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Pankaj Mishra

Brexiteers Are Pining for Empire

The hope is that isolation will again make Britain great.
Johnson's attack was remarkably intemperate.

Johnson's attack was remarkably intemperate.

Photographer: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

There are no good reasons for Britain to leave the European Union. "Brexit" makes zero sense geopolitically or economically, as exasperated foreigners, including U.S. President Barack Obama, have repeatedly pointed out. But then, as with many political phenomena today, any explanation of the inexplicable Brexit campaign has to be sought deep in social, cultural and emotional history.

The impulse driving the Brexiteers is the same one former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson highlighted in 1962, when he declared, "Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role." The writer Edmund Wilson expressed it, too, when he said that the British elite was "completely unreconciled to the post-war diminishment of Britain."