Britain’s relationship with Europe has a complex history, of which Brexit is merely the latest development. Simon Glendinning explains that the country’s post-War understanding of both itself and of Europe has often been caught up in a (selective) history and memory of British and European discovery, colonialism and Empire. The hope that the UK might find a new post-Empire sense of itself as a future-producing European Member State was, temporarily or otherwise, extinguished by the 2016 referendum. He writes that if Britain one day strikes back, one can only hope it will be as a country freed from the spectre of Empire.

The idea of a united Europe found a new lease of life in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. At that time self-consciously modern political thinking cleaved to the idea that world peace could be secured only through the institution of a “world government”. A major step on the way to such an end was the ambition “to create a kind of United States of Europe”, as the rather unlikely figure of the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill put it in a speech at Zurich University in 1946 (when he was in fact no longer Prime Minister). This was an ambition which, as we shall see, Churchill did not at that time think Britain would be part of.

The first institutions of European union emerged in the wake of two terrible world wars of European origin. It was also, however, the period of European division that marked the Cold War. It was the latter that was to the fore in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s most strikingly pro-European speech, “The Bruges Speech”, delivered in 1988. Anticipating surprise among some of her audience, she insistently affirmed that “our [Britain’s] destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community”, but she went on even more strongly to recall that still only part of Europe was part of that Community:

The European Community is one manifestation of that European identity, but it is not the only one. We must never forget that east of the Iron Curtain, people who once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity have been cut off from their roots. We shall always look on Warsaw, Prague, Budapest as great European cities. (Margaret Thatcher, speech to the College of Europe, “The Bruges Speech”, September 20, 1988)

Thatcher, like Churchill in his call for “a kind of United States of Europe” in 1946, emphasised the geopolitical significance of the (by then) European Community (EC), and its role in ensuring “prosperity and security” for Europeans “in a world in which there are many other powerful nations and groups of nations”. In the 1980s, however, such a project was more clearly framed by the contemporary circumstances of the Cold War rather than the memory of world wars. Seventeen years later, Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking to the European Parliament in 2005, not only distanced himself from Thatcher’s “market philosophy”, he also framed the historic opportunity for those European countries that had suffered under Soviet domination and totalitarian conditions differently than Thatcher.

Like Thatcher he argued that “enlargement” of the (by then) European Union to include the (by then) post-communist central and eastern European countries was an issue for the EU’s “economy” and “security”. However, the geopolitical significance of this development had shifted again. European integration was no longer a post-War or Cold War security project, but a cosmopolitically progressive one: the “extraordinary historic opportunity” offered by enlargement belonged to a politics forged “in the traditions of European idealism”, standing squarely against “outdated nationalism and xenophobia”.

This trio of British politicians gives a fair sense of the shifting geopolitical sands across the immediately-post-War, Cold War, and then post-Cold War contexts. However, that simplified timeline passes by the fact that it was Prime Minister Edward Heath who took the UK into the EEC in 1973 and won a referendum in 1975, and Prime Minister John Major who achieved a UK parliamentary majority for the Treaty of Maastricht, which brought the EU into being, in 1992. They should not be overlooked when a British pro-European sense of European political developments is being related: they fought some of the most decisive battles. And while they did not diminish its significance they did not simply hide under the cover of economics when they did so. Indeed, both were just as keen as Churchill, Thatcher and Blair to stress the pacific virtues of European integration.

Heath saw in the EEC the possibility of “an end to divisions which have stricken Europe for centuries”, and still in the time of the Cold War stressed, like Thatcher after him, that such divisions were not over: “‘Europe’ is more than Western Europe alone. There lies also to the east another part of our continent: countries whose history has been closely linked with our own”. Twenty years later, John Major welcomed the possibility of “embracing the new democracies of the East”, emphasising above all that “the most far-reaching, the most profound reason for working together in Europe…is peace”. These “joining” events were hard-won by Heath and Major in a British national context that was anxious that political decisions would “let Britain’s identity be lost in Europe”, as Major reported “a lady [in Cornwall]” putting it to him.

There is considerable continuity across these British political speeches on the primarily pacific virtue of European integration, and of Britain’s best future as lying in that development. But there is another British continuity that is equally significant, if significantly more problematic, something belonging to a distinctive “Europe of the Atlantic” perspective that Britain has been historically central to. As I have indicated, Churchill did not think Britain would be part of his projection of “a kind of United States of Europe” in 1946. The “coherent natural grouping” of nations from the “mighty continent” would be a partner with what he called another “natural grouping in the Western Hemisphere”: “we British have our own Commonwealth of Nations”. (Along with the UK, the members of the Commonwealth were the semi-independent polities that had Dominion status, and white governments, within the British Empire. In 1946 these were Canada, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, and the Union of South Africa.) As we shall see, when Europe has been in view for Britain, it is the history and memory of Empire that looms largest over its horizon.

Europe as shown on a map of the British Empire in 1886, Credit: Stuart Rankin (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As the years passed it seems that Churchill began to look more favourably on the idea of Britain joining the European group. Perhaps the “natural grouping” of the Commonwealth started looking considerably less “natural” to him when the organisation of countries that were formerly part of the Empire started to include quite so many countries of the (rapidly diminishing) Empire not ruled by white people. In any case he was unquestionably in favour of Britain joining the EEC later in his long life, which is no great advert for it. Nevertheless, it is Empire that brings in a further defining aspect of the line of British Prime Ministerial contributions we are considering here – at least until Blair. Successive British politicians still had Empire in view when Europe was in view.

It was there in Heath’s speech in 1972 when, while claiming not to be thinking of reviving the “Age of Imperialism”, he nevertheless stressed “the lasting and creative effects of the spread of language and of culture, of commerce and of administration by people from Europe across land and sea to the other continents of the world”. It was still powerfully present in Thatcher’s speech in 1988 too, where she spoke shamelessly of “how Europeans explored and colonised—and yes, without apology—civilised much of the world”. And, in fact, it was still there in John Major’s speech in 1992, when he claimed that “Britain has always grown and prospered when it has looked outwards – from the time of the First Elizabeth”.

The post-War British understanding of both itself and of Europe was fundamentally caught up in a (very selective) history and memory of British and European discovery, colonialism and Empire. It is hard to disagree with the English friend of President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, who the latter cites as saying “Brexit is the real end of the British Empire”. It was certainly a (perhaps last-gasp) symptom of Britain having not got beyond understanding itself and the world through Imperial history, many Brits still caught up in an image of a Britain that might “take back control” and reassert itself as a globally impressive power – and who chose in the grip of that image to enact a Brexit event through which Britain threatens to side-line itself in a world in which it is increasingly marginal.

Blair’s speech to the European parliament in 2005 was, however, strikingly free of Imperial nostalgia. He did not represent the Europe that “had dominated the world, colonised large parts of it, fought wars against each other for world supremacy” as something one might linger on fondly or without apology: if there was a time when European leaders had done so, he said, “those days were gone”. Moreover, he did not speak up for “the idea of Europe, united and working together”, as Churchill had, from the outside, but firmly from the inside, as “a passionate pro-European”, confidently affirming his commitment to “Europe as a political project”.

But that, let’s say, Europeanisation of Britain’s political imagination was only weakly making its way (see Joseph, 2016). Increasingly hostile to what they saw as centralising forces in the EU overwhelming political freedom in the UK, the right in Britain saw the EU as a regulatory fetter to a self-confident and still globally voyaging Britain, and the left framed it as part of a globalising neoliberal trap that it was better to escape altogether. Many UK citizens were simply feeling something that the lady from Cornwall was feeling: Britain was losing itself in Europe. In a desperately ill-conceived bid by Prime Minister David Cameron to quell divisions over Europe in his own party in a national way, a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU was held in 2016.

Defending a status quo that few could have thought especially inspiring in its existing condition or trajectory, the campaign for “Remain” was strongest in Scotland, where the leaders of all the major parties at least worked together, and effectively marginalised “Leave” voices. Many leading national politicians – perhaps especially the former Prime Ministers Gordon Brown, John Major and Tony Blair, along with the leaders and former leaders of the minority Liberal Democrat and Green parties – put all their energy behind the pro-European cause. But, with the Conservative Party divided from top to bottom, and a woefully inadequate present-but-not-participating leader of the Labour Party with a consistently Eurosceptic past refusing to participate in a cross-party national campaign, the Remain voice in the UK did not compete well against the glittering promise to “take back control” that belonged to Leavers on the right and left.

In the end, however, it is not clear that the result of the referendum was due to the Remain voice being fragmented, or indeed how much it was specifically or coherently about the EU’s actual role in British political life. Beyond the postures and impostures of political persuasion, the referendum gave an opportunity for feelings like those of the lady from Cornwall to find public expression. Nearly half of leave voters said the biggest single reason for wanting to leave the EU was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. “She didn’t tell me her name”, Major confessed in his conference speech in 1992, but he was doubtless right to think that there was, articulated in that anonymous voice, “the anxieties of millions”.

The referendum was their opportunity, and “Brexit” the all-but-meaningless name of their aggregated preferences. (“Brexit means Brexit” – or “’Brexit’ means Brexit” – as Prime Minister Theresa May, who was the first to be tasked with the near impossible task of picking up the pieces afterwards, came to put it.) While its meaning remains not one, its consequences far-reaching and unpredictable, there was, however, at least one ungainsayable result. As a result of the definitive referendum result, the hope that the UK might find a new post-Empire sense of itself as a future-producing European Member State was, whether temporarily or permanently we do not yet know, overnight extinguished. If Britain one day strikes back, one can only hope that it will be a Britain freed from the spectre of Empire.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Simon Glendinning – LSE
Simon Glendinning is a Professor in European Philosophy and the Head of the LSE’s European Institute.

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