To understand why Brexit is a phenomenon, we must look at the history of Britain’s love-hate relationship with the Continent.
The British exit from European Union (Brexit) has been an issue that has hogged a great deal of the world’s attention since 2015. The long period of uncertainty finally culminated with Britain formally withdrawing from the EU after 47 years on 31 January. This materialised some three-and-a- half years after the completion of the referendum in which the British voters opted for “Leave”.
Popular will challenging Parliamentary sovereignty
Brexit has also been a source of considerable political uncertainty in recent times within UK, having caused the downfall of two recent British PMs - David Cameron and Theresa May. The issue was also unique in that it actually compelled the British government to implement an action (in this case ‘exit’ from the Union) which the political establishment did not wholeheartedly endorse. A remarkable instance where the will of the people challenged the sovereignty of the Parliament.
This is best summed up by a few numbers. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 52 per cent of the voters in Britain voted to ‘Leave’ EU, triggering the Brexit process. However, 73 per cent of the sitting MPs (including 56 per cent of the ruling Conservative party MPs) were for ‘Remain’ as shown below.
So, Brexit was a challenge that is unique in British constitutional history, where Parliament was dictated to by the electorate. Given this conflict between the preference of working politicians (across parties) and the people’s will, implementing Brexit proved to be a massive challenge with a two-year withdrawal process that met with multiple extensions.
So that's the brief background, which is familiar to most. In the survey below, we use this momentous occasion to reflect on British history and its complicated relationship with the Continent (Europe) over the past two millennia.
Let’s start by asking some questions —
1. Is Britain a part of Europe? Or is it not? What makes it distinct from Europe?
2. What prompted European integration in the first place?
3. Why was Britain aloof to the idea of Europe at the start, before coming around to it?
4. Why wasn't there a major groundswell opposition to British entry into the European community in the early 70s?
5. Why has Euro-scepticism grown in Britain over time?
6. What triggered the popular wave in Britain against Europe in the present decade?
Questions that require us to dig deep into the past.
Let’s start by addressing the first question – should we even regard Britain as part of Europe? What has been its relationship with the Continent over the past 2,000 years.
Early History: Roman Britain
As is well known, Britain is separated from mainland Europe by the sea, which serves as a moat of sorts. Here's how the white cliffs of Dover look when viewed from the French coast. This was likely the view that Julius Caesar had of Britain when he launched his invasion circa 55 BCE. At that point, Britain was regarded as the edge of the ‘known world’.
The invasion was not wholly successful. But despite resistance from the native warlike Brits (of Celtic stock), Britain eventually fell to Rome some 100 years later (between 40 and 80 CE) during the reigns of emperors Claudius and Vespasian.
What followed was a period of British history when it was very much a part of the Roman Empire. Its high culture was that of Rome. It was very much part of Europe. Even a patriot like Winston Churchill, recalling the events of 1st century CE, 2,000 years later, wrote approvingly of Roman invasion of Britain in his “History of the English Speaking Peoples”:
For nearly three hundred years, Britain, reconciled to the Roman system, enjoyed in many respects, the happiest, most comfortable and most enlightened times its inhabitants had ever had.
We owe London to Rome. The military engineers of Claudius, the bureaucracy which directed the supply of the armies, the merchants who followed in their wake, brought it into a life not yet stilled. Trade followed the development of their road system. An extensive and well-planned city with mighty walls took the place of the wooden trading settlement of AD 61, and soon achieved a leading place in the life of the Roman province of Britain.
The Roman idyll was shattered in the fifth century CE when the Empire collapsed in the mainland, and Britain itself was invaded by the Saxons, the Jutes and the Angles - the progenitors of the English-speaking culture, which dominates the island today.
But in the centuries that followed, the interaction with Southern Europe remained frequent and considerable. The influence of Christianity largely stemmed from Europe. An example being St Augustine of Canterbury, an Italian who succeeded in converting King Ethelbert of Kent. The great English historian Bede in the early 8th century, wrote his major work in Latin, a language of Southern Europe. Not in Old English!
So, the country's elite saw themselves not in terms of isolation, but as receivers of a high culture that was largely European.
Post Norman conquest in 1066 CE, the influence of the mainland grew. It did not wane. In fact, long after the conquest, the Norman kings remained thoroughly Norman and French in their culture. Not English. The kings spoke in French, though the population they lorded over spoke mostly English. The first Norman king to speak English was Henry IV (1367 to 1413), a good 200+ years after the Norman conquest of the land.
It was also a period of the English language's evolution, when it got Latinized enormously because of the influence of the ruling French elite. The huge continental influence on language is indicated below - note how many of the common ‘English’ words are Norman borrowings.
The point to note is that Britain was mostly a ‘receiver’ as opposed to a radiator of culture back in that period. The orientation of the ruling elite was also towards the Continent, as evidenced by the 100-years war with France (from 1337 to 1453).
However, the Hundred Years war was a turning point of sorts in terms of Britain’s relationship with the continent. The War was between the English Norman kings and the mainland French royalty (House of Valois) over the right to rule France. A war that eventually settled in favour of France. Following the war, the British claims on France were dropped. It could be said that starting 15th century, the monarchy became more England-focused, and shed its continental orientation in policy.
Turning English: The Rise of England under Tudors
With the rise of the Tudor dynasty, England emerged as a very distinct nation, defined by its exceptionalism. English was now the language not merely of the people, but also that of the elite. The exceptionalism soon extended to religion, when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church (partly driven by personal reasons) turning the Anglican Church independent of Rome.
By the end of the 16th century, England was also a major naval power, excelling just about every Continental power. The maritime supremacy was declared by the decisive victory of the English fleets over Spanish Armada (which had hoped to invade England).
17th – 19th centuries: Shift in focus from Europe to Asia/Americas
What followed in the 17th and early 18th centuries was a period when Britain's orientation shifted increasingly towards the Americas and Asia, and less so towards Europe, where France and Spain were the leading powers. The North American colonization started in the late 16th century and picked steam in the 17th century. As the 18th century progressed, British interests in Asia grew, where it vied hard with France and Netherlands for greater influence and leverage in the Indian subcontinent.
So, we can think of the period starting in the 16th century right up to early 20th century as an aberration in British history. A period of three centuries, when it saw itself as mostly distinct from Europe - with an orientation towards the sea and distant lands as opposed to the Continent.
The British empire, of course, expanded to engulf nearly 1/4th of the world's land area by late 19th century, notwithstanding the setback of losing United States in the 1780s.
Its interest in Europe was hardly as strong during this period, as compared to the deep interest it had back in the 1300s when its kings still spoke French, and nursed ambitions of ruling France!
It was also a period of British confidence, when Great Britain was a ‘leader’ showing the way to Europe in technology, culture, science, as opposed to the ‘follower’ role it had played from 0 to 1500 CE.
But what’s worth emphasizing is that this phase of Great Britain’s greatest ascendance (18th-19th centuries) was also a phase when it viewed itself as distinct from Europe and remained relatively uninterested in the affairs of the Continent.
Early 20th century: The German challenge
Now let’s jump to the twentieth century. The century began well for Britain, but it faced a challenger now – Germany. Britain no longer had the huge advantage in industry and military might it enjoyed circa 1850. Germany was the new kid on the block after the 1871 unification - challenging Britain in colonial ambitions and in economic might.
German ambition was the key trigger for the great global conflict of 1914 when it was handed a defeat by Britain and its allies (France and United States). But the humiliation proved too much for Germany to bear, causing it to emerge yet again in a more virulent avatar led by Hitler in the 1930s. Yet again, Britain managed to hold its own, and defeat Germany with Allied support.
But these long wars took a major toll. Not just on Britain but on the Continent. The second world war triggered a process of decolonization, and Britain ceased to be an empire by the 1960s.
Postwar: Continental weariness with nationalism
On the Continent, the World War II created a disillusionment among the elite towards the very idea of nationalism. Nationalism had triggered the rise of Nazis and Fascists. It had cost 60MM lives - the total casualties in WW2. The Post war elite at least in Europe were a weary lot and sought supra-national co-operation among all major European powers and a weakened sense of national identity. But this weariness with nationalism was not quite shared by Britain. The British saw themselves as having ‘rescued’ Europe. And credited their patriotism for that.
So, this marks the first major schism in the attitude towards Europe in Britain vs Continent. The Continent saw Europe as the way out of virulent nationalism, while Britain retained its imperial pride and its patriotism, notwithstanding the loss of Empire.
The Birth of European Union
In the year 1950, the idea of Europe took its incipient form through the Schuman Declaration.
A declaration conceived by a Franco-German diplomat, Robert Schuman, which sought to place French and German production of coal and steel under one common High Authority
This Declaration was the seed that eventually gave rise to the Treaty of Rome (1957), and the ‘European Community’ which later evolved into the European Union we know today.
But what prompted this ‘Declaration’ was a certain fatigue with nationalism, and fear of Germany - the fear that German industry might propel German re-armament and a renewed conflict with France.
So, Schuman's key idea was - Military and diplomatic treaties are insufficient to ensure world peace. What's needed is a form of economic union where the European community consciously keeps German ambitions in check.
He said so almost explicitly in the text of the Declaration
The coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany. Any action taken must in the first place concern these two countries.
The text continued saying:
proposes to place Franco-German production of coal and steel under one common High Authority in an organisation open to the participation of other countries of Europe The pooling of coal and steel production will immediately assure the establishment of common bases for economic development as a first step for the European Federation. It will change the destiny of regions that have long been devoted to manufacturing munitions of war, of which they have been most constantly the victims.
Clearly the underlying fear was that of a resurgent Germany. A need was felt for a federation of Europe to check Franco-German antagonism.
Even a British conservative like Churchill shared this need for the ‘Europe’ project, as evidenced by his speech at Zurich in 1946, where he voiced his hope for a ‘United States of Europe”. Here are some excerpts –
I am now going to say something that will astonish you. The first step in the re-creation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany. In this way only can France recover the moral and cultural leadership of Europe. There can be no revival of Europe without a spiritually great France and a spiritually great Germany. The structure of the United States of Europe will be such as to make the material strength of a single State less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by a contribution to the common cause. The ancient States and principalities of Germany, freely joined for mutual convenience in a federal system, might take their individual places among the United States of Europe.
British entry into the European Community
The incipient European Coal and Steel Community comprised of just six nations - Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany. Britain was not a part of it. Nor was there a clamour from Europe seeking Britain to be part of it.
Within Britain, ironically enough, it was the Labour party and the Left in general that was strongly opposed to Britain joining the Community. Clement Attlee summed up his aversion to Europe with this quip much later in 1967, when the Coal and Steel Community had evolved into a “common market”
The so-called Common market of six nations. Know them all well. Very recently this country spent a great deal of blood and treasure rescuing four of them from attacks of the other two.
But as the 60s wore on, the British interest in joining the ‘European Community’ grew, though the public was indifferent to the idea. The ‘Community’ held the promise of a common market which was enticing. An attempt was made by Harold Macmillan's Conservative Government in the early 60s, but spurned by France.
Eventually Britain did join in 1973, notwithstanding widespread opposition to it within Britain. Now what caused the opposition?
The elites on one hand sort of gravitated towards Europe, given the urge not to be left out of this ‘federation’ which could gang up against Britain if it remained isolated. But others saw Europe as a net negative.
In part, this stemmed from three factors –
1. In the 60s, Britain's economy was very distinct from that of the great European nations. Britain had a very efficient agricultural sector, unlike France or Italy. But its industrial sector was less competitive relative to Germany’s.
One important feature of the European Community was the ‘Common Agricultural Policy’ wherein the member nations would support high prices for farming produce from fellow members. This meant British consumers subsidizing the inefficient French, Italian farmers through higher prices.
2. The second reason pertained to the fear of being overwhelmed by German industrial might. As the 60s wore on, Germany was distinctly more competitive than British industry. So, opening up to the “European Community” nations would be less of an opportunity but more of a threat to British industry.
3. There was this underlying fear that the Europe project will eventually lead to legislation on all matters from Brussels that will override the British parliamentary legislation, undermining national sovereignty
While all three fears were legitimate, they were not strong enough to cause a Brexit in 1975 when the Labour government called for a referendum (under pressure from its anti-Europe base). The country voted 2:1 in favour of Remain.
Growth of Euro-scepticism in the 80s/90s
But as the 80s wore on, the popular angst against EU grew, as it was increasingly seen as a supra-national legislative body that undermined British sovereignty. It was a period when previously pro-Europe politicians like Margaret Thatcher turned against EU (or EC as it was then).
A good example of how European legislation can undermine Parliament is illustrated by this 1991 case (involving a company called Factortame) - a company of Spanish fishermen claimed British government was breaching European law by requiring ships in UK to have majority British ownership.
Britain also joined the ‘Exchange rate mechanism’ in 1990, another European project, which was the precursor to Euro, which required member nations to peg their currencies to each other. But the experiment was disastrous to Britain when there was a run on the pound in 1992, forcing it to leave the ERM and letting the pound float. This further strengthened the view of Eurosceptics in Britain that EU as an idea was not working too well for Britain.
So clearly, the European project now had assumed the ambitions of being a political, economic and military union - something that it did not necessarily harbour at the time of the Schuman declaration in 1950. This was formally voiced in the Copenhagen criteria articulated in 1993 as the bare minimum for new member nations –
Membership requires that candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union. Membership presupposes the candidate’s ability to take on the obligations of membership including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union”
Notice the criteria in bold - three things, none of which Britain favoured though it was an existing member.
The British disillusionment with Europe was very much a consequence of the expanded scope of European Union in our times relative to the fifties - In the 50s, the Europe project was conceived primarily to ‘check’
Germany. In the 90-00s, it sought to become a government for all Europe.
There was another reason for the growing urge to do away with Europe as the 90s wore on. This had to do with the rise of Britain as an economic force relative to France / Germany in the 80s-90s. In 1973, France was richer than Britain in per-capita terms. A status quo that prevailed even in 1990. But by 2006 the scales had shifted.
Here are some numbers:
The 80s-90s was a period of British rise relative to Germany/France. Britain became more confident that it can do without EU / Common market, and that the negatives of EU outweighed its positives. The decision to move away from ERM also worked out well, vindicating Euroscepticism.
It is true that the years since 2008 have not been too good for the British economy. Germany has stolen a big march since the recession. But it was in the 90s-00s that isolationism picked steam in Britain, probably bolstered by the improved economic fortunes.
Immigration – the trigger for “Brexit”
But the real issue which made ‘Europe’ headline news and prompted Cameron to consider a referendum in a speech in 2013 was of course immigration. But for immigration, all the other ills of Europe and the debates over sovereignty might have been overlooked. Immigration made Brexit a real alternative.
Since 1997 till about 2015, the gross immigration from EU countries to Britain has been 2.25MM. The net figure being 800K. Now 2.25MM is a huge number given that UK's population itself is barely 70MM. Much of this immigration was not from Western Europe but from much poorer Eastern European countries (culturally more dissimilar to UK). So clearly, this was the issue that turned the public against Europe and greatly encouraged the rise of the pro-Brexit UKIP party.
The massive immigration could not be checked while Britain remained a part of EU, and committed to the ideal of free movement of people. So, the Brexit option was the only way to address the concern around immigration.
David Cameron acknowledged the public sentiment in this regard and called for a referendum in a speech in 2013. Though he campaigned for ‘Remain’ (and so did most mainstream leaders), the country voted for ‘Leave’ with a narrow 52 per cent majority.
This brings us to the conclusion of this survey. It is worthwhile to list some takeaways:
While the trigger for Brexit may have been immigration, the opposition to the European idea has always been there. This opposition has many reasons grounded in history.
· Britain is different from Europe. Fundamentally. More ‘national’ and ‘patriotic’ relative to many Continental states where there is an air of apologia around nationalism.
· Britain traditionally has had different economic strengths relative to the Continent. While Germany's forte is in its big industry, Britain has had a much smaller, more efficient agricultural sector. So, it is handicapped by the EU subsidies for Continental agriculture.
· Britain's polity has seen greater continuity since medieval times. The development of its institutions are more ‘evolutionary’ while the Continent has seen more ‘revolutions’. This makes Britain more averse to challenges to its sovereignty unlike France / Germany where the nations are much younger, and pride in traditional national institutions much lower.
· Great Britain’s greatest phase as a world power was in the 18th / 19th centuries – a period when it was relatively aloof from the affairs of Europe and instead equipped with a strong outward orientation towards Asia and Americas.
· Lastly, Britain retains a certain 19th century hangover, with a strong predilection towards the Commonwealth and more broadly the English-speaking world, be it US, Australia, New Zealand, even India. Europe seems more alien to it culturally.
In contrast, a country like Germany entered the colonial race much later. German ‘nationalism’ had unfortunate consequences and two world war defeats. So, patriotism / sovereignty are weaker selling points to the German public given its disastrous setbacks in early 20th century.
Critics of Brexit see the event as indicative of British withdrawal from the world.
An event symbolic of the gradual transformation of Great Britain into “Little England”. However, this survey takes the view that the idea of Britain in a European federation is contrary to British national character.
If one takes the long view of history, this exit is very much consistent with the spirit of British exceptionalism relative to the continent – an exceptionalism that its political class has tried hard to deny for the last half a century.
(The author would like to acknowledge Vernon Bogdanor’s several fine lectures on the topic of Britain and EU that helped inform this survey).