in his recent book, Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain. “It’s the story of the underdog, hopelessly outnumbered but somehow finding a way through. It’s the story of Dunkirk: the fishing smacks and pleasure boats that defied the Nazi war machine. It’s Sir Francis Drake, singeing the beards of the mighty Spanish Empire. It’s the lonely soldier on the coast, undaunted as the skies darken beneath the shadow of the Luftwaffe.”


Every nation defines itself through stories. But this was the decades-old fantasy with which Britain’s Brexit-peddlers seduced 17.4 million Britons who voted to leave the EU. As for the immigration question, it did the important job of highlighting the story’s misfits, while reinforcing the lie that Commonwealth subjects weren’t around when Britain sent Germany packing (actually, about 10,000 men and women from Caribbean colonies joined the British armed forces during the Second World War). “One side had an attractive, very emotional story to tell: If we vote Leave, we will be free again, and we’ll trade across the world and reconnect with old friends of the empire,” Saunders added. “The other side’s argument was basically, ‘Yeah, but you’ll be skint.’”

For Brexiteers, “plucky little Britain” had a dragon to slay. It just needed a little creative marketing. “The first calling point of the U.K.’s negotiator immediately after #Brexit will not be Brussels, it will be Berlin, to strike a deal,” then Brexit secretary David Davis tweeted shortly before the referendum in 2016.

“Davis repeatedly said that these negotiations in Brussels are meaningless, [implying] that the EU is just a German front,” said O’Toole. “He’s essentially saying, ‘We think we won the war, but really we lost because the evil Germans, in their typically sneaky way, created this EU thing, sucked us into it, and achieved the domination over us which they were unable to achieve in the First and Second World Wars.’ This may seem bonkers, but remember that the entire negotiating strategy of the British government was based on it.”


Positioning old-foe Germany as the real enemy, while unleashing a “wave of hyped-up victimhood,” he suggested, was Brexit’s masterstroke: “It’s all linked to humiliation—one of the most powerful forces for right-wing nationalism.”

The sleight of hand was not subtle, but it worked. And Brexit’s leading politicians successfully rebranded a history of humiliating others into a story of a Britain hog-tied and humiliated by a band of faceless bureaucrats from Babel. “Brexit’s trick is to take a postimperial power and try to reshape it as a power which is throwing off imperialism,” said O’Toole. “Effectively, Britain tries to ape its own colonies, saying: ‘We need a national liberation movement, just like the Irish or the Indians or the Kenyans had against us.’”

So Britain is suffering from a postimperial hangover, and Brexit is the hair of the dog. Except the problem with the hair of the dog is that it only keeps the headache at bay for so long. “You can’t free yourself from that feeling that we ought to be better than this,” said O’Toole. “[Brexit] doesn’t banish the ghost of exceptionalism.” In other words, History doesn’t repeat itself; rather, as Julian Barnes suggested in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, it “just burps, and we taste again that raw onion sandwich it swallowed centuries ago.”

Winston Jones’ life is back on track now. In 2018, the Home Office finally confirmed he has indefinite leave to remain, after the charity Praxis Community Projects intervened and lobbied the government on his behalf. There has been no apology, only the promise of compensation for his ordeal.

Jones has listened to Brexit’s story of a new, stand-alone Britain, free from the tyranny of the EU. And it, as for many Britons who feel let down by power-hungry politicians and growing inequality, has struck a chord. “I couldn’t vote in the [Brexit] referendum because of my situation,” he said. “But do you know what I would have voted for? Brexit. I was happy when we decided to leave Europe… Now we can dictate our own terms and focus on the problems we have right here, now.”

If his own story has taught him anything, it is one elemental truth: that in a chaotic world, from our first breath to our dying wish, what gets us through the triumphs and pitfalls both petty and profound, ultimately, is belonging. Because in belonging lies hope. And for Jones—47 years after he first stepped onto British soil as a wide-eyed teenager with dreams of a better life—there is now, as there was then, only one choice: to believe in Britain’s story, and to trust in Britain as his home. “The way I’ve been treated, well, I cannot say I belong to the ocean, or to the sky,” he added. “I have to hold on to something. I have to believe I’m British.”

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