Why the Brexit result should not surprise us
Thatcher insisted that it was highly damaging ‘to try to suppress nationhood’
‘During the referendum campaign, Charles Powell, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, insisted that had she been voting she would have voted to remain with the aim of reforming from within.’ Photograph: PA
We should not be that surprised at the vote in favour of Brexit. For all the warnings from the Remain side about a giant leap into the unknown in relation to the economy, the sentiments fuelling the desire to exit were emotional and deep-rooted and warnings of economic Armageddon could not outdo those feelings and the weight of history sustaining them.
In 1990, the first book- length survey of British policy towards the European Community was published and its author, Stephen George, chose his title well: An Awkward Partner. If the relations were awkward up to that point, they can only be described as tortuous since, resulting in the drama of yesterday morning.
Britain could not continue to have it both ways. During the referendum campaign, Charles Powell, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, insisted that had she been voting she would have voted to remain with the aim of reforming from within. This has been disputed, but more significant was Powell’s assertion that it was better to continue to do what had been done for decades: “extract the UK from the most burdensome constraints on our sovereignty and bring us about as close to being a semi- detached member of the club as it is possible to get while still enjoying its benefits”.
This can be read in different ways; as arrogant and self-serving, but also as involving walking a tightrope the British walkers would eventually fall or jump off. What lies below that tightrope remains to be seen. But given the nature of the evolution of Britain’s relationship with Europe, the exit is understandable.
In 1930, Winston Churchill stated that his country was “interested and associated but not absorbed” in Europe. By 1946 he was adamant that “we must build a kind of United States of Europe”, but what kind? A kind that could sustain the British establishment’s view of itself as a leading European and imperial power with a “special relationship” with the United States.
The British attitude towards French and German pushes for greater integration in Europe was dismissive; in 1952, then foreign secretary Anthony Eden said European federation was “something we know in our bones we cannot do”. A proposal for a European Defence Community collapsed, but it did not deter alternative quests for European co-operation.
When a conference was convened in Messina in 1955 that began the process that led to the establishment of the EEC, Britain senta Board of Trade official who did not bother to stay to the end.
But Britain was overconfident; the Suez Crisis of 1956, when the US forced Britain to a humiliating withdrawal from Egypt, exposed limits to the “special relationship”.
Britain’s imperial subjects went their own way during a period of decolonisation and its attempt to create a free- trade area shared by itself, Norway, Denmark and others outside the EEC in the late 1950s failed.
By the time of its applications to join the EEC in the 1960s, French president De Gaulle was able to veto the requests, insisting in 1963 Britain was unfit – “England is in effect insular” – and that a “colossal Atlantic community under US dependence would swallow the EEC”.
Ted Heath’s strategy in reactivating the application that resulted in membership in 1973 was to get in quickly and then change and challenge it from the inside. Over the next 30 years this involved renegotiating entry terms, keeping sterling out of the European Monetary System and numerous battles over Britain’s contribution to the EU budget while resisting further regionalisation.
It also created internecine battles within the two main political parties as well as the recent rise of Ukip. Having rebuffed those in the 1940s and 1950s fashioning the European project, it was always on the defensive once it joined and could not remake Europe in its own image.
Now it does not even have to try any more. Thatcher insisted in a speech in Bruges in 1988 that it was highly damaging “to try to suppress nationhood”. She was adamant the EU could not be “an institutional device to be constantly modified according to the dictates of some abstract intellectual concept”.
The challenge now is to define modern English nationalism and grapple with the implications of this vote for the whole idea of a United Kingdom. Is there such a thing any more? The vote has also underlined blatant class divides in Britain and the strength of fear and resentment about immigration.
In his speech in 1930, Churchill declared: “We have our own dream and our own task.” On the basis of yesterday’s result, what that might amount to in the modern era exhilarates and frightens Britain in equal measure.