CHRIS HELLIER / ALAMY
Show Hide image

States of disorder

As the global economy transcends borders and Isis raises its flag, could the very nature of "states" be changing?

Contemplating the black flag of Islamic State that flies over Fallujah in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, my mind irresistibly returned to an essay in the New York Review of Books in 2008 that archly observed, “It seems more a matter of rhetoric than reality to claim that the epochal struggle of the 21st century concerns whether ‘consent’ or ‘terror’ will form the basis for legitimate governance. Does anyone truly believe that citizens throughout the world are undecided over whether they would prefer to be governed by consent or terror?”

How far we have come since those words were written. The international order that so confidently expanded the G8 to the G20, that continued the enlargement of the European Union to 28 member states, that brought about the first democratic elections in Iraq and Afghanistan despite harrowing terrorist intimidation, that increased the membership of Nato to include not only former members of the Warsaw Pact but even the Baltic states that had been part of the Soviet Union, and that created the Association of South-East Asian Nations and brought China into the World Trade Organisation is now shuddering and fragmenting.

What has transpired in this short period? The foundations of a global financial system on which international trade and development depend almost collapsed in the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, shattering confidence in the stability of that system, and although the leading economies have largely recovered the positions that they held in 2008, there is no assurance that an unpredictable and more total collapse will not confront states whose monetary policies have little room for adjustment.

The US administration’s pivot away from engagement in the Near East and south Asia has brought forth the creation of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and its metastases elsewhere, as well as the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. For the first time since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, a member state of the United Nations has been invaded and its territory annexed in contravention of the most basic principles of the UN Charter. The Budapest Memorandum by which the territorial integrity of Ukraine was guaranteed by the US, the UK and Russia has been violated with the same insouciance that characterised the treaty violations of the 1930s. After the P5+1 group of world powers (China, France, Russia, the UK and the US; plus Germany) reached a nuclear agreement with Iran, Iran chose to violate UN Security Council resolutions forbidding the testing of long-range ballistic missiles.

The Arab spring, which seemed to validate the rising tide of democratic governance, has washed away regimes and left in its wake societies that are more riven, more violent and less governable than before, mocking the efforts of western states that sought to place themselves at the forefront of this tide, only to have it ebb and withdraw beneath their shifting feet. A great civil war has begun between the two historic forms of Islam championed by Saudi Arabia and her allies and Iran and its clients, with the consequence that as many as 250,000 people have died in Syria and 4.5 million persons have become refugees.

Europe has experienced as a consequence the largest movement of refugees since 1945. The financial stability of the EU that was so tested by the Great Recession now must compete with the physical stability of the union’s borders as the cause that may undo the most promising constitutional reform of the postwar period. Even Britain, which should be leading the EU away from the unimaginative fantasies of a superstate and towards greater devolution and inclusiveness, is instead contemplating leaving the union altogether, with incalculable consequences for the future of Europe.

Governance in the US has reached such a depth of self-confidence and stature that only 11 per cent of Americans profess any trust in the US Congress, a percentage that is lower than that of the number of people in the country who believe that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by their government. An otherwise mild-mannered and sober US president has felt compelled to resort to executive orders rather than statutory action from Congress and has, in effect, nullified the enforcement of much federal immigration law. And the leading Republican candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump, is a bombastic bully who would be, if elected, the only person ever to have achieved the presidency without having served a single hour in public service.

***

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In 1990, I had just entered the US government to serve as the state department’s counsellor on international law. It was a heady time: the sudden withering away of the Soviet state, the peaceful unification of Germany and the three-part brace of East-West agreements – the Moscow and Copenhagen Declarations and the Charter of Paris – all promised that the liberal democracy and free markets to which those agreements committed their signatories had triumphed. It was generally expected that this triumph would, in Henry Kissinger’s words, “automatically create a just, peaceful and inclusive world”. It was a time, as Czesław Miłosz put it, “when everything was fine . . . and the Earth was ready . . . to consume and rejoice without creeds and utopias”. The cruel dialectic among states and ideologies that had churned out history had ceased; promoting prosperity, democracy and human rights would eclipse concerns about violence and conflict.

Writing in these pages in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the philosopher John Gray criticised the assumption that liberal, democratic values were self-reinforcing and would automatically win the allegiance of peoples everywhere. Gray’s essay concerned the nature of the state and, most pointedly, its principal duty to protect its citizens, a duty that seemed to many in 2008 little more than a police function. Yet no constitutional order can withstand a failure to protect its citizens: either the public will turn on its state and demand a constitutional change, or outside forces will exploit the state’s weakness and subordinate that state to their will. It is surprising, however, how little attention there was to such matters in 2008 and still less in 1990, when the environment of the 20th-century state irreversibly and profoundly changed.

The assumption that Gray attacked depended in part on the unquestioned structure of the international order of states. In Europe, the sense that the EU would steadily bend the constitutional order of its constituent countries was but a fractal of the larger 20th-century assumption that Westphalian sovereignty, which had spread throughout the world following decolonisation and the absorption of China into the international system, had created the foundations for a 21st-century peace and ever-increasing prosperity. Now, Henry Kissinger has concluded, “The state itself is under threat.”

And all this time, what was I doing? In Miłosz’s words,

Surrounded by the books
Of prophets and theologians
Of philosophers, poets,
[I] searched for an answer,
Scowling, grimacing,
Waking up at night, muttering at dawn.
What oppressed me so much
Was a bit shameful,
Talking of it aloud
Would show neither tact nor prudence.
It might even seem an outrage.

For I had come to believe that most of our assumptions about the state, its past and its future were deforming our understanding and I was increasingly apprehensive. What were some of those assumptions?

● That the state system – the international order – determined the constitutional order of the states of which it was composed and that, since Westphalia, this has been more or less fixed as the nation state.

● That the security of the state depended on the security of the larger system and if the latter were infused with the ideals of the triumphant liberal democracies, the security of the democracies and of the system as a whole was assured.

● That the threat to the state lay primarily in the unrealised domain of its ideals and thus the requirements of citizenship chiefly consisted in asserting rights against the state, the consequence of which would be an increasingly benevolent domestic environment.

● That the remaining, unresolved international conflicts were largely regional in nature and posed no fundamental challenge to the international order.

● That the great challenges before that global order – climate change, inequality and poverty – largely enhanced the momentum towards international cohesion, without which these challenges could not be met.

To see why these generally unquestioned assumptions are mistaken, and to appreciate the consequences of these mistakes, we must examine the fundamental cosmology of the state, the history of the European, classical idea that re-emerged during the Renaissance as a neoclassical ideal. The origin narrative with which we have lived for so long continues to cloud our appreciation of the nature of the state and the dynamics that govern its unfolding evolution.

The creation myth of the modern state goes something like this: after a brutal period of sectarian conflict that culminated in the Thirty Years War of 1618-48, the exhausted participants, meeting in two separate conferences, produced the Peace of Westphalia. The centrepiece of these treaties was the provision cuius regio, eius religio (“He who rules, his religion shall prevail”). The consequence of this attempt to cut the Gordian knot of sectarianism that had bound the once unified Roman Catholic Church to a series of sporadic, non-contiguous but enduring and punishing conflicts was the territorialisation of sovereignty. Whereas the sovereignty of the medieval ruler had been personified in a prince, sovereignty was now to reside in a defined area determined by the prince’s control and, as a result of this authority, the sectarian coloration of its people. Protestants and Catholics were allowed to migrate to states with sympathetic rulers.

The myth asserts that a balance of power was brought into the relations among European states with a multiplicity of states, no one of which could dominate the others, and each in pursuit of its own political and cultural values. Thus, the myth concludes, was born the nation state.

***

Like many an ancient pedigree, this one has served to legitimate the nation state with a spurious lineage. In reality, the crucial diplomatic innovation – cuius regio, eius religio – is first found in the Peace of Augsburg, a century before Westphalia. The significance of this is that while the Peace of Augsburg did territorialise states and, taken with another agreement four years later – the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis, which ended the decades-long conflict between the Hapsburgs and the Valois – provided Europe with a novel constitutional order that superseded feudalism, that order was certainly not the nation state. The subjects of the princes who ruled the first modern states were not categorised by nationality but by religion.

Beginning a pattern that has continued to the present day, a series of conflicts were brought to a close by a grand peace conference – in effect, a constitutional convention for the society of states – that legitimated a particular constitutional order by giving it recognition in a peace treaty. So it was at Augsburg, at Westphalia, at Utrecht, at Vienna and at Versailles. Each time, an epochal war was ended by an international constitutional convention. Each time, a new constitutional order challenged the prevailing order ratified in the previous conference. And each time, the more strategically dynamic new order prevailed in conflict and thus prevailed in law.

This rendering of the evolution of the modern state is crucial because if we unthinkingly assume that the only constitutional order we have known since feudalism is the nation state, we will be dead to the idea that our present constitutional order is being replaced and that the wars into which we are now entering will have a constitutional impact, challenging and reframing the international order.

We do indeed live in industrial nation states but that is a constitutional order that arose in the US and Germany in the latter half of the 19th century, one that superseded the imperial state nations that had dominated Europe and the world from the end of
the 18th century. The concept of a legitimating balance of power was enshrined in the text of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 that brought the well-tempered order of territorial states to pre-eminence (and not at Westphalia).

The importance of this is that it takes a system composed of territorial states – run by aristocracies, fielding highly professionalised armies, engaged in careful and limited cabinet wars – to maintain a balance of power. The state system that superseded territorial states, which was recognised at the Congress of Vienna, introduced a new operating apparatus, the Concert of Europe; this, in turn, depended on the collaboration of imperial state nations (the first states, by the way, to unite nationalism
and the state).

These taxonomies are of far more than simple historical interest. They show that certain kinds of arrangements by which an international order is maintained depend on the nature of the constitutional order of the states that the international system comprises. It is as idle to ask that our contemporary system of states operate on the principles of earlier constitutional orders as it is, for example, to propose that we bring back “trial by battle”, the resolution of a political conflict by a single battle to replace the complicated and destructive strategies with which modern states wage war.

Moreover, appreciating this periodicity in the evolution of states allows us to identify the fundamental dynamic of state change, which lies in the relationship between legitimacy and power – that is, between law and strategy. Sometimes, the impetus for change comes from the constitutional side of this equation. This was the case when the French Revolution made impossible the war-fighting of the territorial state that it destroyed and thus ushered in the strategic innovations of mass conscription and the Napoleonic campaign.

The impetus can come from the other direction, as when the introduction of French artillery destroyed the viability of the rich, weak, walled cities of Italy. It was the French invasion that inspired Machiavelli’s passionate call for a neoclassical state to withstand the powerful monarchs who had taken the Italian plain. The phenomenon is not a linear one: rather, there is a constant two-way relationship between innovations in the constitutional make-up of societies and in the strategies by which war is fought.

Thus the watermark of any particular constitutional order is its claim to legitimacy and its ability to sustain its power militarily. The nation state’s claim to legitimacy resided in its promise to improve the material well-being of its citizens. David Lloyd George and Franklin D Roosevelt said this, but so did Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler, for they were all leaders of the same fundamental sort of state.

The constitutional order of the industrial nation state brought us the mass voting franchise that included not only propertyless males but females as well, old-age pensions and unemployment compensation, free mass education, the public funding of science, state-owned enterprises such as airlines, railways, telecommunications and other national industries, and also total warfare – that is, warfare against civilian national peoples. Because we have lived for a century in nation states, we even use the words “nation” and “state” interchangeably but this is a solecism. Many nations – the Kurds, the Palestinians, the Cherokee – do not have states. And the current constitutional order of the industrial nation state is not as favourable to nationalism as the emerging constitutional order that is challenging it.

At present, the constitutional order of the industrial nation state faces a number of threats to its claim for legitimacy. These include a global system of communications that will increasingly prevent any nation state from managing its own culture, penetrating every society and enabling social networking that bypasses national cultural institutions; a global system of trade and especially finance that prevents any state from controlling its national economy and that is bringing a heightened vulnerability to the financial security and stability of every state, increasing the power of markets to assess and even determine the viability of each society; a global system of international human rights that pre-empts the laws of each national society and has been the basis for armed attacks on states that posed no particular threat to any other state but had viciously and unlawfully attacked their own peoples; transnational crises, such as Aids and Sars, climate change and the development of global, non-national terrorist networks from whose threats no state can hide, nor can it arrest by its own efforts; and finally the commodification of weapons of mass destruction whose essential components are sold on a clandestine market or simply downloaded off the internet, such as the information by which benign viruses can be made into deadly human pathogens.

None of these dangers is unknown. What is missing is not information but a recognition that these are threats not just to a particular state but to the state itself and thus to the contemporary international order that is built out of those states. Ironically, each of these five threats is a result of the strategic innovations by which the liberal democracies won the Long War of the 20th century, a conflict that began in 1914 and lasted until 1990.

Like earlier epochal wars – the wars of the Hapsburgs and the Valois, the Thirty Years War, the wars of Louis XIV, the Napoleonic Wars – the Long War of the 20th century was composed of various conflicts that to the participants seemed to be separate struggles. The First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the wars in Korea and Vietnam and the Cold War can be seen in retrospect, whatever their individual causes, to have implicated the legitimacy of the industrial nation state. Would the legitimate form of the constitutional order that replaced the imperial state nations of the 19th century be fascist, or communist, or parliamentary? We have answered that question. But in so doing, the strategic innovations by which the answer was given – the development of nuclear weapons, the creation of a relatively stable system of relatively free trade, the invention of electronic communications and information systems, the establishment of an international law of human rights and the outlawing of conquest, and the pursuit of wealth without heed of the environmental and cultural consequences of that technologically supercharged pursuit – now have brought new questions that call into doubt the legitimating basis of the state. What industrial nation state today can say that it is capable of delivering to its citizens the security, prosperity and the decent physical and cultural environment that they demand?

I have written elsewhere and at some length about my conception of how the constitutional order is already changing and I have deplored the lack of imagination or even interest in the emerging market state that is deforming our politics and paralysing our military and diplomatic strategies.

Except for a few thinkers, however – Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Cooper, the distinguished British diplomat, and recently Henry Kissinger – there has been little reflective interest in these conjectures, though to be fair they have been widely commented on and often flatteringly. So I will not tax the readers of the New Statesman with a rehash of my theories about the emerging constitutional order of the market state. Instead, let me turn to how one country, the US, and its quite brilliant young president have tried to cope with these challenges in the absence of a new conceptualisation.

***

First, Barack Obama built his successful campaign in the Democratic primaries against Hillary Clinton in 2008 on what he would not have done – the armed intervention that removed Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Countless times, as a candidate and as president, Obama said that he would have focused on eliminating al-Qaeda instead of getting bogged down in Iraq. More than 4,400 American soldiers would not have been killed and many thousands would not have been wounded; several hundred thousand Iraqis would not have suffered from the incompetent occupation and its aftermath. Iran’s regional influence would be substantially smaller and Islamic State would never have seized territory in Mesopotamia. Not insignificantly, the US taxpayer would have saved trillions of dollars.

It is, however, a common mistake in the analysis of public policy – so common that it even has a name: “Parmenides fallacy” – to compare the present state of affairs with the status quo ante as a way of evaluating the success or failure of a policy. The fallacy lies in the fact that time doesn’t stand still and while we may not know what would have happened in the absence of a particular policy, we can be certain that things would not have stayed the same.

If Saddam Hussein were still in power, it is most unlikely that the world community would have been able to maintain sanctions against his regime for 12 years beyond the point when cracks had already appeared in the viability of the policy and the enthusiasm of the sanctioning states. According to Iraqi scientists, Saddam Hussein would have pursued his quest for nuclear weapons even more ardently. It is inconceivable that Iran would not have followed suit, or would have been willing to enter into the negotiations that produced the recent agreement to freeze and roll back its nuclear weapons programme. Had there been no invasion of Iraq, it is highly unlikely that the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi would have abandoned his quest for nuclear weapons and it is scarcely improbable that the continuing attacks on Israel would have been far more lethal.

Perhaps it was the paralysis that the absence of attractive options in the Near East created – caught as we were between removing the Syrian dictator only to deliver much of that country to Islamic State, and eradicating this state of terror only to strengthen our principal antagonist in the region, the theocratic state of Iran – that caused the president to attempt to position the US as the triangulator of the burgeoning conflict between Sunni and Shia states. In an interview in 2014, he described his vision of a new geopolitical balance of power in the region. “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if . . . you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran . . . If you can start unwinding some of [the distrust among the states of the region], that creates a new equilibrium. And so I think each individual piece of the puzzle is meant to paint a picture in which conflicts and competition still exist in the region but that it is contained.”

What Obama did not foresee was the emergence of Islamic State, which, among other factors, will make his hope of working “with functioning states” such as Iran and Saudi Arabia immensely more difficult. He must regret saying: “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a Bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian . . . How we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”

In reality, a functioning state of terror such as Islamic State is far more threatening than a proto-state such as al-Qaeda, because it can marshal greater resources and deploy them with secure internal lines of communication. One fears that the president got it utterly wrong when he said, “Failed states, conflict, refugees, displacement – all that stuff has an impact on our long-term security. But how we approach those problems and the resources that we direct toward those problems is not going to be exactly the same as how we think about a transnational network of operatives who want to blow up the World Trade Center. We have to be able to distinguish between these problems analytically, so that we’re not  . . . using a battalion when what we should be doing is partnering with the local government to train their police force more effectively, improve their intelligence capacities.”

These were popular sentiments in 2014 and widely held in the US and the UK. But they ignored the centrality of the state and how a hostile state can disrupt the politics and even the legitimacy of other states. It failed to appreciate that the wars on terror were not simply a congeries of conflicts with various terrorists.

After the San Bernardino killings in December 2015, Obama acknowledged in a televised address to the nation that the US was at war, a concession he must have made with some reluctance. As a constitutional matter – a matter of law – he could hardly have continued to rely on the 2001 Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF) as the legal basis for action against Islamic State, much less sought a new AUMF, and held otherwise but many in his administration have been quite averse to conceding not just that terrorists can wage war but that warfare is morphing into terror and we are poorly prepared to fight that kind of war.

Like its mortal enemy the Islamic Republic of Iran, Islamic State represents a challenge to the legitimacy of the current state system. Whether these revolutionary states will be able to threaten that system depends on whether or not they will be sufficiently dynamic strategically to undermine the legitimacy of the liberal democracies that dominate the international order. That, in turn, depends on whether these challengers can link their ideals to the form of the emerging market state and whether the leading members of the existing international order can adapt constitutionally in ways that allow them to protect their citizens.

President Obama ended his address by saying, “Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear.” What he probably should have added is that freedom, to be more powerful than terror, must be successfully protected.

Philip Bobbitt is the author of “The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History” and “Terror and Consent: the Wars for the 21st Century” (both published by Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash

Show Hide image

The English Revolt

Brexit, Euroscepticism and the future of the United Kingdom.

English voters have led – some would say forced – the United Kingdom towards exit from the European Union. Was this an English revolt, the result of an ­upsurge over decades of a more assertive, perhaps resentful, sense of English identity? At one level, clearly so. Surveys indicate that individuals who most often describe themselves as “English”, and regions where this is common, were more inclined to vote Leave on 23 June. Some of these are poorer regions where marginalised people think that their voices are more likely to be heard in a national democracy than in an international trading bloc, and for whom patriotism is a source of self-respect. But it would only make sense to regard Leave as essentially an English reaction if discontent with the EU were confined to England, or specifically linked with feelings of Englishness.

In fact, negative opinions about the EU, and especially about its economic policy, are now more widespread in other countries than they are in England. Polls by the Pew Research Centre last month showed that disapproval of the EU was as high in Germany and the Netherlands as in Britain, and higher in France, Greece and Spain. Though aggravated by the 2007-2008 crash and enforced policies of austerity, a decline in support was clear earlier. France’s referendum of May 2005 gave a 55 per cent No to the proposed EU constitution after thorough debate, and a now familiar pattern emerged: enthusiastic Europeanism was confined to the wealthiest suburbs and quarters of Paris, and the only professional groups that strongly voted Yes were big business, the liberal professions and academics.

Going far beyond the atavistic and incoherent English revolt that some think they discern, our referendum result is partly a consequence of transnational political phenomena across the democratic world: the disaffection of citizens from conventional politics, shown by falling turnouts for elections, shrinking party membership and the rise of new, sometimes extreme political movements; as well as the simultaneous detachment of a professional political class from civil society, and its consequent retreat into a closed world of institutions.

The EU embodies these phenomena in uniquely acute form. In several cases its central bodies have opposed – or, if one prefers, have been forced to deny – democratically expressed wishes. In Greece and Italy, the EU has enforced changes of government and policy, and in Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands it has pressed countries to ignore or reverse popular referendums. Its own representative body, the European Parliament, has gained neither power nor legitimacy. Crucial decisions are taken in secret, making the EU a hiding place for beleaguered politicians as well as a source of lavish financial reward for insiders. In the words of the historian John Gillingham, Europe is now being governed by neither its peoples nor its ideals, but by a bank board. This is not the “superstate” of Eurosceptic mythology. Though it drains power and legitimacy away from national governments, it is incapable of exercising power effectively itself, whether to cope with short-term emergencies such as an inflow of refugees, or to solve chronic failings such as the creation of mass unemployment in southern Europe. The result is paralysis, the inability either to extricate itself from failing institutions or to make them work.

If popular discontent with the EU continues to increase (and it is hard to see how it could not) sooner or later there will be some unmanageable political or social crisis. The response of too many supporters of the EU is to screw the lid down tighter, including now by promising to make life difficult for the United Kingdom, pour décourager les autres. This is the organisation – unpopular, unaccountable, secretive, often corrupt, and economically failing – from which our decision to depart apparently causes people to weep in the streets.

***

Why this decision? Why in Britain? The simplest and perhaps the best answer is that we have had a referendum. If France, Greece, Italy and some other countries had been given the same choice, they might well have made the same decision. But of course they have not been and will not be given such a choice, barring severe political crisis. This is most obviously because countries that have adopted the euro – even those such as Greece, for which the IMF has predicted high unemployment at least until the 2040s – have no clear way out.

I make this obvious point to emphasise that the immediate explanation of what has happened lies not only and not mainly in different feelings about the EU in Britain, but in different political opportunities and levels of fear. The contrasting votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland have particular explanations. Scottish nationalists – like their counterparts in Catalonia – see the EU as an indispensable support for independence. Northern Ireland sees the matter primarily as one affecting its own, still tense domestic politics and its relations with the Republic. In a European perspective, Scotland and Northern Ireland are the outliers, not England and Wales. Indeed, Scotland’s vote makes it stand out as one of the most pro-EU countries in Europe. If ever there is another referendum to see whether Scots prefer the EU to the UK, it will show whether this level of support for the EU is solid.

If England is exceptional, it is not in its disaffection from the EU, nor in the political divisions the referendum vote has exposed (if France, for instance, had such a vote, one could expect blood in the streets). Rather, its exceptional characteristic is its long-standing and settled scepticism about the European project in principle, greater than in any other EU country. Every ­member has a specific history that shapes its attitude to the theoretical idea of European integration. As John Gillingham, one of the most perceptive historians of the EU, describes its beginnings: “to the French [supranationalism was] a flag of convenience, to the Italians it was preferable (by definition) to government by Rome, to the Germans a welcome escape route, and to the Benelux nations a better choice than being dominated by powerful neighbours”.

Subsequently, for the eastern European states, it was a decisive step away from communist dictatorship, and for southern Europe a line drawn under a traumatic history of civil conflict. There is also a widespread belief, powerful though fanciful, that the EU prevents war between the European states. All these are important reasons why there remains considerable support for unification as an aspiration. But all these reasons are weaker, and some of them non-existent, in Britain, and especially in England. The simple reason for this is that Britain’s experience of the 20th century was far less traumatic. Moreover, during that time loyalty to the nation was not tarnished with fascism, but was rather the buttress of freedom and democracy. Conversely, the vision of a European “superstate” is seen less as a guarantee of peace and freedom, and rather as the latest in a five-century succession of would-be continental hegemons.

Given all this, an obvious question is why the United Kingdom ever joined in the European project in the first place. The answer helps to explain the country’s subsequent lack of enthusiasm. Its first response to the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 was not to join, but to agree to establish a separate European Free Trade Association (Efta) in 1959 with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland; over the next three decades the seven founder members were joined by Finland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. This worked efficiently, cheaply and amicably, and, in time, Efta and the EEC would doubtless have created trading arrangements and systems of co-operation. But then the historic mistake was made. Efta was considered too small to provide the diplomatic clout craved by Whitehall at a time of severe post-imperial jitters. A cabinet committee warned in 1960 that “if we try to remain aloof from [the EEC] – bearing in mind that this will be happening simultaneously with the contraction of our overseas possessions – we shall run the risk of losing political influence and of ceasing to be able to exercise any real claim to be a world Power”.

Besides, Washington disliked Efta as a barrier to its aim of a federal Europe, and the Americans put heavy pressure on London to apply to accede to the Treaty of Rome, which it duly did in August 1961. “It is only full membership, with the possibility of controlling and dominating Europe,” wrote an optimistic British cabinet official, “that is really attractive.”

As the former US secretary of state Dean Acheson (one of the early backers of European integration) put it, in a now celebrated comment in December 1962: “Great Britain has lost an empire, and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role . . . apart from Europe . . . based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States [or] on being the head of a ‘Commonwealth’ . . . – this role is about played out.”

Acheson’s words long haunted British policymakers; perhaps they still do. And yet Britain remains one of the half-dozen strongest and most assertive states anywhere in the world, just as it has been for the past three centuries.

To fear of diplomatic marginalisation was added fear of economic decline. A government report in 1953 warned of “relegation of the UK to the second division”. Over the next 30 years there was a chorus of dismay about “the sick man of Europe”. Belief that EEC membership at any price was the only cure for Britain’s perceived economic ills became the orthodoxy in official circles: Britain was “the sinking Titanic”, and “Europe” the lifeboat.

So, on 1 January 1973 Britain formally entered the EEC with Denmark and Ireland. Other Efta members remained outside the Community – Switzerland and Norway for good. Harold Wilson’s 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the EEC in effect turned on Europe’s superior economic performance – which, though no one realised it at the time, had just ended.

This memory of apparent British economic weakness half a century ago still seems to weigh with older Remainers. Yet it was based on a fundamental misconception: that European growth rates were permanently higher than in a supposedly outdated and declining Britain. In reality, faster growth on the mainland in the 1950s and 1960s was due to one-off structural modernisation: the large agricultural workforce shifted into more productive industrial employment. From the mid-1940s to the early 1970s this gave several European countries “windfall growth” at a higher rate than was possible in Britain, which since the 19th century had had no large agricultural sector to convert. By the early 1970s, once that catching up was finished, European growth rates became the same as, or slightly lower than, Britain’s. When measured over the whole half-century from 1950 to 2000, Britain’s economic performance was no different from the ­European norm. By the mid-1980s, growth was faster than in France and Germany, and today Britain’s economic fundamentals remain strong.

Slower European growth lessened the perceived attractiveness of EU integration. In 1992, on Black Wednesday (16 September), hesitant participation in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism led to forced devaluations in Finland, Sweden, Italy, Spain and, finally, Britain. This was a huge political shock, though an economic boost.

Black Wednesday subsequently made it politically difficult for Britain to join the eurozone – allowing us a narrow escape, attributable more to circumstance than to policy, as vocal political and economic lobbies urged joining.

Moreover, Britain’s trade with the rest of the EU was declining as a proportion of its global activity: as Gordon Brown observed in 2005, 80 per cent of the UK’s potential trade lay outside the EU. The EU’s single market proved not very effective at increasing trade between its members even before the crash of 2007-2008, and prolonged austerity thereafter made it stagnant. Consequently, in the 2016 referendum campaign, more emphasis was placed on the dangers of leaving the single market than on the precise benefits of being in it.

But the days when Britain seemed the Titanic and Europe the lifeboat were long gone. On the contrary, Britain, with its fluid and largely unregulated labour market, had become the employer of last resort for the depressed countries of the eurozone. The sustained importation of workers since the 1990s had become, for a large part of Britain’s working class, the thing that most obviously outweighed whatever legal or economic advantages the EU might theoretically offer.

***

What galvanised the vote for Brexit, I think, was a core attachment to national democracy: the only sort of democracy that exists in Europe. That is what “getting our country back” essentially means. Granted, the slogan covers a multitude of concerns and wishes, some of them irreconcilable; but that is what pluralist democracy involves. Britain has long been the country most ­resistant to ceding greater powers to the EU: opinion polls in the lead-up to the referendum showed that only 6 per cent of people in the UK (compared to 34 per cent in France, for instance, and 26 per cent in Germany) favoured increased centralisation – a measure of the feebleness of Euro-federalism in Britain.

In contrast, two-thirds wanted powers returned from the EU to the British government, with a majority even among the relatively Europhile young. This suggests a much greater opposition to EU centralisation than shown by the 52 per cent vote for Brexit. The difference may be accounted for by the huge pressure put on the electorate during the campaign. Indeed, arithmetic suggests that half even of Remain voters oppose greater powers being given to the EU. Yet its supporters regard an increase of EU control over economic and financial decisions – the basics of politics – as indispensable if the EU is to survive, because of the strains inherent in the eurozone system. This stark contradiction between the decentralisation that many of the peoples of Europe – and above all the British – want to see and the greater centralisation that the EU as an institution needs is wilfully ignored by Remain supporters. Those who deplore the British electorate’s excessive attachment to self-government as some sort of impertinence should be clear (not least with themselves) about whether they believe that the age of democracy in Europe is over, and that great decisions should be left to professional politicians, bureaucracies and large corporations.

Some have dismissed the Leave vote as an incoherent and anarchic protest against “the establishment”, or as a xenophobic reaction against immigrants. Some of the media in Britain and abroad have been doing their best to propagate this view. Yet xenophobia has not been a significant feature of British politics since the 1960s, and certainly far less so than in many obedient EU member states, including France, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands. As for the anti-establishment “revolt”, this emerged when parts of the establishment began to put organised pressure on the electorate to vote Remain. Would-be opinion-formers have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent weeks. They have been out of touch and out of sympathy with opinion in the country, unwilling or unable to engage in reasoned debate, and resorting to collective proclamations of institutional authority which proved embarrassingly ineffective.

Worst of all, their main argument – whether they were artists, actors, film-makers, university vice-chancellors or prestigious learned societies – was one of unabashed self interest: the EU is our milch-cow, and hence you must feed it. This was a lamentable trahison des clercs. The reaction to the referendum result by some Remain partisans has been a monumental fit of pique that includes talking up economic crisis (which, as Keynes showed, is often self-fulfilling) and smearing 17 million Leave voters as xenophobes. This is both irresponsible and futile, and paves the way to political marginalisation.

The Queen’s call for “deeper, cooler consideration” is much needed. I recall Victor Hugo’s crushing invective against French elitists who rejected the verdict of democracy, when in 1850 he scorned “your ignorance of the country today, the antipathy that you feel for it and that it feels for you”.

This antipathy has reduced English politics to a temporary shambles. It is too early to say whether there will be some realignment of the fragments: One-Nation Toryism, Conservative neoliberalism, “new” and “old” Labour, the hibernating Liberal Democrats and Greens, the various nationalists and, of course, the unpredictable Ukip. When in the past there were similar crises – such as Labour’s rift over the national government in 1931, the Liberals’ split over Irish home rule in 1886, or the Tory fragmentation over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 – the political balance was permanently changed.

***

Many Europeans fear that a breakdown of the EU could slide into a return to the horrors of the mid-20th century. Most people in Britain do not. The fundamental feature of the referendum campaign was that the majority was not frightened out of voting for Leave, either by political or by economic warnings. This is testimony to a significant change since the last referendum in 1975: most people no longer see Britain as a declining country dependent on the EU.

A Eurobarometer poll in 2013 showed that Britain was the only EU member state in which most citizens felt that they could face the future better outside the Union. Last month’s referendum reflected this view, which was not reversed by reiterated predictions of doom.

In retrospect, joining the Common Market in 1973 has proved an immense historic error. It is surely evident that we would not have been applying to join the EU in 2016 had we, like Norway or Switzerland, remained outside it. Yet the political and possibly economic costs of leaving it now are considerable. Even though discontent with the EU across much of Europe has recently overtaken sentiment in Britain, Britain is unique, in that, ever since the 1970s, its public has been consistently far less ­favourable to the idea of European integration than the electorate in any other country. Hence the various “opt-outs” and the critically important decision to remain outside the euro.

Now, by a great historic irony, we are heading towards the sort of associate status with the EU that we had in the late 1960s as the leading member of Efta, and which we could have kept. Instead, this country was led by its political elite, for reasons of prestige and because of exaggerated fears of national decline and marginalisation, into a vain attempt to be “at the heart of Europe”. It has been a dangerous illusion, born of the postwar declinist obsession, that Britain must “punch above its weight” both by following in the footsteps of the United States and by attaching itself to the EU.

For some, money, blood and control over our own policy were sacrifices worth making for a “seat at the top table”. This dual strategy has collapsed. In future we shall have to decide what is the appropriate and desirable role for Britain to play in the world, and we shall have to decide it for ourselves.

Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at Cambridge University. His most recent book is “The English and Their History” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt