Still from film the Darkest Hour

Brexit, ethnic populism and the end of the British Empire as we know it

For the 2018 J.M. Ward Memorial Lecture, Professor Bill Schwarz will discuss the fallout from Brexit and the evolution of a new English nation.

The Brexit referendum of 23 June 2016 signalled the birth of a new English nation, which is the sum of all its parts, rather than being defined by greater London and the regions that immediately surround it. In the 2018 Ward Lecture, presented with the University of Sydney's Department of History, Professor Bill Schwarz suggests that this new nation is driven by the emergence of revived ethnic populism. He contends that, in this evolved nation, the English people (or those who claim themselves to be the English people) position themselves as the enemy of the British state.

This situation repeats the powerful dynamic that destabilised and eventually ended the global British empire. Various forms of settler populism mobilised ‘the British people’ to usurp a corrupt state. Explaining Brexit as a function of a widely held ‘nostalgia for empire’ might risk ignoring the complex network of factors that contribute to memories of empire. After the empire has ended, this dynamic of populist power results in profound new fissures in the continuing – unfinished – story of England’s contraction as a nation.

This event was held on Monday 10 September at The University of Sydney.

The Speaker:

Bill Schwarz is Professor of English at Queen Mary University of London. He is General Editor, with Catherine Hall, of the Duke University Press series, The Writings of Stuart Hall, and he has recently prepared for publication Hall’s memoir, Familiar Stranger. A Life Between Two Islands. His research focuses on decolonisation and postcolonial history. He is currently writing a three-volume history entitled Memories of Empire. The first volume, The White Man’s World, won the Longman-History Today prize for 2013. For many years he has been an editor of the world-renowned History Workshop Journal.


The J.M Ward Lecture honours the late John Manning Ward AO. Professor Ward was a distinguished historian, serving as Challis Professor of History from 1948 to 1979 and as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney from 1981 to 1990.

Image (at top): Still from the 'Darkest Hour', a feature film by Joe Wright

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