Amidst all the talk of an in/out referendum on UK membership of the EU, people seem to have forgotten that the British have never truly felt themselves part of ‘Europe’ at all. The word is shorthand in British discourse for all manner of continent-related threats and opportunities, depending on era and speaker. What unites all their understandings, however, is the difficulty they have encountered in defining a clear, consistent and practical approach to continental affairs based on a coherent notion of British identity.
Rehearsed ad nauseam in every European speech by British prime ministers for decades and more, the British still seem unable to define their national identity with respect to a European project which is more often than not represented as being ‘over there’. Britain’s self-defined role as ‘balancer’ located outside Europe was quite well established in the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. London schemed against a variety of continental enemies from the Spanish to the Austrians and latterly the French, reserving its energies for the more exciting tasks of conquering the rest of the world.
The rise to prominence of a major existential threat in the form of Germany in the twentieth century brought home to the British the rectitude of Conservative prime minister Austen Chamberlain’s 1930 observation that splendid isolation could be no guarantee of security, especially if one had no friends but lots of enemies. After 1945, with America firmly in place as an influential ally, not to mention Western Europe’s security guarantor in NATO and economic saviour via the 1947 Marshall Plan, Britain drew a very different set of lessons about the conduct of international politics from former continental adversaries and allies alike.
Despite sudden and chaotic decolonization, along with Washington nudging Britain in a European direction, memories of Britain’s global pre-eminence were never very far from the surface of British political debate or cultural repertoire. Contemperaneous talks on Britain’s nostalgia for former glories indicate the impact ‘History lessons patriotic in design’ had on holding the British back from carving out a niche in the European circle. Britain’s ‘semi-detached’ continental role was confirmed when it stayed out of the EEC, only to be pushed into trying to board the bus in the 1960's by a combination of economic forces and reluctant recognition of its post-Suez crisis fall from the top rank of global powers.
The aspiration to remain seated at the top table, however, was never scotched. It was evident, for example, in Labor prime minister’s Harold Wilson’s judgement that the UK should join the EEC ‘not for the economic benefits…but to preserve Britain’s position as an important international power, and keep it involved in the inner circle of diplomatic and strategic affairs’. In this view, Britain’s global strategy remained intact, but new tactics were needed to realize it. ‘Interfering’ in Europe might be necessary after all.
The “traditional” explanation for the British public’s discomfort with membership of the European Union relies on an analysis that sees Britain in terms of its apparent exceptionalism. This exceptionalism has many variations, but essentially is based on a claim that a relatively small island off the mainland of Europe has produced writers, inventors, merchants and warriors in a far greater proportion to its population than have other similar nations. This in turn led, so the argument goes, to the creation of an Empire ''upon which the sun never set''.( This is a perception, not a statement of historical fact).
Even before the “End of Empire” there was the second world war and the “special relationship” – at least that’s what it is known as on this side of the Atlantic. The alliance between Britain and the United States during World War II was certainly a crucial one and close ties were established between Churchill and Roosevelt that were later imitated, and perhaps surpassed, by Thatcher and Reagan, Blair and Clinton and, improbably, Blair and George W. Bush.
Thus the combination of the memory of Empire and the desire to cling to the special relationship made the UK an uncomfortable European bedfellow, something recognized by Charles de Gaulle when he vetoed British membership in 1963 and again in 1967.
For much of the country it might have done but for the Conservatives, the discomfort remained. Margaret Thatcher’s difficulties with Europe probably best encapsulated the ambiguities of those who felt that Britain’s former “imperial” role and its present, supposedly special relationship meant that it was not just another member of the European but, somehow, should be treated differently.
And although this was not a view shared by any of her European partners, Margaret Thatcher’s strident protestations, both loud and long, enabled her to win a number of concessions and opt-outs that succeeded in boosting this notion of British “exceptionalism”. But that school of thinking continued to irritate and cause problems, not just for Thatcher but also for the long line of Tory leaders who succeeded her; that is until David Cameron.
David Cameron's modernizing drive appeared to have put the European issue to bed (so to speak) but as the events of the last few months have demonstrated, the discomfort continues to irritate. The recent rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is little more than this discomfort writ large and the adjectives often applied to UKIP and its supporters – “xenophobic”, “little Englanders” and on occasion “racist” – can be seen as just the ugly projections of the end of empire/special relationship mindset.
Britain’s European policy debates are still themed around the legacy of its past as an extra-European actor with clear but infrequently articulated European interests – strategically, politically and economically. This has resulted in a conglomeration of rhetoric and practices which are as confusing to the politicians selling them as they are to the public consuming them.
On the one hand ‘in’ Europe, on the other not ‘run’ by it. On the one hand an exceptional ‘island fortress’, on the other a European security guarantor. On the one hand a deeply European heritage, on the other a global outlook focussing on the Commonwealth and the ‘special relationship’. If the 2017 referendum result is ‘out’, it might be contrary to British interests, but it would at least be true to dominant cultural constructions of Britain’s self-identity as an international actor.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Researcher at The ''De MontFort University''