Campaigning in the United Kingdom’s referendum on European Union membership has resumed following the killing of Labour Party MP Jo Cox last week. During the two-day suspension there was much talk of the need for a more “respectful tone” – and with good reason.
The “Brexit” debate has been characterised by some of the most poisonous, vitriolic rhetoric ever seen in a British election.
Last week, just hours before Ms Cox was shot and stabbed in her constituency, Nigel Farage, the leader of the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) unveiled his party’s latest election poster.
In it a seemingly endless queue of non-white refugees stands beneath the slogan “breaking point”. The message isn’t a subtle one: Leave the EU, or hordes of foreigners are coming.
Such imagery has, sadly, been far from an aberration during this campaign.
So why, with only days to go, are opinion polls still neck and neck?
Longing for old days
British Prime Minister David Cameron and others have focused on the economy, issuing ever more dire warnings of collapse if the UK leaves the EU.
But for a large chunk of the British – and particularly the English – electorate this vote is really a yearning for a return to the days when Britain was a truly global power, when the sun never set on its empire.
The desire to regain Britain’s colonial prowess has provided the subtext for much the referendum debate.
Outside England, there is little enthusiasm for appeals to empire. In Scotland's devolved parliament in Edinburgh even Conservatives would baulk at calls to make Britain great again or replace the EU with the Commonwealth.
“Let’s make Britain great again” declared former London mayor Boris Johnson and other prominent leave advocates. Former Conservative cabinet minister, Iain Duncan Smith, recently called Britain “the greatest country in the world”.
And when was Britain greatest? When it ruled half the world, of course.
Unlike other one-time imperial powers in the EU such as Germany, Spain or Portugal, a sepia-tinged vision of the colonial past is quite mainstream in the UK, uniting both elite politicians and an increasingly disenfranchised white working class.
The vicious reality of the UK’s colonial expeditions is still a marginal narrative, if it is aired at all.
Some leave campaigners have called for an end to EU migration in favour of attracting newcomers from Australia, implicitly reviving the imperial fantasy of the White Dominions, those British territories with significant settler populations.
Others say Britain should swap the EU for the Commonwealth, a rather disparate collection of states stretching across the world united only by the fact that the Union Jack once flew on their soil.
That the UK does more trade with Ireland than it does with the entire Commonwealth is conveniently ignored.
A belief in British exceptionalism has allowed some to declare blithely that the UK would be a good deal better off if it leaves, despite it evidently being in the EU’s interests to behave punitively.
Euroscepticism is on the rise across the continent. Brussels will want to dissuade others from following the UK’s lead.
A singular player?
Modern day Britain was never invaded. And from this cloistered vantage point it has become all too easy to forget that the EU was forged as an attempt to create political unity in the immediate aftermath of war.
“Silence over Europe’s recent past was the necessary condition for the construction of a European future,” historian Tony Judt adroitly observed.
Now Brexiters are happily shouting into this sensitive peace, merrily evoking the spirit of the blitz amid calls to “take back control” from foreigners.
It was hardly surprising that as well as singing about the IRA and German bombers, rioting English football fans in Marseilles last week could be heard chanting “F*** off Europe, we’re all voting out.”
Britain reluctantly pooled sovereignty with France and Germany when it joined the then European community in the early 1970s.
In the immediate post-war years, Westminster still believed it could be a singular global player, brutally suppressing anti-colonial movements in Kenya, Indonesia and elsewhere. Only the disastrous Suez Crisis publicly exposed the limits of British power in the nuclear age.
Now Brexit, for some, offers an opportunity to regain Britain’s supposedly rightful place in the world.
But such appeals to faded glories carry within them the seeds of the potential destruction of the oldest, and most durable, British colonial construct: the UK itself.
Britain is no longer a single political entity with a unified people. In 2014, 45 percent of Scots voted for independence. A similar number in Northern Ireland define themselves as Irish nationalists.
If – as looks very possible – Brexit wins the day, but Scots votes to remain in the EU, the question of Scottish independence will inevitably re-open.
Outside England, there is little enthusiasm for appeals to empire. In Scotland’s devolved parliament in Edinburgh even Conservatives would baulk at calls to make Britain great again or replace the EU with the Commonwealth.
Indeed, the EU referendum – a vote that affects the whole of the UK – has been a peculiarly English affair. Brexit is more popular in England where it is a far more salient issue.
In 1962, American diplomat Dean Acheson remarked that “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role”. That diagnosis is still correct.
But the EU referendum campaign has, for many, fed the belief that rather than find a new function in world affairs Britain needs to regain its imperial role.
Whether jingoistic appeals to empire are enough to sway a Brexit vote remains to be seen. But after a campaign that has shown the worst of British politics, even a “respectful” final few days could be too little, too late.
Peter Geoghegan is an Irish writer and broadcaster based in Glasgow. His most recent book is The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be the Same Again.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.