The Legacy of the Past in Brexit Britain

Public Defence of PhD Thesis by Tóra Djurhuus.

Assessment Committee

  • Associate Professor Peter Leese, Chair (University of Copenhagen)
  • Associate Mark Eaton (Aarhus University)
  • Professor Elizabeth Buettner (University of Amsterdam)

Moderator of defence

  • Associate Professor Robert Rix (University of Copenhagen)

Copies of the thesis will be available for consultation at the following three places:

  • At the Information Desk of the Library of the Faculty of Humanities
  • In Reading Room East of the Royal Library (the Black Diamond)
  • At the Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies, Emil Holms Kanal 6.


“Although the British Empire came to a rapid conclusion in the decades following the Second World War, the memory of empire has continued to influence ideas of national identity and purpose and has certainly also shaped Britain’s approach to European cooperation. This thesis brings together ideas from memory studies and British Euroscepticism, as it examines how the cultural memory of empire has been used in political and cultural debates in Britain to create a narrative of national identity, especially in relation to the European Union, and, in turn, what this means for Britain’s ability to carve out a future role for itself outside the EU. In terms of memory theory, I rely on the terms ‘pre’ and ‘remediation’ which describe the process through which cultural memory is generated, maintained, and, yet, constantly reconstructed according to contemporary times and challenges.

The thesis takes its point of departure in written material produced by key political players in the Eurosceptic/Brexit debate such as Boris Johnson and Daniel Hannan and texts from the editorial and comment sections of the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph, and the Daily Mail.

Based on an analysis of recurring tropes in the primary source material (from 1995-2017), my argument is twofold: Firstly, I argue that references to the British Empire were common in the debate on Europe in the early 1960s, yet that these disappeared following the 1975 referendum, only to be resurrected – in a completely different and reimagined form – in the immediate years leading up to the Brexit referendum. Secondly, I argue that pro-Brexit actors mobilised the cultural memory of empire when making their respective arguments against membership of the European Union. Yet this mobilisation occurred in coded form. In other words, what I refer to as the ‘imperial dimension’ of British Eurosceptic rhetoric manifested itself largely in the way in which Eurosceptics talked about Britain’s global connections and free trade. In this sense, in British Eurosceptic debate, ‘the imperial dimension’ functioned as a readymade rhetorical resource through which an alternative, better future for Britain outside the EU could be articulated”.