April 11, 2016
Britain is no longer unusual in its degree of Euroscepticism. In many EU countries, populist parties of Right and Left, and even governments, denounce Brussels – if not always for the same reasons. But even those building fences along their borders rarely advocate leaving the Union, and those who do (such as France’s Front National, promising to abandon the Euro and hold a referendum on ‘Frexit’) are considered to be outside the respectable consensus. Britain is unusual now for two reasons: Firstly, it is seriously contemplating ‘Brexit’, and secondly, the debate is taking place within the political mainstream.
The British public has always been more sceptical of European integration than most of its neighbours. Its twentieth-century history was far less traumatic than theirs, and its attachment to ‘Europe’ as a talisman against recurrent nightmares (invasion, civil war, dictatorship …) is consequently weaker. As the Labour Home Secretary Herbert Morrison put it in the 1950s, ‘the Durham miners won’t wear it.’ On the Continent, even nationalists such as Charles de Gaulle were committed to the European project – ironically for nationalist reasons. Norway and Switzerland, which shared Britain’s doubts, logically stayed out. Britain joined, but with the intention of changing it into what Harold Wilson called ‘the right kind of Europe’ – one which has repeatedly turned out not to be what its partners want. Why this ambivalence?
The key is that Britain too had its postwar fear – a fear of decline. In the 1960s and 70s, exaggerated perceptions of diplomatic, economic, and political failure convinced the political class that Britain was ‘the sinking Titanic’, as one senior official put it, and ‘Europe’ the lifeboat. For Sir Con O’Neill, the strategist of Britain’s entry, the EEC was about boosting global status, and the rest was merely the price to be paid: ‘None of its policies were essential to us; many of them were objectionable’; but outside, Britain would decline into ‘a greater Sweden’ – to Whitehall, a fate worse than death. The clinching factor was that Washington wanted Britain inside, to act as what de Gaulle called “America’s Trojan horse”. So whatever the terms of membership, Britain, in O’Neill’s words, would ‘swallow the lot’. Nothing changed when Harold Wilson took office in 1974 promising renegotiation. ‘All those people with whom he was negotiating knew … he was going to say yes,’ noted a senior colleague. ‘That being so there was no great occasion for him to be given much.’ David Cameron was more transparent, openly promising to approve whatever deal he could get. Wilson’s deal went to a referendum, and was approved by 67 percent of those voting, 40 percent of the total electorate.
Our present debate thus exudes déjà vu. As in the 1960s and 70s, the ‘Remain’ camp builds on a combination of business interests, progressive utopianism, and bureaucratic consensus. Its argument has been rapidly pared down to what has been its core for half a century – a declinist fear of marginalization now traditional in parts of the government machine (not to mention the bureaucracies of large corporations and universities). Yet though the assumptions and rhetoric of the ‘Remain’ side seem to be set in concrete, the context that surrounds them has been transformed. Ludicrous now are the naive euphoria of the 1970s, as in the official pamphletThe British European, featuring a page-three girl in a skimpy Union Jack bikini proclaiming ‘EUROPE IS FUN! More Work But More Play Too!’ Since the mid-1980s, Britain’s economic performance has been better than that of most of Europe, and since 2008 it has at least escaped the disaster of the eurozone. Economic analyses suggest that the EU conferred quite modest economic benefits even before the Eurozone crisis and that ‘Brexit’ now would see positive and negative effects in broad balance. Given the lack of decisive economic argument, the ‘Remain’ campaign focuses less on the benefits of staying than on the difficulties of leaving – an argument that doubtless weighs with administrators in sight of retirement.
As for whether Britain’s role in the world is enhanced by the EU, this seems to have become less of an issue, and certainly a less clear-cut one. The EU has shown little appetite or aptitude for power politics. Besides, Britain’s appetite for ‘punching above our weight’ has been diminished by failures in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. In a post-Cold War multipolar world, people seem to have got used to Britain being what it has been for the last 300 years: one of the planet’s half-dozen or so most powerful states. Some commentators (for example Niall Ferguson) have turned the declinist argument on its head, urging a ‘Remain’ vote not to prop up a failing Britain, but to stave off an EU collapse. The message is hardly coherent: is Britain too weak to go it alone, or too important to abandon a floundering Europe? In either case, will voters pay heed to the urgings of foreign politicians, or resent them?
In 1975, the ‘Yes’ campaign, when the EEC was still riding high and Britain facing one of its worst decades, managed to win 67 percent of the vote. Nothing like that is imaginable now. The 1970s vision of the EU as our lifeboat has been widely replaced by a vision of it as the Titanic, shaken by insoluble crises. Hidden away deep in the appendices of a 2013 Eurobarometer poll, statistics showed that Britain was the only EU state in which most people (53%) believed that they could face the modern world more effectively outside the EU. The ‘Remain’ campaign has to convince them of the contrary. The outcome will show whether fear of decline is still potent enough to persuade voters that they must now commit themselves to a system for which they have little love.
About the author
Professor Robert Tombs is a Professor of French History at University of Cambridge. He has also worked on the history of the relationship between the French and the British, from the end of the seventeenth century to the present day, including the cultural and economic as well as the political and military spheres.
History and Policy