David Cameron and Tony Abbott at the Australian War Memorial. Photo: Mark Nolan/Reuters
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The rise of the Anglosphere: how the right dreamed up a new conservative world order

The Anglosphere has its roots in the Commonwealth tradition. But today's global world has forged a powerful unofficial alliance.

During what has been an unusually turbulent period in British politics, one of the most important and potentially enduring shifts in the mindset of those at the apex of the political system has received far less attention than it merits. This concerns the striking re-emergence on the political right of the dream of an entirely different geo­political and economic future for the United Kingdom, one that claims to relocate it in the historical trajectory and distinctive values that once made Britain great.

Among a growing number of conservative-inclined Eurosceptics, the long-standing ambition of an alliance made up of some of the leading English-speaking countries spread across the world has quietly moved from marginal curiosity to a position of respectability. The idea of the “Anglosphere” – and the policies and strategies pursued by some of the political leaders of its constituent countries – has become a source of increasing, almost magnetic influence on British conservatives. And it may well provide the governing intellectual framework for the Eurosceptic campaign to quit the European Union in a post-election referendum.

The concept of an Anglosphere reflects the long-held belief that Britain’s best interests lie in forging closer relationships (and perhaps even some kind of institutionalised alliance) with those countries that have broadly similar political structures and systems; and that also tend to cherish the values of parliamentary government, individual liberty, the rule of law and the free market. The membership list of this club varies quite considerably depending on the author but at its core are the English-speaking “Five Eyes” countries of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Each of these was once a British colony and can readily be situated within an imaginary horizon of a group of countries united by a shared political and economic culture, nourished from the roots of British parliamentary institutions, economic liberalism and Protestantism.

But what gives the concept of the Anglosphere striking modern-day appeal for conservatives and dispels any lingering cold-war revanchist overtones is that it frames an account of how an independent UK can prosper in a global economy dominated by the rise of Asia. Liberated from the EU and allied with the rest of the Anglosphere, the argument runs, Britain could reinvent its open trading heritage, harnessing its colonial history to integrate itself into the new global economy of the Asian century.

Here are the seeds of a powerful alternative argument against the pro-European, centrist view of globalisation that has dominated the mainstream of British politics – and the Labour Party, above all – for the past quarter of a century. Importantly, this position resists a retreat to the hinterland of economic nationalism and instead constructs a new account of free-market geopolitical co-operation, anchored in the institutional alliance of the Anglosphere. In the title of an influential Conservative Free Enterprise Group pamphlet, it is Britannia Unchained.

The Britannia Unchained has deep roots in the Commonwealth tradition, which emerged as a shared point of reference after the Second World War. As Winston Churchill is said to have shouted at Charles de Gaulle before the D-Day landings, “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea!” – a remark later echoed by the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell at the 1962 Labour party conference, when he argued that Britain would become a mere “province” in a federal Europe, bringing to an end “a thousand years of history”.

Charles de Gaulle (R) awards Sir Winston Churchill la Croix de Liberation at the Hotel Matignon in Paris 06 October 1958. Photo: AFP/Getty Images.

During the debates about membership of the European Common Market in the early 1970s, many opponents invoked the Commonwealth as an alternative trading partner and source of influence and as a community towards which Britain retained distinct obligations. Yet, by this time, arguments about Europe were being conducted against the background of a much deeper set of concerns about the prospects for the UK. Fear of the implications of Britain remaining outside the Common Market outweighed the sentimental and economic arguments mounted for the Commonwealth.

This post-imperial tradition may have weakened during these years but the dream of an Anglophone future for Britain refused to die. Instead, it migrated to the outskirts of conservative politics and re-emerged as an important feature of some of the libertarian currents that began to percolate into mainstream conservatism in the mid-to-late 1970s. In these quarters, American ideas were a major influence, especially following the emergence of a powerful set of foundations, think tanks and intellectuals in the UK that propounded arguments and ideas that were associated with the fledgling “New Right”.

In this climate, as Ben Wellings and Helen Baxendale have shown, the Anglosphere came back to life as an alternative ambition, advanced by a powerful alliance of global media moguls (Conrad Black, in particular), outspoken politicians, well-known commentators and intellectual outriders, who all shared an insurgent ideological agenda and a strong sense of disgruntlement with the direction and character of mainstream conservatism.

In his major work Reflections on a Ravaged Century, the historian Robert Conquest argued that the political arrangements of the west were all increasingly deficient, the EU included. The answer was “a more fruitful unity” between the Anglosphere nations. And, in a speech to the English-Speaking Union in New York in 1999, Margaret Thatcher endorsed Conquest’s vision, noting how such an alliance would “redefine the political landscape”. What appealed most was the prospect of the UK finding an alliance founded upon deep, shared values, the antithesis of the position it faced in Europe.

Thatcher’s endorsement ushered in a period of growing respectability for this notion. Soon, it was projected to a much wider set of publics by several prominent intellectuals. In his 2003 book Empire, for example, the historian Niall Ferguson concluded that the liberal values associated with the British empire remained the lodestar for democrats around the world. For him, the principles of free trade, the rule of law and parliamentary democracy constituted the positive aspects of its legacy.

The Anglosphere: countries where the first language is English are in dark blue; countries with a substantial knowledge of the language, dating back to the British Empire, in light blue. 

In these and other high-profile arguments, a clear moral emerged: the unique political and economic inheritance of Britain made the decision to enter a union of European nations an error of epic proportions. The very survival of the values of the Anglosphere had been put into jeopardy. As the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan put it more recently: “As the sun sets on the Anglosphere imperium, we understand with sudden clarity what it is that we stand to lose.”

For the most part, however, the idea of the Anglosphere remained on the margins in political circles until the establishment of the coalition government in 2010, since which time it has steadily forced its way into the political conversation. Speaking during an official visit to Australia in 2013, the then foreign secretary, William Hague, argued for closer ties between Britain and Australia and made reference to one of the most important, enduring political expressions of the link between them – the close co-operation enjoyed by their intelligence services and the experience of finding much common cause in relation to the US-led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the past few years, other leading Tories have, in different ways, identified themselves with this idea, including David Willetts, John Redwood, Norman Lamont, Liam Fox and Michael Howard. During his own trip to Australia in 2013, Boris Johnson argued that when we joined the Common Market, we in effect “betrayed our relationships with Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand”.

Framing the decision to join the fledgling EU as an act of “betrayal” was an eye-catching rhetorical flourish, even by Johnson’s standards. Europe became the default option, he continued, “when the establishment was defeatist, declinist and obsessed with the idea that we were being left out of the most powerful economic club in the world”.

Notions of an organised alliance of any kind remain fanciful in the extreme. Yet the underlying impatience with a European future for the UK and a deep desire to get back to the exceptionalism that characterised Britain’s self-image in earlier times underpin the renewal of this dream. The past 70 years have generated profound and mostly unanswered questions in British politics about how a state that once saw itself as special and exemplary might make sense of its waning geopolitical position and declining economic strength.

For advocates of the Anglosphere, these painful realities and the existential angst associated with them can, it seems, be defied. Individualism, liberty and the rule of law are the normative cornerstones of this vision and are typically framed in stark contrast to the corporatist, bureaucratic and authoritarian political cultures that are widely held to prevail on the European continent.

The appeal of this idea is not just a reflection of growing disillusionment with Europe. For many, the rise of China, the increasing threat of radical Islam and the uncertainties of the global economy all make the question of locating political allies and sympathetic states much more imperative for the UK. The future of the west, some argue, may be contingent upon a closer coalescence of the Anglosphere countries.

And the European project is now often condemned as fundamentally out of kilter with the dynamics and leading technologies of the world we inhabit. Eurosceptics increasingly view Europe as an old, declining continent, riddled with regulation and saddled with debt. The Anglosphere sustains a restless desire to find a new, outward-facing, globally rooted destiny for the UK. And this vision is offered in stark contrast to the more insular ethos and instincts of the right-wing populism associated above all with Ukip.

This is an important, growing source of tension within the Conservative Party and beyond and is echoed across the political spectrum. These differences of national vision and understanding now run deep in British politics and are contributing significantly to the pressures bearing down on the unity of the two main parties. Both the outward-facing ambitions of the Anglosphere and the more inward-looking, anti-metropolitan politics of Ukip are rooted in national traditions. But for advocates of the first of these world-views, the Englishness to which they lay claim is steeped in images of the intrepid, entrepreneurial peoples of a world island, a seafaring nation committed to finding partners and acquiring influence across the globe.

Indeed, this liberal, internationalist idea of Britain was once much more prominent and mainstream than the kind of insularity and pessimism that Ukip espouses. Its optimism and openness to the world are what gives it political appeal for Eurosceptics who are anxious to contest the argument about what is best for Britain’s future and not get boxed into a
political retreat to a fading past.

The Anglosphere evokes a way of telling the national story and understanding Britain’s place in the world and connects contemporaries to forms of patriotic sentiment that have largely fallen out of favour in the past few decades. But while the growing unpopularity of the EU has made the Anglosphere a more important alternative ideal, at least among southern English Tories, some profound obstacles to the realisation of this dream have yet to be addressed.

The US, including many leading Republicans, remains convinced that the UK should stay in the EU. States such as Australia and New Zealand are all involved in managing their growing orientation to Asia, while anti-monarchist republican sentiment periodically animates their politics. Above all, there are important class interests lined up against Brexit, among them major multinational corporations trading in Europe and the City of London.

While the unfeasible nature of any kind of formal alliance among these countries is clear, there is a real growth in interest on the political right in the notion of the Anglosphere as an alternative political ideal and as a source of ideas – about policy, strategy and leadership. We may not be joining an alliance with Canada or Australia any time soon but our politics may be increasingly influenced by the political values and experiences of both.

The electoral successes of Stephen Harper in Canada, John Key in New Zealand and Tony Abbott in Australia have given British conservatives concrete examples of right-wing leaders to emulate. And with the rising appeal of the Anglosphere as a counterweight to Europe, there is an increasing appetite to draw lessons from these conservative cousins, rather than to look across the Channel to centrist Christian democrats. Very little is written in the UK conservative press and blogosphere about Angela Merkel’s model of leadership, despite the hegemonic status she has achieved. Instead, Anglosphere conservatives look towards those they consider to be muscular and authentically right-wing leaders, such as Harper and Abbott.

Harper is a particular source of attraction: he united a deeply divided right and proceeded to defeat his opponents, turning a precarious minority government into one with a governing majority. He is fiscally conservative, a climate sceptic and ruthless at using the office of prime minister to pursue a radical agenda without reaching into the middle ground of politics. Indeed, he has sought to weaken and then dismantle the institutions and political pillars that formed the progressive heart of the 20th-century Canadian state, bypassing public servants, marginalising parliament, challenging the courts and attacking liberal civil society organisations.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Photo: Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images

Harper’s premiership is almost the complete antithesis of a centrist, inclusive modernisation project of the kind that David Cameron envisaged before the 2010 election. But its remarkable run of electoral success has given many British conservatives food for thought.

It is therefore through what political science terms “policy transfer” and the informal exchange of ideas and people that the Anglosphere is coming to political prominence, rather than the various quixotic schemes for institutionalisation that have been advanced from time to time. Given that the European question will become one of the dominant issues in British politics, whatever the outcome of the general election in May, the Anglosphere idea will play an even bigger role as a beacon for an alternative, globally conceived national project to that which is associated with an apparently sclerotic EU. The figures who have come to prominence on the Anglophone right, such as Harper and Abbott, offer intriguing models for possible leadership contenders in the Conservative Party. No wonder Boris has been busy in Australia.

The rise of the Anglosphere is both a barometer and a source of deepening disagreement on the right about the UK’s geopolitical and economic development. Yet the temptation for those on the centre left to rejoice in these kinds of disagreements ought to be set aside. For while parts of the right have assembled an ambitious and optimistic project that has the capacity to appeal to a range of social groups, the left shows few signs of forging a national project of its own that might guide it through the economic and territorial turbulence ahead.

The left has largely shed its Euroscepticism but has yet to find arguments for staying in the EU that are anything other than technocratic or tactical. With a few exceptions, it is silent on how the European project can be rescued from the historical cul-de-sac of deflation and post-democratic governance associated with Brussels and Berlin and even less certain about how membership of a reformed EU can express a bigger, compelling and value-laden vision of Britain’s future in the world.

The Anglosphere is far from being just a quirky, nostalgic idea. It is at the heart of a re-emerging political world-view. Understanding its power, reach and history is imperative for a centre left that needs a more clearly defined strategic ambition and sense of political direction if it is to do more than survive buffeting by the storms.

Michael Kenny is the director of the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary, University of London

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. He writes in a personal capacity

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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The Great Huckster: Boris Johnson’s reckless distortions of history

As a scholar of Churchill, Boris Johnson could have articulated a constructive vision for Britain and Europe. Instead, he wilfully manipulates and distorts the historical record.

This month, 76 years ago, the defeated British Expeditionary Force was making for the Channel ports. Thanks to the ferocious resistance put up by the garrison at Calais, and Hitler’s hesitation, the bulk of the men were safely taken off the beaches at Dunkirk to fight another day. Whatever their private feelings during those terrible hours may have been, most of them knew even then that they would return to Europe to finish the job.

Their forefathers had been intervening in Europe for as long as anyone could remember. From Shakespeare’s Henry V through to Elizabeth’s support for the Dutch revolt, the Second Hundred Years War against Louis XIV, the French Revolution and Napoleon, and the First World War, London had always been profoundly invested in the continent. Defending the “liberties of Europe” and thus British freedoms was what Englishmen and Britons did. It was part of what they were.

In early June 1944 – on D-Day – the British, Americans and Canadians hurled themselves into northern France as their ancestors had done since the late Middle Ages. At least one British officer tried to inspire his men that morning as the landing craft approached the strongly defended beaches by reading out Henry V’s speech before Harfleur, in which Shakespeare has him exhort the men, “once more unto the breach”. The film version of the play was released that same year, dedicated to the “commando and airborne troops of Great Britain”. In the popular mind, these Englishmen and their North American descendants were part of the continuity of a European story that went back to the medieval English empire in France.

Some of those liberating Europe thought that they could not simply return to “business as usual” after the war. One of them was the later Conservative prime minister Ted Heath, the man who took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. He first defended Liverpool as an anti-aircraft gunner and then took the fight to Hitler as an artillery man during the campaign in north-west Europe. Over the course of the next 11 months, Heath and his comrades fought their way across the traditional battlefields of northern France and the Low Countries, including the Walcheren swamps in which their ancestors had been mired in Napoleonic times; and through western Germany into the centre of the Reich. They were to stay there, at the heart of Europe, for some 60 years. They created a stable European order, based on Nato and what was to become the European Union, which remains with us to this day.

Now the Brexit stalwart Boris Johnson, my fellow historian, claims that it was all in vain. “The European Union,” he says, “is an attempt to do what Hitler wanted by different methods.” Worse still, the EU is a German plot, whose currency, the euro, was “intended by the Germans” to “destroy” Italian manufacturing and generally grind the faces of its unfortunate members. Johnson has also invoked the spirit of Churchill in support of his arguments. He has since doubled down on his remarks and has received support from other members of the Brexit camp, such as Iain Duncan Smith, though not apparently from more informed figures such as Michael Gove. Unfortunately, Johnson’s claims are as historically wrong as it is possible to be, comparable in their crassness only to his predecessor as London mayor Ken Livingstone’s suggestion that Hitler supported Zionism.

Far from supporting European political unity, Hitler was violently and explicitly opposed to the idea. This was partly because it was proposed by his opponents on the “left” of the Nazi Party, such as the Strasser brothers. They belonged to the “anti-imperialist” wing of the Nazi Party, which wanted a pan-European front against the Jews and the British empire. Hitler’s hostility to the European project was also in part due to a racial antipathy to the half-Japanese Richard, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, the author of the widely discussed book Pan-Europa (1923). One way or the other, Hitler condemned the Pan-Europa movement as “a fantastical, historically impossible childishness”, which would be no more than a “Jewish protectorate”.

Nor did he hold back with his alternative view of what the continent should look like. “The solution,” he wrote, “cannot be Pan-Europa, but rather a Europe of free and independent national states, whose spheres of interest are separate and clearly delineated.” Comparisons involving Hitler are usually odious but if one is going to draw parallels, his view of European integration then was much closer to that of the Brexiters today than that of the advocates of the European Union.

Moreover, the European project did not originate in the Nazis’ attempt to mobilise the continent on their behalf but rather in the resistance movement against Hitler. Take Sicco Mansholt, who hid Dutch resisters on his farm during the war, at great personal risk. He subsequently became the Dutch minister for agriculture and one of the fathers of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Take Altiero Spinelli, the Italian anti-fascist who spent ten years in Mussolini’s prisons. It was there, in June 1941, at the height of Hitler’s power, that he secretly wrote his draft manifesto For a Free and United Europe.

Take Paul-Henri Spaak, later prime minister of Belgium, first president of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of the EU – and secretary-general of Nato. He was forced to make a daring escape from wartime Europe in the false bottom of a lorry in order to carry on the struggle against Hitler in exile. Indeed, across Europe there were thousands of men and women who fought, died, were imprisoned or tortured because they believed in a free and united Europe. To suggest that they were trying to achieve the same thing as Hitler by different methods is an outrageous slur on their memory. If Johnson ever makes it to the top of the Conservative Party, and thence to No 10, he will have a lot of explaining and apologising to do in Europe.

***

As if all this were not bad enough, Boris Johnson’s invocation of Churchill flies in the face of everything we know of the great man’s attitude to the European project. To be sure, he began as a Eurosceptic. When army reforms were proposed in 1901 to support the creation of a substantial land force on the continent, the young Winston Churchill was one of the few MPs to oppose them on the grounds that the navy, rather than the army, was of crucial importance to British security. Writing in the Morning Post, Churchill argued that “history” and “geography” showed that the British empire was “essentially commercial and marine”, and had been defended by armies of foreigners.

As the German threat loomed large, however, he changed his mind. Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, told the Australians and New Zealanders in April 1913 that Europe was “where the weather came from”. It was the terrible storm of the First World War that caused Churchill not only to believe in the centrality of Europe but in the need for European – or at least continental European – unity.

In May 1930, the president of the Pan-Europa Union, the former French prime minister Aristide Briand, made a formal proposal for a “European federal union” based on a “European conference” with an executive to co-ordinate economic and military co-operation. The British government of the time rejected the surrender of sovereignty involved but many were sympathetic to the idea of continental European union under liberal auspices. The arch-imperialist Leo Amery, secretary of state for the colonies and later a powerful critic of appeasement, was a strong admirer of Coudenhove and his projects, which he regarded as the extension of Anglo-Saxon principles to the continent.

Likewise, Churchill, then chancellor of the Exchequer, told parliament in June 1925 that he hoped that one could “weave Gaul and Teuton so closely together economically, socially and morally as to prevent the occasion of new quarrels and make old antagonisms die in the realisation of mutual prosperity and interdependence”. Then, he continued, “Europe could rise again”. Churchill did not believe, however, that Britain should be part of any continental political union. “We are with Europe, but not of it,” he wrote in 1930. “We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”

In mid-June 1940, however, as western Europe buckled under the Nazi onslaught, Churchill went a step further. He made an unsuccessful offer of union with France – involving joint citizenship and a common government – designed to lock the French into the war effort against Germany or, failing that, to secure their fleet. The Nazi threat was so existential, in other words, that it justified the surrender, or at least the pooling, of British sovereignty.

When the threat of invasion passed, Churchill returned to the theme of continental European integration. In October 1942, he “look[ed] forward to a United States of Europe in which barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised. He “hope[d] to see the economy of Europe studied as a whole”, and the establishment of a council of “ten units, including the former Great Powers [and thus presumably Britain], with several confederations – Scandinavian, Danubian, Balkan, etc, which would possess an international police and be charged with keeping Prussia disarmed”.

Churchill returned to the subject immediately after the war, as the Soviet threat menaced Europe. In a speech at Zurich University in September 1946, he urged the continent to “unite”, with Britain supporting the project from the outside. Once again, including the Germans was central to his conception. Churchill urged no less than the full political union of the continent in a “kind of United States of Europe” under the “principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter”. He again praised the work of Hitler’s bugbear, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi’s “Pan-European Union”.

Churchill demanded an “act of faith”, beginning with “a partnership between France and Germany”, assembling around them the states of Europe “who will and . . . can” join such a union. Its purpose was clear, namely “to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause.”

Moreover, Churchill argued, “The ancient states and principalities of Germany, freely joined together for mutual convenience in a federal system, might each take their individual place among the United States of Europe.” In short, the new polity was designed to solve not merely the European question but the German problem, the two being one and the same. Once again, Churchill conceived of this United States of Europe alongside but not including the United Kingdom and the British “Commonwealth of Nations”, that is, the empire. Instead, he believed that Britain should be one of the “sponsors of the new Europe”.

Churchill’s attitude to continental European union was, unlike Hitler’s, highly positive. For Johnson to suggest, therefore, that he is donning the mantle of Churchill to prevent the current European Union from achieving Hitler’s aims through other means is a complete travesty of the historical truth.

Far from being intended to promote German power, the European Union was designed to contain it, or at least to channel it in the right direction. Contrary to what Johnson suggests, the euro was not planned by Germany to subjugate Italian industry or any other European economy. It was insisted on by the French to decommission the deutschmark, which they described as Germany’s “nuclear weapon”. Likewise, the Germans are not incarcerating the Greeks in their European prison: Greeks are desperate not to be released back into the “freedom” of the drachma and the corrupt national politics that they joined “Europe” to escape. If there is one thing worse than being dominated by Germany in the European Union, evidently, it is not being in the EU at all.

Boris Johnson may not have known the details of Hitler’s attitude to European integration, or the European sympathies of many resisters, but he is very well informed about Churchill and Europe. His ignorance is thus not just a matter of making mistakes; we all make those as historians. Nor is it simply a matter of these mistakes being, like bank errors, in favour of one’s own argument. To say that Johnson knows better is not a figure of speech: he has shown in print that he does. His recent book, The Churchill Factor, contains a very balanced account of Churchill’s position on Europe, including most of the statements listed above.

In making his arguments, Johnson is not appealing to the baser instincts of the electorate; it is far worse than that. The deeply ingrained British instinct to fight European tyranny is not base but fine. What Johnson and those who defend his rhetoric have done is to take something virtuous and pervert it. The European Union is not, as we have seen, the continuation of Hitlerism by other means and to suggest so is blatant manipulation.

The shame of it is that there is a perfectly plausible Eurosceptic argument on its own merits. It was well stated by Michael Gove at the start of the campaign. It insists on the historical distinctiveness of the United Kingdom, whose history does indeed set it apart from the rest of the continent. It makes the case for a reform of the EU. It rejects the scaremongering of “Project Fear”, on the cogent grounds that the United Kingdom has the political, economic and military weight to prevail even without the stabilisers of the EU. It scorns President Obama’s impertinent warning that Britain would have to “get to the back of the queue” for a trade deal after Brexit, with a reminder that Britain and her empire defied Nazi Germany for two years before the Americans joined the fray, when Hitler declared war on them (not vice versa). One does not have to accept every detail of this discourse to feel its force. Uniquely among the democratic European powers, the United Kingdom can “stand alone” if it must or wants to.

The Achilles heel of the Brexit campaign, however, is that it has no viable vision for continental Europe. Even Gove falls down here, as his idea of a British departure unleashing a “democratic liberation” of the continent is pure fantasy. It seems odd to have to explain this to Brexiters but Britain really is special. Casting off the bonds of Brussels will not emancipate mainland Europe but let loose the nationalist and xenophobic demons tamed by the integration project. This is clear when we look at the rise of radical anti-European parties in France, Hungary, Austria, Germany and many other parts of Europe as the European project fragments. These developments should not surprise anyone who knows the history of mainland Europe before the mid-20th century and to a considerable sense beyond.

***

 

Most of continental Europe had failed before 1945 and even now the European Union is only failing better. Unlike virtually every other European state, which has at some point or other been occupied and dismembered, often repeatedly, England and the United Kingdom have largely – with very brief exceptions – been subjects of European politics, never merely objects. In this sense, too, she is exceptional. Yet this should not be an occasion for British triumphalism. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on 23 June, the European Union is not an enemy of the United Kingdom. It should best be understood as a modern version of the old Holy Roman Empire; hapless and officious, perhaps, but not malign. It needs help. The failure of the European project and the collapse of the current continental order would be not only a catastrophic blow to the populations on the far side of the Channel but also to the United Kingdom, which would be
directly exposed to the resulting disorder, as it always has been.

In short, the Brexit camp in general and Boris Johnson in particular are missing a great opportunity in Europe. A student and partisan of Winston Churchill, the former mayor of London was qualified to articulate a constructive vision for Britain and the continent. He has failed to understand that the only safe way that Britain can exit from the European Union is not through Brexit – whose consequences for mainland Europe would be dire – but through Euroexit; that is, a Churchillian political union of the continent in close co-operation with the UK.

Instead, in addition to their distortion of the historical record, Johnson and the Brexit camp are committing the cardinal sin of making a decision before they need to. The European Union is not, sadly, a United States of Europe, even though it needs to become one to survive, and is becoming less like one every day. If and when it musters the strength for full political union, there will be plenty of time to leave. Meanwhile, the EU needs all the support that Britain can give it from within.

In 1940, the British forces had been defeated and retreat was the only option. The situation could not be more different today. This is no time to head for the beaches in what will be a legislative Dunkirk of epic proportions, with incalculable consequences not so much for Britain as for the rest of the continent. Unlike in 1940, the United Kingdom is not being forced out of Europe. It has hardly begun to fight there, unless shooting oneself in the foot through Brexit counts as combat. The battle in Britain today is a distraction from the great struggle on the mainland. There is much work to be done in Europe. It is time the British stop tearing themselves apart and return unto the breach once more.

Brendan Simms is a NS contributing writer. His latest book is “Britain’s Europe: a Thousand Years of Conflict and Co-operation” (Allen Lane). He is president of the Project for Democratic Union

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster