Great Britons and Europe: a timeline
To many who voted “Remain” in June, the Leavers’ insistence on English exceptionalism was chauvinistic, deluded and—worst of all—alien to Britain’s outward-looking tradition. The truth, however, is that the tales we tell ourselves about “the kind of country we are” are never the whole story. To see that it is necessary only to reflect on the very disparate real individuals, from Henry VIII to John Maynard Keynes, who have shaped British history.
With nations—as with individuals—there are always different aspects of character, tugging against one another. The most extrovert of us can take an introvert turn when an awkward social event crops up in the diary. Likewise countries vary between moods where they are excited by the possibilities of the world, and times where their only wish is to stay in and bolt the door. If you doubt it, just look at the US. As Martin Woollacott sets out in in December’s Prospect, if the arrival of President-Elect Trump has stunned the planet, that is because the world does not know its American history. Sure, the reigning assumption since the Second World War has been that the US will make the problems of far-flung places its business. But this internationalism has always contested with a rival, insular tradition that puts “America first,” the tradition which—when you take the long view—has been dominant over most of the lifetime of the Republic. Trump’s isolationism, his penchant for tariffs and walls are not so much shockingly new, as shockingly old.
And so to Brexit. It is well familiar that Europe has divided both of the UK’s major political parties like no other issue since the 1960s. But what if you go further back? We’ve asked leading authorities on 14 poets, princes and other great Britons to tell us whether they would have voted “Remain” or “Leave” this year. I tally up seven “Remainers, several of them grudging, four out-and-out Brexiteers, and another three who might be inclined to side with the Outers, depending on circumstances. The nation, in other words, has been split down the middle over Europe since the Tudor origins of its modern state. Besides—and whether or not you buy that conclusion—don’t you want to know what George Orwell would have done?
Tom Clark, Editor of Prospect
Henry VIII, by Joanne Paul
In the run-up to the referendum, Henry VIII, founder of the Church of England, was touted as the quintessential Brexiteer. The “Historians for Britain” campaign plastered his puffy shoulders and teeny Trump-mouth across their website-—all hail the man who threw off the shackles of an oppressive continental institution, and declared national independence! The parallels are, indeed, hard to ignore.
Although Henry considered his supremacy over the Church a fact, parliament was critical to legitimising it. After parliament passed the Royal Supremacy Act in 1534, opposing Henry’s “Brexit” from the Catholic Church was declared treason, which felled resisters including Thomas More. On conviction, More argued that such a small council as the English parliament, representing only one small realm, didn’t have the authority to oppose a much larger representative institution, that of the General Council of the [Roman Catholic] Church. In other words, if England wanted to leave, all the members of the Church (read: European Union) would need to approve it: it could not just be a matter of English whim.
Henry disagreed, but this was the Henry of the 1530s, clear in his desire to break with Rome (read: Brussels) and annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In the 1520s, he had written a book about his support for Catholicism, earning him the title Defender of the Faith. If he had been about in summer 2016, we might presume that he’d have been the sort of prominent Brexiteer who would be capable of writing a newspaper article in praise of the EU, shortly before performing an about-face and campaigning to leave.
Thus to be sure how Henry VIII would have voted in the referendum, we have to know which Henry and when—self-interest being the only constant principle. Henry joins others who follow the vacillations of their own whims, roundly condemning those who take up positions they themselves had held only moments before. When those people hold positions of power and influence our world begins to break apart.
Joanne Paul is the author of “Thomas More” (Polity) published this month William Shakespeare Andrew Dickson
“This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle…” Going by these words in Richard II, it’s easy to believe that William Shakespeare would have been out there campaigning for Brexit on the doorsteps of Middle England. At least that seems to be the view of numerous Tory politicians—here’s looking at you, Gove and Johnson—for whom John of Gaunt’s stirringly patriotic speech is second only to the Frog-bashing bits of Henry V as bedtime comfort reading.
The truth could hardly be more different. Not only did Shakespeare read (and probably speak) French and Italian, not to mention Latin and Greek, the majority of his plays are amalgams of European sources; only one of them, The Merry Wives of Windsor, is set throughout in anything that resembles the England he knew. Of course there are the history dramas he wrote in the 1590s, but they are calls for civil unity in the wake of calamitous civil war (of the Roses), which in the light of 20th-century history makes it hard to believe that if the playwright were around today he would have been anything other than pro-EU.
Much as it might pain Gove and co to admit it, as a writer Shakespeare was instinctively far more European than he was English. And not just as a writer—for years Shakespeare shared a house in Bishopsgate with a family of French migrants, and the only play script to survive in his handwriting, a passage from the collaborative drama Sir Thomas More, contains a moving description of the plight of refugees.
Oh, and Gaunt’s speech? If you read it in full, its patriotism is cuttingly double-edged—Gaunt addresses these words to Richard II, whose blundering political mismanagement has brought England to the brink of disaster. Gaunt concludes: “That England, that was wont to conquer others / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.” Plus ça change, as Shakespeare might have put it.
Andrew Dickson is the author of “Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe”
Elizabeth I John Guy
Elizabeth I would, first of all, have been appalled by the notion of a referendum. “God’s death” she would have exclaimed in horror. If, with a pistol to her head, she’d been forced to promise to hold a Brexit vote, she would then have played for time. And even if the vote had been held, she’d never have triggered Article 50. God had called her to rule, and nothing stung her more than vulgar appeals to “popularity.” For a queen whose PR claimed her to be the people’s darling, this was ironic. But talking of her “people” was one thing, listening to them another. She had to work with her ministers and came to tolerate her parliaments, but—like her father, Henry VIII—she believed they were accountable to her, not her to them. As opinion turned against her, despite victory over the Spanish Armada, she withdrew to her private rooms.
If strong-armed into a polling booth she’d have been tempted to spoil her ballot. She was a staunch Europeanist—provided she never had to board a ship and cross the Channel. She loved the idea of Italy, its literature and art. She spoke fluent French as well as Italian, kept European musicians on her payroll and loved to sip sweet wine in the sunken groves of her Italianate gardens. But, then, Nigel Lawson championed the “Vote Leave” campaign from his house in France…
And above all, Elizabeth loathed the Pope, and the Catholic Church, to which her Bremainer sister Mary was so devoted. She rejoiced in the opportunities her long war with Philip II’s Spain gave her to control her borders, and cared little for exports so long as merchants paid their taxes. She believed the European equilibrium of her father’s day had been destroyed by Philip. Her father, she believed, had seen the light when he asserted England’s undivided sovereignty. So if forced to choose, the best guess is Bess for Brexit.
John Guy’s most recent book is “Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years”
Oliver Cromwell Jesse Norman
Oliver Cromwell has sharply divided public opinion ever since his death in 1658. Was he a Moses come to lead his people to a new Israel? Or a modern Machiavelli, a power-crazed religious hypocrite intent solely on his own glory and the destruction of the established order?
Today it is easy to view him through sound bites: as a cruel butcher of the innocent at Drogheda, the man who brought Charles I to the scaffold, a puritan bigot determined to ban Christmas.
Yet the man himself was far from his modern caricatures. No misery guts, he was fond of company and practical jokes. Nor was he an instinctive republican; rather, a far from enthusiastic regicide whose initial monarchist leanings finally gave up in the face of Charles’s evasions. And Cromwell’s Irish campaign stands out as an exception against his general presumption for religious toleration and decent treatment of the defeated. His overwhelming principle was to do God’s bidding.
So, then, to Brexit. The young Cromwell was a farmer; perhaps he’d have voted “remain” for the subsidies. As an MP, he fiercely defended the sovereignty of parliament, albeit against the King; sounds like a Brexiteer. As a military commander, he would doubtless have been appalled by the idea of a European army… “Leave” again.
Foreign policy? Cromwell destroyed the Dutch fleet, seized Jamaica from the Spanish, and laid the solidly mercantilist foundations of the British Empire. Not much here to suggest a “communautaire” Brussels man, then—and certainly no presumption for free trade. Until one remembers that he also formally re-admitted the Jews back to England. That emphasis on open doors immigration and, in the mindset of the day, financial services, too… So, we’re back with In!
One thing we know for sure, however: Cromwell was a shrewd operator. He’d be treading carefully in Brexit negotiations. And hoping God would show him the way.
Jesse Norman is the Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire. He is the author of a biography of Edmund Burke
Charles Edward Stuart Jacqueline Riding
Given Bonnie Prince Charlie’s status, in some quarters, as a figurehead for Scottish Nationalism-—the term “Jacobite” has been likewise adopted—his attitude to Brexit, you might think, would be straightforward. He would, on this reading, seize it as an opportunity to reverse the Union with England, declaring an SNP-type commitment to integrate Scotland into Europe, removing her from the UK en route.
Irrespective of any such calculation, Charles’s background would have inclined him to the “Remain” camp. Born in Rome, the offspring of a Polish mother and an English-born, half-Italian father, with Scottish, French, Danish and German ancestry, Charles was raised in a court sponsored by both the Pope and Europe’s most powerful monarch, Louis XV. Indeed any hope of toppling the Hanoverians and restoring the Stuarts was largely reliant on a French invasion force. France’s support was inconsistent, depending on how useful such a restoration—or the threat of it—was to her own ambitions. But generally, as one minister at Versailles observed, it was helpful to have the British government “a little tottering.”
Of course disaffection with the Westminster regime was also a great driver for recruitment to the Jacobite cause. And in October 1745, while at Holyrood, Charles proclaimed the Union null and void. But the Union was as instrumental for him as the question of the EU is for some single-minded nationalists today. Charles was playing another game. He had no intention of consolidating his position in Edinburgh while awaiting the arrival of his father as King James VIII of Scotland. Charles’s prize was London and his aim was the restoration of his family to all of their former territories. He was willing to promise—or appear to promise—anything, as long as this was achieved. To some supporters of independence, the return of the ancient Scottish royal dynasty was synonymous with that dream. But it is uncertain whether Charles, if successful, would have delivered it.
And similar calculations would have coloured his Brexit vote. A Remainer by inclination, absolutely, but if, for whatever reason, leaving Europe offered a better chance of delivering his real dream, then the risk was worth taking.
Jacqueline Riding is the author of “Jacobites: A New History of the ’45 Rebellion” (Bloomsbury)
Jane Austen Paula Byrne
Famously, Jane Austen never left the shores of England, unlike her sailor brothers, who saw the world, and a rich older brother who did the Grand Tour of Europe like many wealthy Georgian men. However, this does not mean that she was uninterested in the world around her, especially as for most of her life England was at war with France. Her brothers, who were involved in the fighting, kept her up to date with all the latest war news. She commiserated with Frank Austen, who narrowly escaped the Battle of Trafalgar: the greatest disappointment of his career.
There were other reasons, too, why Austen may have been interested in the wider world: several of her friends had plantations in the West Indies and her close cousin, Eliza Hancock, was born in India and then lived in France, where she married a count, Jacques de Feuillide. Eliza was sophisticated and elegant, and a huge influence on the young Jane. But interest in other countries is not the same thing as affection. And Austen was no Francophile, as she never forgave the French for chopping off the head of this cousin’s husband during the Revolution. The incident so scarred her that she could never bring herself to speak about the French with any degree of kindness or sympathy.
Despite her distaste for the French, she was not insular or parochial about her homeland. She could write so brilliantly about English village life because she was clear-eyed about its failings, once describing country life as “a neighbourhood of voluntary spies.”
So which way would she go? In the end, we must look to her work. Austen’s most “English” hero George Knightley is, like her, deeply distrustful of the French, and their affected manners, preferring the honesty of what he describes as “the true English style.” Knightley’s home, Donwell Abbey, is the epitome of what Austen describes as “English verdure, English culture, English comfort.”
Englishness here is being invoked not merely as a description, but as a virtue. And for that reason, I’m afraid, I’d suggest that Austen would have voted for Brexit.
Paula Byrne is the author of “The Real Jane Austen” (Harper Collins) and “Jane Austen and the Theatre” (Hambledon Continuum)
Lord Byron Benjamin Markovits
Byron was the most European of the big-name Romantics. Wordsworth had his French adventure; and Keats travelled to Rome. But they were essentially tourists. Shelley drowned in the Gulf of Spezia and often overlapped with Byron’s travels, but never conveyed the same sense of decisively setting up shop in pastures new.
His first success, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” was a versed-up travelogue of his post-Cambridge Grand Tour. He set off again, in 1816, after the end of both his marriage and his affair with his half-sister. He never went back. More than any contemporary, his work conveys a sense that the Continent mattered. He borrowed the verse form of Don Juan, his greatest poem, from Pulci; and, the philosophy of Manfred, his greatest play, from Goethe. Europe later repaid the compliment, keeping his reputation alive when it could have fizzled out at home.
It made for a complex relationship to Britain—and a feeling of being cut off from home. He writes about it disparagingly or nostalgically, sometimes both at once: “England, with all thy faults I love thee still…” The hero of his last great work was Spanish, but—revealingly—when Byron died, Don Juan was still messing around in English country houses.
He died fighting for Greece and had previously risked his neck for Italian independence, too: “Only think—a free Italy!”, which he called “the very poetry of politics.” Would he have felt the same about British “independence”? Possibly not, but then his passions were sometimes contradictory. ‘If I am sincere with myself,’ he wrote, “every page should confute, refute and utterly abjure its predecessor.” Nor would he have been excited by Brussels and the EU: he was suspicious of what he called “systems.”
In the end it would have come down to his friendships. His circle in Cambridge and Parliament were Whigs, and even though he became disillusioned with Napoleon and the French Revolution, he belonged to a class that saw itself as outward-looking, European, “men of the world” and would have “Remained.” Especially if it would have annoyed his mother-in-law.
Benjamin Markovits is the author of three novels about Lord Byron
Florence Nightingale Mark Bostridge
She was a European both by birth (born in her namesake city in 1820) and by conviction. As a young woman she travelled widely in Italy and France. She was in Europe during the revolutionary uprisings of 1848 and was imbued with the excitement surrounding the movement for Italian unification. In her work on hospitals and midwifery practice she drew on data from all of Europe, learning much on hospital safety, for example, from the French. After her nursing school opened at St Thomas’ Hospital in 1860, she organised the training of nurses from Germany, Sweden and Finland, mentoring them and sending them advice when they returned home.
Nightingale, unusually free for her time from any prejudice against individuals on account of their colour, religious beliefs, or nationality, would have been better placed than most to recognise now how vital the continuing employment of European Union nationals in our hospitals is to the survival of the NHS. Above all she was a strong believer in co-operation across international boundaries. In her day this had to be done on an ad hoc basis. But she’d have seen that as all the more reason to support 20th-century bodies like the United Nations, World Health Organisation, and of course the EU.
She would, above all, have regarded the EU as important for the avoidance of war. In the absence of an overarching forum concerned with international relations, she was very troubled by the harsh reparations exacted from France at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and correctly saw that this would lead to further strife, as it did in 1914-18.
While Florence Nightingale was never much exercised by the prospect of a woman’s right to the vote—she put her name to suffrage petitions but was never comfortable with the idea of “rights” for her sex—we can safely assume that the referendum would have spurred her to get to the polls this June. And there can be no doubt that she would have voted remain.
Mark Bostridge’s biography “Florence Nightingale: The Woman and Her Legend” (Penguin) was published in 2008
Arthur Ransome Roland Chambers
Would Arthur Ransome have voted Brexit? Pipe smoker, freshwater pirate and owner of the largest marmalade-coloured moustache in children’s literature. Or would he have gone the other way, recalling his days as a journalist in Russia, long before Swallows and Amazons was written? The Ransome who once supported the most aggressively supra-national political movement in history: the Bolshevik Revolution.
Between 1917 and Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924, Ransome was notorious. In Whitehall, civil servants called for his prosecution. In Washington, he was the subject of a senatorial investigation. Recruited to MI6 because of his contacts at the Kremlin, no other British journalist was so close to the Bolshevik elite. His closest friend in Moscow was Karl Radek, the Bolshevik propaganda chief, while his lover and future wife was Leon Trotsky’s private secretary.
Ransome never called for global revolution, but he was an internationalist. He supported the Soviet template for peace in Europe. He attended the inauguration of the Third International and applauded it, even if his article for the Guardian shrank from quoting its guiding principle: to fight “by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international Soviet republic.”
He was against narrow parochialism in other settings, too—the parochialism that had triggered the war and condemned the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles. He supported the League of Nations, only objecting that it lacked teeth.
Ransome claimed to love what he called “The Real England” but hated the “blind folly” that scuppered compromise with its natural allies. If David Lloyd George had held a referendum in 1919, asking Britons if they wanted to join with Europe in building a new and safer federation of sovereign interests, I think Ransome would have said yes. Yes to peace and no to war.
Roland Chamber’s biography “The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome” was published in 2010
John Maynard Keynes Robert Skidelsky
John Maynard Keynes would have been conflicted by the referendum. Culture pulled him towards Europe; politics and especially the continent’s current austerity economics would have pushed him increasingly away.
Churchill talked about the “three majestic circles” of the Commonwealth, the United States and Europe. But over Keynes’s lifetime, the reality was that Britain was firmly locked into only two of them: the special relationship with the US, and its own imperial preference system. Keynes resented Britain’s dependence on America and he never saw imperial preference other than as a bargaining chip, but he did not see Europe as replacing either of them.
Like Churchill, Keynes supported the idea of some sort of European Union to avert another war. He looked forward to a European federation of independent states forming an economic and currency unit. But the point was he did not see Britain as part of it.
Would he have later endorsed Harold Macmillan’s original application for membership of the European Economic Community in 1962 and the terms eventually negotiated by Edward Heath in 1972? Possibly. But there is nothing in his own history to suggest that he would have accepted unconditionally the four freedoms of capital, goods, services and labour—which after the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 came to define the European project. Indeed, he envisaged capital controls as a necessary and permanent part of the international monetary system.
And he would certainly have wanted to keep Britain out of the eurozone. Because, above all, he would have wanted to retain the commitment to full employment. If this was not possible at the European level, and he would have doubted if there was enough theoretical and institutional support for this, then national policy must be free to secure it.
So Keynes would have been on the cusp: the problem, as in the early 1930s, was that the right kind of people had the wrong ideas, and the wrong kind of people at least some of the right ideas. And today Europe has yet to produce someone of the stature of Franklin D Roosevelt, capable of bridging the divide.
Robert Skidelsky is the author of “Keynes: The Return of the Master” (Penguin, 2010) and more recently, “Keynes: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman” (Penguin, 2013)
George Orwell DJ Taylor
I have a hunch what George Orwell would write …
It is said that William Thackeray’s father-in-law, when living in Paris in the 1830s, christened his dog “Waterloo” so that he could have the pleasure of annoying his fellow Parisians by calling for him in the street. James Carmichael-Smyth, it should be pointed out, was a paid-up Francophile who was said to regard France as his “home.” This story has always seemed to me a neat little parable of our curiously equivocal relationship with continental Europe: one of those dreadful on-off love-affairs which are always going wrong and where smiles and soft words are invariably followed by black looks and thrown crockery.
In the case of Anglo-European relations, the problem is unquestionably made worse by one of our most engrained national characteristics—the average Englishman’s infallible habit of kicking against the official “line” preached to him by the authorities. In this spirit the troops who departed for Flanders in 1914 came back distrusting their allies, the French, while rather respecting the Germans, whose courage they admired. It was the same in 1945 when one of the most unpopular men in Europe—at any rate in English eyes—was Charles de Gaulle.
I hold no brief for the Brexiteers. I am a European: the greatest days of my life, as it happens, were spent on the streets of Barcelona. But it is a fact that the Englishman who looks at the grand panjandrums of the European Union en galere sees only a group of people who would be hilarious if they were not sinister—what could be more absurd than the spectacle of M Juncker?
No doubt the nationalism displayed by all the people in the Sunderland council houses was contemptible, but you have a queer feeling that in many cases nationalism was all they had left.
It is also worth asking what the EU has done for socialism or working-class solidarity—if such a concept still exists in the 21st century—and the answer is about as much as Donald Trump has done for the notion of civilised behaviour in public life. Naturally, most of the ordinary people who voted no did not do so to register a thumbs up for equality and fraternity. They did so to express their profound disillusionment with a system that holds them in approximately the same regard that a dog holds its fleas. Holding my nose against the stink that rose from the demagogues urging them on, I imagine that I would probably have voted with them.
DJ Taylor’s biography of George Orwell “Orwell: A Life” (Vintage) was published in 2003
Winston Churchill Sonia Purnell
Politicians like to scour Winston Churchill’s words for handy gobbets that prove their prejudices to themselves and their target voters. Never was this truer than during the referendum campaign when both sides scrambled to claim him as supporter-in-chief.
On the question of Europe, Churchill, of course, can no longer tell us what he really meant or how it might apply now. It’s a pity, because he often sounded self-contradictory. How to reconcile, for instance, his 1930 pronouncement that “we are with Europe but not of it” with his 1946 declaration that “we must build a kind of United States of Europe”? The answer is surely that the world had changed, and so did his outlook.
For him the Second World War drew an impassable red line. Millions had died on what he called “this noble continent” because of German aggression, and later Russia posed a whole new threat. Out of necessity, Britain, the one-time global super-power, was already sharing its sovereignty in the field of defence with America and soon also Nato. By 1950 Churchill was arguing that “inter-dependence is… the means of our salvation.” “National sovereignty” was “not inviolable,” but “may be resolutely diminished for the sake of all the men in all the lands finding their way home together.” European nations thus had to unite, he insisted, and “it will be far better for us to take part in the discussions than to stand outside and let events drift without us.” And indeed, he inspired the creation of the Council of Europe, which underpins Europe’s system of human rights.
A determined Brexiteer may nonetheless insist that the EEC was a distinct and later project, and argue Churchill would never have signed the Treaty of Rome. They could fairly point to his reliably nostalgic patriotism, and also to the contrast he made between the “United States of Europe” he envisaged for the Continent, with the Commonwealth, which implied that the two would stay separate.
Ultimately, however, Churchill was an instinctive internationalist, a fervent believer in alliances, summits and personal chemistry between leaders. If there was a conference, he wanted to be at it. The fight against isolationism was one of the constants of his life, whatever the political weather. It seems clear that Brexit for Churchill would have been a dangerous step in the wrong direction in the world as it exists now.
Sonia Purnell is the biographer of Boris Johnson and Clementine Churchill
Oscar Wilde Matthew Sturgis
A Dublin-born Irishman, who saw himself as an heir to the Ancient Greeks, who spent time in Italy, who could read German (despite anxieties that reading German made one look plain), who not only lived but also died in France, he was thoroughly European in his outlook and sympathies. He even once threatened to take up French citizenship, after the Lord Chamberlain refused a licence to his play Salomé (written in French).
He would, though, have counseled against holding a referendum on such an emotive subject in the first place, a subject where gut-feeling and prejudice were always likely to trump argument and analysis. He was always conscious (as David Cameron was not) that “If one puts forward an idea…