I’m told by my Swedish friends that the view over there is that Britain’s current referendum debate is showing her up as ‘the stupidest nation on earth’. This is not primarily because she’s thinking of leaving. Although they would like us to stay in, or so they say – see Der Spiegel’s front cover this week: ‘Bitte geht nicht’ (http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/comment-on-brexit-it-s-smarter-to-stay-a-1096929.html) – Continentals can understand why Britain might not be entirely enamoured of the EU; especially the Swedes, as it happens, who also have their gripes. (See below: https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/brexit-swexit/.) What they are shocked by is the level of our debate. Foreign commentary mainly focuses on David Cameron on the one side, ignoring Corbyn’s far more persuasive arguments entirely, which is of course just what the British press is doing, so we can’t really blame them; and on the three most prominent Brexiteers on the other. Foreigners really can’t comprehend Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove. They’ve long been familiar with ‘English eccentrics’, of course, and even envious of them – Sweden in particular isn’t terribly good at eccentricity – but only as Ealing Comedy characters, and not as real actors in the modern world. The idea that a joker like Boris might become the prime minister of a major European country, if the vote goes right for him, is almost beyond their belief. (Except that they’ve seen it before, of course – in Italy.) That’s how our referendum is played out, certainly in the Swedish papers, and I guess all over the rest of Europe.
The particular issue that puzzles them most, however, is what the Brexiteers want the UK to leave the EU for: that is, where they see her ending up. That question has been raised here in Britain, too, innumerable times. The post-Brexit situation has never been clearly spelled out, with various scenarios being floated, airily, only to be pretty swiftly knocked down. The Norwegian option would still allow a non-EU Britain to trade with her former EU partners, but only at a cost, which would include adherence to the principle of free movement of labour, which of course is the aspect of the EU to which the anti-immigrant Brexiteers most object. So that’s out. Canada’s commercial arrangement with the EU is offered as an alternative, but that would take at least ten years to negotiate. The third solution sometimes suggested is the Swiss one, but apparently there’s something wrong with that too. (And it’s doubtful that Britain compares with Switzerland in many ways. Except their dodgy banks.) So Britain would have to find her own, separate, path. Some Brexiteers embrace this idea proudly. We would return, they say, to the ‘splendid isolation’ that was so beneficial to Britain in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, when she ruled herself – and lots of others – unrestricted by foreign interference, and could make her own choices of trading partners and allies. Which is where I, as a historian, feel I must chip in. (See my Britain, Europe and the World. Delusions of Grandeur, 1983.)
In fact ‘splendid isolation’ was always a myth. For the first half of the nineteenth century Britain was inextricably bound to Europe by what was called the ‘Balance of Power’: a multilateral system of mutual obligations by which European nations were deterred from attacking one another by the likelihood of retribution from all the others, united together. That kept the peace, roughly, for five decades after Waterloo, albeit not in the rest of the world, which was where Britain, France and the other participants in the ‘Balance’ turned their attention, imperially. Back in Europe, the ‘Balance’ broke down in the later nineteenth century, making things ominous for Britain in particular, threatened as she was by the superior armies of first France and then Germany, who were now released from their ‘balancing’ obligations to attack the much weaker Britain if they wished. It was then, and only then – in 1896, to be precise – that the term ‘splendid isolation’ was dreamt up, to seem to make a virtue of necessity: Britain was ‘isolated’ not because the rest of Europe spurned her, but out of choice. It was a bit like the notorious Millwall FC chant: ‘Nobody likes us and we don’t care’. It was widely felt to be dangerous; and was. With this particular ‘union’ dismantled, Europe divided into two rival camps, in the bilateral system of ‘ententes’ that gave rise to World War I. Britain’s ‘splendid isolation’ couldn’t prevent her from being dragged into that, or its successor.
After World War II Britain withdrew into a kind of isolation, trade-wise; but even that was not the sort of isolation the Brexiteers are envisaging today. For a start, she had her Commonwealth, which comprised a vast commercial union comparable to the ‘Common Market’ that Monet and his chums were setting up in Europe, and which cushioned her against what the real effects of ‘isolation’ might have been. That is no longer an option today. Or so we hope.
In fact real ‘isolation’ in today’s world is virtually impossible. (Maybe there’s an Amazonian tribe or two that have held on to theirs.) ‘No man is an island’, wrote John Donne; to which we might add that no island is an island either. Even outside the European Union the UK would be at the mercy of external forces not of her strict choosing: international obligations she would still have to adhere to, of course; and even more than that, the great hegemonic monster of global capitalism, waiting to gobble up any fish that strays from the shoal. The UK would be even less likely to be able to resist that alone than in company with others: which is my wish for a reformed EU, though I’m not optimistic. Even if it could, does anyone think that Messrs Johnson, Farage and Gove – neo-Liberals all of them, underneath – would want to? Or that they could be constrained by an ‘independent’ parliament?
Of course historical precedents are not the only guides we have to the future, attractive as they may seem to the literal reactionaries who make up a part (not all) of Brexit’s support. Times change. Maybe an independent UK, striking out bravely on its own, might find a brand new way of dealing with the world situation that will confront it. In which case the Brexiteers may not be quite so stupid as the Swedish press thinks them. But they still need to spell it out, if they can.
But then: is this Referendum really about Europe? If it could be shown not to be, then the debate might make more sense to my Swedish friends. I’ll return to this.