Over the last 2,000 years we've never been able to make up our mindsby Simon Jenkins / April 1, 2019 / Leave a comment
410: The first Brexit—enforced detachment
After three and a half centuries of Roman rule, Britannia is declared “on your own” by the emperor Honorius. He withdrew his legions to defend Gaul. Britannia is left on Europe’s fringe throughout the Dark Ages. Its sovereignty is restored, sort of. But the arrival of Augustine from Rome precipitates the first Euro-referendum, at the Synod of Whitby in 664. The Ionans of Lindisfarne are defeated, and victory goes to Wilfrid of Ripon and the pro-Rome faction. England agrees to join Europe’s Catholic community under the authority of the Pope. For a millennium it becomes a faith-taker not a faith-maker.
1016: The second Brexit—The first Norwegian option
Following the Viking invasion, a Saxon monarchy with ancestral roots in the heart of the continent is usurped, as Canute is crowned in London and England joins his Scandinavian empire. It is a proto-EFTA, trading with the Baltics and Russia. But it does not last. Before long the Saxons have wrestled the throne back, and then, in 1066, Harold of England is defeated by William the Conqueror, who carries the pope’s emblem and blessing into battle. England submits to the sovereignty of Norman Europe. The English court speaks French, and the church speaks Latin. Under Henry II, England is a cross-Channel political entity and a European land, from “the Cheviots to the Pyrenees.”
1453: The third Brexit—Beating a Bretreat
This Norman/Plantagenet union drags on into the 15thcentury, until it is shattered at the end of the Hundred Years’ War, at Castillon in 1453, triggering the first emphatic Brexit. England’s armies depart the continent. Its language, culture and art diverge from France. Architecture finds an English gothic. Yet within half a century, England’s crown cannot resist crossing the Channel again. Henry VII marries both his sons to Catherine of Aragon, sister of the future Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. In 1520 Henry VIII flirts with Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. He champions Rome against Luther, and the pope crowns him defender of the faith. England is European again.
1534: The fourth Brexit—Can’t deal, won’t deal, no deal
But not for long. Within 15 years, Henry breaks with Rome over his divorce from Catherine. His Act of Supremacy is the first statutory Brexit, and it is a hard one. It puts the king in place of the pope as head of the English church and dissolves Europe’s monastic houses. England refuses to liaise with the north European Reformation, and is absent from the councils of Augsburg and Trent. Two attempts to lure us back—Philip of Spain’s marrying Mary I, followed by the Armada—both fail. All England cares for is trade deals with the rest of the world, much of it buccaneering and piracy. Yet by 1704, it cannot resist being drawn into the War of the Spanish Succession against Louis XIV. When Marlborough and European allies rout the Sun King’s forces at Blenheim, Queen Anne becomes a convinced continental.
1715: The fifth Brexit—The British Empire and the deep blue sea
Britain (now including Scotland) is bitterly divided over the latest return to Europe, and through the peace treaties hammered out in Utrecht it reasserts Brexit anew. In 1734 Walpole tells Queen Caroline “there are 50,000 men slain this year in Europe, and not one an Englishman.” Pitt the Elder later agrees. He calls involvement in Europe “dangerous to our liberties and destructive to our trade,” not least in slaves. After the French Revolution, Britain refuses to join Europe’s alliance against France. The battle of Trafalgar is fought strictly to stave off invasion, and the battle of Copenhagen to protect Baltic trade. Not until 1815 does Britain finally offer up Wellington to command coalition forces at Waterloo. But after that happens, Castlereagh suddenly finds himself playing a leading role in the Congress of Vienna and the “concert of Europe.” Britain gets a taste for punching above its weight. This Breturn culminates in the Crimean War of 1853, and an obsession with containing Russia.
1878: The sixth Brexit—On which the sun was never meant to set
Disraeli brags to Bismarck that Britain is “no longer a mere European power… more an Asiatic one.” At the 1878 Congress of Berlin, he is much less concerned about the continent than the security of imperial trade routes. His successor, Lord Salisbury goes further and advocates “splendid isolation,” rejecting meddling in the affairs of foreign lands, not least on the continent, as “universally condemned by history.” His European policy is to “drift lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a boathook to avoid collision.” Never was Brexit made more explicit than in the pomp of empire. This lasts until 1914. An old and half-forgotten guarantee of Belgian security draws British soldiers back to the continent in an act of mass collective security, “the war to end wars.” Britain is emphatically back in Europe.
1924: The seventh Brexit—Faraway countries of which we know nothing
Or is it? Stanley Baldwin wins an election on a platform of “tranquillity and freedom from adventures and commitments both at home and abroad.” It will never again be the “policeman of the world.” Baldwin later refuses to rearm or confront European Fascism. Chamberlain then describes Hitler’s aggression as “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing,” an intensely popular view. It was Brexit at its most dangerous. In 1939 all Europe explodes and re-entry is hardly controversial. As war progresses, Churchill toys with a union of Britain and France and even a United States of Europe.
1957: The eighth Brexit—An opt-out nation from the off
By now Britain has left the management of a new West Germany to the Americans and the Macmillan government refuses to sign the Treaty of Rome. It is insistent that Britain’s trade deals with the empire are paramount. Europe is furious, regarding the Common Market as a natural extension of the post-war alliance, a step towards “ever closer union.” But in 1961, an identity crisis ongoing since Suez leads Macmillan to change his mind. The empire is subject to “the wind of change,” and the country risks losing its place at the top table. It applies to join the Common Market, and after two French vetoes finally does so in 1973, confirmed in a 1975 referendum. Thatcher, strongly pro-European, becomes champion of the 1986 Single European Act, “a single market without barriers… with direct and unhindered access… to 300m of the world’s wealthiest people.”
2016: The ninth Brexit—Brexistentionalism, hard or soft
The last Breturn lasts almost half a century. But a rising tide of Tory Euro-hostility follows Thatcher’s “no, no, no” to Jacques Delors’s ever-closer union. This is followed by John Major’s opt-outs from Maastricht in 1992. Ukip gains strength and scares David Cameron into a referendum. Britain votes to leave, half-heartedly, but cannot decide on a hard or soft departure, or even a final date… Then in, let’s say, 2021 it decides to hold another referendum, which votes narrowly not to leave after all, but to stay and “reform” the EU. Europe is deeply worried. No one is happy—and never will be…
You see the point. When politics screams and tears its hair out, history offers a comfort blanket. Calm down, it says, we’ve been here before. What lessons can we learn?
Geography is the tyrant of history. Britain can leave Europe as often as it likes, but it still lives next door. Throughout history it has teased, taunted, exploited and ignored its continental neighbours. The most emphatic attachments have been to Europe as a cultural or economic entity, from the Synod of Whitby to the Common Market. The most emphatic Brexits have come when that entity becomes too strong and injurious to national identity, from Henry VIII’s papacy to the eurocrats of Brussels.
Britain has often bonded with Europe after the continent has descended into bloody chaos or fallen under a tyrant—Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler. Yet each time the bonds of necessity loosened, the seductive lure of the deep blue sea and global trade reasserted themselves. Since Elizabeth I, the idea of “making trade deals with the rest of the world” has seemed embedded in the national DNA. A maritime empire detached Britain mentally from the continent. As under the Pitts, so today: linguistic ties to America and the commonwealth seem more compelling.
It is this backstory that explains the bizarre U-turns of recent decades, which are hard to explain by which party’s in charge. In the 1950s, the Tories turned against the European union out of imperial nostalgia, while Labour saw it as a capitalist plot. The Tories then joined the EEC out of a fear that empire and America were no longer sufficient for national pride. Thatcher championed a single market, but then un-championed it as a super-state.
All history teaches, as Bismarck said, is that history teaches nothing. But we can take comfort in its changeability. As so often before, the battlefield of European history is due for a change. New pressures will emerge, from Russian chauvinism, immigration or a eurozone collapse. New cross-Channel deals will—somehow, someday—be struck, although it is anyone’s guess which side will take the initiative. All that is for sure is that goodbye today means hello tomorrow.