While Brexit has been extended to 31 January (and a huge caveat should be attached to that date), the underpinning question remains the same: what's the actual 'Brexiteer' vision for Britain for when or if we leave the European Union. What, as the Germans call it, is their weltanschauung – their worldview? In 1850, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, dispatched a squadron of the Royal Navy to blockade the Greek port of Piraeus in retaliation to an anti-semitic attack on a British subject, David Pacifico, in Athens. When advising the House of Commons on June 25 of that year, Palmerston explained his actions: "... as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say Civis Romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen]; so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong…"When Palmerston made his speech, it was the age of gunboat diplomacy. Great Britain could, and would, level a country if it wanted (as it did to the Chinese coast in the Opium Wars) or set up a trade blockade trade if it was in her interests or what was deemed to be a matter of principle.Jeremy Paxman once wrote that the British Empire is a memory that has never faded. "Can we seriously pretend," he wrote in his book Empire, "that a project which dominated the way that Britain regarded the world for so many hundreds of years had no lasting influence on the colonisers, too?"
For those of us of a younger character, the Empire is the guilty seed that only comes out to play in an emergency. We're taught that the British Empire is an anachronism, but we as a nation still have the idea that the motto of the Stuart kings, nemo me impune lacessit (no one provokes me with impunity), still applies. We always expect something to be done if we're abroad and it all goes wrong. For too long we've maybe obsessed over Burns' plea "O wad some Power the giftie gie us; To see oursels as ithers see us!" Prestige hangs on but the power does not. Nowadays, it's the UK's soft power and diplomatic guile which are sent in first. The gunboats or a squadron from the RAF perform no daring rescues of the British citizens detained in the likes of Iran, Saudia Arabia or China. We can respond to air space intrusions, but we will not avenge our citizens abroad. Post-Suez embarrassmentWe might feel embarrassed and irked by the ongoing Brexit lark, but it's nothing compared to the subconscious hangover of going from Civis Britannicus Sum to being a European 'colony' in under 60 years. The Empire might be a half-remembered dream, but the country and the highest offices in the land are still adorned with the baubles and trinkets and murals to say nothing of a Queen who sits at the centre of it. The question about Brexit is less about the UK's future and more about what Francis Fukuyama dubbed "the end of history" in the post-Cold War liberalism of the 1990s. This is traditionally called the debate between Realism and Idealism. Realists take the world as it is; that we're doomed to a perpetual fight to the death particularly as resource scarcity intensifies. Idealists project their moral vision upon the world and crusade to make it better, believing they can tame the inherently worst aspects of human nature. Brexit is far easier to understand in these terms – a want, or perhaps even, a need – to return to a time of winner takes all, by any means, over a constrained international order as immediately represented by the European Union. The Americans got over their Vietnam Syndrome and so too has the UK replaced its post-Suez, post-imperial embarrassment with a reactionary hark back to grander days. In the last 300 years, no other country has wrestled with this dilemma more than the United States. After the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson tried to 'cure' the European balance of power system with the American ideal that culminated in the doomed League of Nations. Big-stick diplomacyHis predecessor President Theodore Roosevelt understood that power, and spheres of influence were everything. Wilson may have launched American moral idealism on the world, but Roosevelt built up the country's navy and sent it on a global circumnavigation between 1907 and 1909 as a gentle warning. "Speak softly, and carry a big stick" was his mantra. He was also a dedicated imperialist, and vigorously defended the United States' acquisition of the Philippines and the Panama Canal.These two men, perhaps more than any other two, embody what Britain is struggling with today – natural island isolation and the hope the world is modelled on our 'mother of all democracies' or a want and need to engage with it on our own, authoritative terms. After a series of post-empire, post-referendum and post-EU phases, we cannot cherry-pick our destiny as easily as Roosevelt and Wilson could. Isolation doesn't exist anymore, but power politics remain as perennial as ever.Fukuyama's absurd proclamation was premature, but Brexit has made the idea all the more pertinent. Will history end with global peace and liberty for all through integration – in the manner of the European Union – or in perpetual rivalry, conflict and war between nation states for another thousand years, like the thousand years before?Edmund Burke once said to "make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely". Like any true conservative, Burke based his view on empirical reality and not how he wished the world was. The debate about the EU and Britain's place in it is about what we want for our future, in 100, 200 years. And as US founding father Patrick Henry aptly said, there is "no way of judging the future but by the past".
Once we carried a big stick, but those days have gone and we have, for quite some time, been speaking so softly that our voice has only been heard by those who actually wanted to listen.
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. He regularly writes about politics and history with a particular interest in nationalism, and the life of Sir Winston Churchill. Read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart