Today’s the day that the UK leaves the European Union, and it hasn’t escaped our notice that the slogan ‘Make Britain Great Again’ has been heard a good deal in recent times. Normally it’s associated with Leave voters, but not exclusively: the full title of Sir Nick Clegg’s 2017 book was How to Stop Brexit (and Make Britain Great Again).
This isn’t just a copy of ‘Make America Great Again’, a message that we understand has become popular with some of those in the former colonies. It’s been around some time. And indeed, it makes more sense here, since this is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
So, to mark Brexit Day, we thought we’d ask: When did all this start? How long have we been promising ourselves that we can make Britain great again?
Britain still seemed pretty great in 1907. Marconi was trialling the first transatlantic telegraphy, Cunard launched the Mauretania, then the world’s biggest ship, and Robert Baden-Powell held his first Boy Scout camp. The empire was still intact, though this was the year that New Zealand and Newfoundland achieved dominion status, and the Orange Free State had its autonomy restored. The Liberal government led by Henry Campbell-Bannerman was instituting some social and constitutional reforms, but nothing so extreme that it’d scare the horses.
Even so, there were some who felt the nation was already slipping from its perch. How do we deal with the problems of modern youth? wondered a writer in the Daily Mirror in 1907.
Teach everyone to work in childhood, and see that they never lose the habit. That is the remedy for cadging and loafing. That is how we can, if we like, make Britain ‘great’ again.
This is an outlier, though. The phrase didn’t really pick up a head of steam until the National Liberals – then under the leadership of John Maclay – titled their manifesto for the 1950 general election, Make Britain Great Again. ‘We remain devoted to Liberal principles,’ it opened, ‘and we reaffirm our intention to fight for them with all the greater intensity now, when they are imperilled as never before by the challenge of Socialism.’
Well over half-a-century ago, some were already seeing this in terms of our relationship with Europe. A reader wrote to the Liverpool Echo in March 1963, unimpressed by our French neighbours:
All this talk of General de Gaulle. The only thing he ever did for us was to stop our entry into the Common Market. Now we will have to go it alone, and I am sure we will make Britain great again as we did in the Second World War.
It was, and remained, an essentially Conservative slogan (the National Liberals merged with the Tories in 1968), but there were those on the left who were canny enough to see the appeal. Two weeks after Harold Wilson became Labour leader in February 1963, the Daily Mirror splashed its front page with ‘Wilson challenges nation on TV: LET’S MAKE THIS BRITAIN GREAT AGAIN!’
By the 1970s, though, it was the younger Tories, the likes of Edward du Cann and Ian Sproat, who were insisting that only they could achieve the re-greating of the country. And, in particular, the sentiment became attached to the nationalistic agenda of Margaret Thatcher.
A couple of days after the 1979 election that brought Thatcher to power, June Sparey, columnist with the Evening Post in Reading, reflected on her indecision over who would receive her vote, and whether patriotism had any role to play:
There I was, sitting on the new two-seater, filling in my tax return of all things. ‘Let’s make Britain great again … let’s show the world what the British are made of … we are a great nation … we are still a great nation’ or words to that effect with Land of Hope and Glory roaring in the imagination.
And I thought to myself: ‘Can we? Are we? And who cares anyway?’
And then, as she contemplated the prospects for the new government, she concluded that actually she did care:
What I want most of all is to find myself leaping to my feet, saluting, brushing away the tears of emotion and yelling ‘By God, we’ll show ’em; next time a politician appeals to my sense of national pride.
I want to be proud of being British again.
Maybe, if one wanted to understand why the Falklands War so completely reinvented the public perception of Thatcher, the clue is in there.