leading Brexiters and advocates of “Global Britain” misunderstand the past — with dangerous consequences for the future. They speak warmly of returning to Britain’s historical vocation as a “great trading nation”, when it was actually a great imperial nation. That important distinction leads to overconfidence about the ease of re-creating a global trading destiny, in a world in which Britannia no longer rules the waves.
For a Martian historian, the most interesting thing about modern British history would surely be that the country built a massive global empire. But for the Brits themselves, shaping a national story that centres around the war against the Nazis — rather than the empire — makes psychological sense. It has allowed Britain to nurture a national self-image as champions of freedom and plucky underdogs (captured in the eternal popularity of the television programme Dad’s Army) rather than imperialist oppressors.
Victory in Europe was a moment of national triumph that cushioned the psychological blow of the loss of empire. All British opinion formers have 1945 stamped on their memory — the year that marked victory in Europe. Few would be able to tell you that 1947 was the year of the independence of India.
In a 2008 biography he wrote of an antislavery campaigner, Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, described the trade in human beings as an indefensible barbarity, “brutal, mercenary and inhumane from its beginning to its end.”
Fourteen Caribbean countries that once sustained that slave economy now want Mr. Hague to put his money where his mouth is.
Spurred by a sense of injustice that has lingered for two centuries, the countries plan to compile an inventory of the lasting damage they believe they suffered and then demand an apology and reparations from the former colonial powers of Britain, France and the Netherlands.