The collapse of Britain’s empire in the decades after World War II was followed by a huge growth and then persistence of extreme economic inequality. Britain’s relative economic decline occurred in tandem with the loss of almost all of its remaining colonies in the 1970s and the economic benefit they had provided. The British thought that joining the European Economic Community in 1973 could replace this loss. It didn’t, because the European relationship was mutual, rather than exploitative.

At the same time, within Britain, inequality began to rise. Income inequalities rose from being among the lowest in Europe in the 1970s to being the highest of all 28 European Union member states by 2015, the year before the EU referendum. And the UK’s income inequality also saw the greatest rise during this period between 1976 and 2016.

Great inequality has damaged the lives of the majority of middle-class Conservative and UK Independence Party (UKIP) voters who live in the south of England. It damaged their lives because it hurt so many of their children and grandchildren’s life chances. Whereas their generation, when young adults, could more easily secure permanent housing, start a family, hold down a steady job and – if they were to secure a place – attend university for free, it’s primarily because of rising inequality that the next generations in England could not so very often do so.

In the local elections of May 2019 the Conservative party lost 1330 seats, Labour lost 84. In the European Parliamentary elections that took place later that same month, the loses for the Conservatives were even more devastating. When they are compared to the most recent, 2014, European election results the combined number of seats won by the Conservatives+UKIP+The Brexit Party in Great Britain fell by ten. The number of seats won by Labour fell by ten. The number won by the Liberals, Green and other minor parties rose by twenty. Pro-remain parties did much better than the pro-Brexit bloc, and better than Labour (which was pro-Remain but ambiguous).

In Northern Ireland the picture was similar. A unionist pro-Leave candidate who was allied with the European mainland far-right lost his seat. That seat was won by a pro-Remain candidate of the Alliance party. Across the UK as a whole, the drop in far-right members of the European Parliament totalled eleven MEPs. This was the largest fall in far-right voting ever to have occurred at any European election in the UK since the first was held in 1979. Here far-right is defined as being in a political party aligned to groups that are to the right of the main (EPP) European Conservative bloc.

‘Leave’ no longer has the support it enjoyed in June 2016. This is what happens at the end of empire. Eventually the penny drops. In May 2019 the tide turned away from Leave. But that raises the questions of how did the situation get to this, why now and why here in Britain and not in any other state of the EU?

Please click here for the on-line version of the full article this is an edited extract from, including all references, and a pdf of the article including all comments (comments which often help to make the case for there being much ignorance of the role empire has played). And click ‘play’ below if you are interested in how these events are understood when the decline of that old Empire is put in the foreground:


Audio recording of Sally Tomlinson and Danny Dorling, speaking about their new book: Rule Britannia: Brexit and the end of Empire, Hay Festival, Hay on Wye, 25th May 2019.