I can no longer remember how I voted in the 1975 Common Market referendum. I do however recall one of my feelings at the time, which was of irritation at those ‘pro-Europeans’ who presented opposition to British membership as necessarily reflecting a narrow and chauvinistic kind of nationalism, born of the ‘xenophobia’ which was supposed to be one of Britain’s – or at least England’s – dominant historical traits. As a historian of Britain’s exploits abroad during the nineteenth century, that struck me as unfair and – more importantly – plain wrong. It’s a difficult and complex calculation to make, but the British may have been no more xenophobic than many other nations, and far less so than – say – the Chinese. On their attitudes towards the European continent in early Victorian times, I published a number of academic articles many years ago which tried to demonstrate this. (One was in Victorian Studies, Summer 1984; another more popular one appeared in History Today, January 1992. Unfortunately I never got round to writing the book about this that I intended. It was to be called Cosmopolis. There is a publisher’s proposal and a couple of chapters of this hidden away somewhere in my attic.) If anyone’s still interested, the evidence is there.
More than that, however, my main objection was to the idea that it was one’s attitude towards or feelings of affinity with the other countries of Europe, alone, which determined how ‘insular’ one was. For two or three hundred years before she joined the Common Market (later EEC, then EU), Britain’s economic and political interests were spread much wider than Europe alone, taking in all the continents of the world, her people travelling, trading and settling there far more extensively than any other nationality, and her commerce depending on her extra-European markets far more than it did on her European ones. This in fact was a crucial material reason why she found her adjustment to Europe after 1971 more difficult and painful than any of her new partners had: they were, all of them, entering a union with their majority markets, Britain with her minority one. (By then the proportion was about 60:40 in favour of the ‘wider world’, though the gap was narrowing.) In this sense Britain was far more ‘internationalist’ than most of her European neighbours, even France, her closest competitor; which could be presented as pretty parochial by comparison.
Of course Britain’s extra-European interests before 1971 are now generally presented as simply ‘imperialist’, which detracts from their internationalist credentials; but this too is misleading and unfair. Of that 60% of Britain’s trade that was done with the ‘wider world’, only a minority was with her colonies or ex-colonies (unless you include the USA), and even the trade done with her colonies was not always ‘colonialist’ in any sensible definition of that word. Britain’s interest in the world outside Europe was emphatically not only a ‘dominating’ one. It was also ‘fair-trade’, scholarly, cultural, social, even simply inquisitive; and it resulted in a far more internationally conscious and knowledgeable domestic opinion, at least in certain circles, than in most other countries. It also wasn’t necessarily ‘racist’. It may have been culturally arrogant – especially in elevating its own versions of Christianity and commerce as being the only true ones – but other ‘races’ could adopt these too. In these senses Britain probably was the most ‘cosmopolitan’ of all societies in the nineteenth century, despite her reputation, even among her own people. But then, we are always doing ourselves down.
The new ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ that succeeded the old Empire, and for some of the most liberal and progressive imperialists was even regarded as the culmination of it, exemplified this. Much devalued in recent years because it seems to counter the logic of the market, and even to imply socialism – common? wealth? – it was warmly regarded by many radical progressives of my generation as a practical illustration of egalitarian multiculturalism; by contrast with which – and this is my main point – the ‘Common Market’ appeared too racially homogeneous for our taste: a ‘white man’s (or person’s) club’. It was the Europhiles who were the narrow chauvinists, even racists. Commonwealthists were the true multiracial internationalists. (I’ve written on this, too, for example in my Empire Ways, just published.) But of course they could not escape the false stigma of ‘imperialism’, which was obviously merited in some cases; and which made it difficult for them to make the internationalist anti-EEC (or whatever) argument.
As I say, I still can’t remember which way I voted in 1975. I know (or I think I do) how I’ll be voting in June. One attraction of the EU to me now (amongst all the drawbacks, like TTIP) is the way it has become more cosmopolitan, domestically, than it was in 1975, as a result of extra-European immigration – to ‘mono-ethnic’ Sweden, for example; making it less of a ‘white’ person’s club now. But though I’ll probably be voting to remain, I won’t assume that those who vote for Brexit are necessarily Little England xenophobes, or disconsolate ex-imperialists. Though I must admit that this might be a more reasonable assumption now than it was then.