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The Victoria Delusion

From the start, the campaign to end Britain’s membership in the European Union has been based not just on lies, but on a carefully constructed mythology of the country’s imperial past. But as history itself shows, nostalgic nationalism is and always has been a recipe for disaster.

MILAN – Most of the hardcore Brexiteers in the British Parliament are oddballs, but Jacob Rees-Mogg is probably the most eccentric of them all. The son of a journalist, with aristocratic affectations and bespoke (yet still ill-fitting) double-breasted suits, he is a walking caricature of Englishness. While The Economist has described him as “the blue passport in human form, the red telephone box made flesh, the Royal Yacht Britannia in a pinstripe suit,” others, borrowing a line from John le Carré’s Call for the Dead, have mocked him as “a barmaid’s dream of a gentleman.”

But Rees-Mogg’s personification of nostalgia is no mere sideshow. A key supporter of Boris Johnson’s successful bid to become prime minister, he sees withdrawal from the European Union as the means by which to restore Britain’s past glory. He would like nothing more than to return to the late-Victorian era, the apogee of the British Empire, before Britain was just another ordinary nation-state among many.

Looking-Glass History

The Victorians is Rees-Mogg’s attempt to lend substance to his historical flights of fancy. If nothing else, his book illustrates the Brexiteers’ strategy of historical manipulation. Saturated in nostalgia for a time that no longer exists – if it ever existed at all – its aim is to delude Britons into believing that their country could be a preeminent global power if not for the straitjacket imposed by the EU.

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