Race, nation, empire? Historicising outward and inward-facing British nationalism

James Foley*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Brexit has continued to capture the attention of International Relations (IR) scholars, where it has been linked to the burgeoning debate on race and postcolonialism. This article adds to this scholarship by historicising the question of imperial nostalgia, which has been central to these intersecting literatures. It re-examines how influential theorists Hall and Gilroy linked the peculiarities of British national consciousness to traumas issuing from the loss of great power status. It emphasises two themes often lacking in recent accounts of Brexit nationalism: namely, the centrality of military mobilisation to national consciousness; and the unevenness between popular and elite sentiment with regards to the imperial dimension. In historicising themes of extroversion and introversion, it reconsiders the significant metamorphoses in post-Thatcherite British nationalism, which had centred on proclaiming a national renaissance founded in foreign policy successes, international moral leadership and a state-led consensus for rolling out globalisation worldwide. The research shows that revisionism about the British Empire played a significant role in foreign policy discourse across this period, as did pro-EU sentiment among the governing and ruling elite. It highlights the mechanisms which allowed UK foreign policy intellectuals to link the military roll-out of ‘postmodern’ social norms with the European project’s end goals. These findings help historically situate Brexit amid a succession of crises for the liberal global order. The research finds that, whereas Brexit appeared initially as a retreat or break from the UK’s post-Thatcherite ‘globalising’ nationalism, subsequent developments highlight significant continuities.

Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Relations
Early online date30 Aug 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 30 Aug 2023


  • British
  • empire
  • geopolitics
  • imperialism
  • nationalism
  • race

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Political Science and International Relations


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