Life's journey: pilgrims arrive at Mena in Saudi Arabia, carrying stones to throw at pillars symbolising Satan. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Birth of a religion

An interview with Tom Holland, author of In the Shadow of the Sword.

How much do we know about the birth of Islam? Much less than we think, argues the popular historian Tom Holland in his new book, In the Shadow of the Sword.

In Holland’s opinion, the Quran was written long after the death of Muhammad, Mecca is not necessarily the birthplace of the Prophet and modern Muslims’ reverence for their holy writings stops them from confronting the texts’ dubious historical origins.

Bryan Appleyard has described the conclusion of In the Shadow of the Sword as “seismic”; he wrote in the Sunday Times that “Holland’s book leaves almost no aspect of the traditional story of Islam intact”. Another reviewer likened its treatment of the Quran to Dan Brown’s Christianity-as-conspiracy in The Da Vinci Code, “though with a little more class”.

The religion that emerged as Islam by the 8th century was, Holland would argue, just one manifestation of the furthest-reaching moral and ethical metamorphosis in history. Other expressions of the phenomenon were what we now call Judaism and Christianity – faiths that he suggests had taken on something like the form they wear today by the time of Muhammad, but similarly were once swirls of beliefs and doctrines.

Holland’s tale of how Islam came to define itself and its past is only one part of a much broader panorama: one that is ultimately about how Jews, Christians and Muslims all came by their understanding of religion. Does he present a bold new account that undermines Islam’s grip on its own past, or, as I argue, spin out a rich but speculative tale of the possible birth of three religions as novel tools to grapple with an era of geopolitical conflict and rivalry?

Nabeelah Jaffer

Nabeelah Jaffer Your chapters on the ambi­guity of early Christianity and Judaism have slipped under the radar amid the general buzz that you “rubbish” Islam and the expectant wait for some sort of backlash. How doyou feel about the assumption that Muslims are more likely to respond to challenging ideas with violent anger than followers of other religions? And do you think there will be a few far-right attempts to appropriate your ideas?

Tom Holland I think it is one measure of theeffect of the [Salman] Rushdie affair in this country that it is now widely taken for granted that writing anything about Islam will make angry men with beards – and probably hooks as well! – come to kill you. Whenever I have told people what the book was about, the word “fatwa” has invariably surfaced.

That being so, it was probably inevitable that the most eye-catching chapters in the book would be the ones about Islam. But why should any Muslim be offended by what I have to say? Mine is a non-believer’s attempt to explain a puzzle that Muslims, if they have faith, would deny was a puzzle at all. As an adult, I struggle to square my absolute conviction that Abraham and Moses never existed with the occasional flaring of a residual Christian faith. I hope that the resulting tension has been good for the book. Yes, it is sceptical; but no, it is never contemptuous of the longing of people to know God.

NJ I agree. I think both upset Muslims and pleased “Islamophobes” perceive in revisionism a threat to the religious narrative where none exists. The questions that you set out to answer only appear when you take a divine presence out of the equation.

You wrestle, for example, with the “bewilderingly eclectic array of sources” in the Quran, Abrahamic and otherwise. A Muslim would take this as proof of divine input and a revelation which encompasses Judaism and Christianity as part of a prophetic tradition. As a non-Muslim, you rule out this answer and search for an alternative scenario. Presenting a potential secular alternative to the “God” story doesn’t negate the narrative upheld by believers. So, turning to your secular alternative, how does it differ from traditional accounts?

TH All three religions, it seems to me, emerged out of the same melting pot – and yet all three have constructed backstories that aim to occlude the fact. In the first three centuries after Christ, Jews and Christians may have had a consciousness of themselves as peoples with distinct identities, but they remained unclear where precisely the border between them lay.

There were Jews who believed that Jesus had been the Messiah and there were Christians who followed the Jewish law – and it took an unacknowledged alliance between bishops and rabbis, in the centuries after the emperor Constantine, to ensure that what had previously been an open frontier became a no-man’s land. Similarly, a lot of Muslim historiography seems to me to have been composed with the aim of spiking the possibility that either the Quran or the sunna [laws] might conceivably have owed anything to infidel precedent.

NJ Of course, one of the first things you learn as a historian is to interrogate early chronicles for motive using context, whether geopolitical, religious or otherwise. But it is equally dangerous to lean towards the hypersceptic idea that texts cannot be relied upon except to tell us about their writers, meaning the document-free gaps in the past must always consist of near-impregnable darkness.

You don’t go quite that far in your book, but you do apply something of this very sceptical view to early Islamic sources which first appeared in the 200 years after the Prophet’s death as written accounts of oral testimony. You suggest, for example, that hadiths [sayings of Muhammad] targeting the rich were concocted to unsettle the rotten imperial elite. Your argument that “the dry rot of fabrication . . . was endemic throughout the sunna” is much more radical than the traditionalist, more common academic approach, which recognises the importance of testing for fabrication, but values the hadith as a body of secondary sources. I’d disagree that uncovering fabricated elements in these early sources undermines everything that they portray as authentic.

TH I think there’s a particular problem with the sources for early Islam. Some of the sayings attributed to Muhammad must surely be authentic – but even if we could identify them, their value as a source for his life would still not be greatly enhanced as a result.

Context, for the historian, is all – and no Muslim scholar or lawyer who cited the Prophet ever had the slightest interest in establishing what the original context of his sayings might actually have been. To quote him was to take for granted that the advice he had to give was timeless and universal. That Muslims in the heyday of the Caliphate were living under circumstances unimaginable to Muhammad never crossed their minds.

The real problem for the historian is that we lack what, for instance, [the 1st-century Roman-Jewish historian] Josephus gives us for the background to the life of Christ – a control. The consequence is that we can only hope to arrive at a sense of what might have happened in the early years of the Arab conquests by looking at the much later Muslim source material in the light of the late-antique world.

NJ In which case, no explanation of the origins of Islam is ever going to strike the mould for an authentic secular narrative. You rightly point out in your introduction the provisional nature of your own retelling of early Islam: “on a whole range of issues . . . there can only ever be speculation”. While you use Christian and Jewish traces in the Quran to suggest their influence on Muhammad, direct evidence remains elusive.

There’s a wonderful analogy in the book about it being similar to noticing that the eastern and western coasts of the Atlantic Ocean match like a jigsaw puzzle. There seems to be a link, but without clues as to how the two came together, it’s impossible to know for certain how to explain the gap. Historians are just replacing one take on an uncertain past with another.

TH The hypothesis I give in the book as to how and why Islam might have emerged is only that – a hypothesis. Patricia Crone, one of the most brilliant and innovative historians of early Islam, once memorably described the Muslim historical tradition as “a monument to the destruction rather than the preservation of the past”. That being so, it is hardly surprising that there should be such a breathtaking range of opinion, ranging from devout Muslims, who accept the tradition in its entirety, to radical sceptics who doubt that Muhammad so much as existed.

My own take is that the evolution of Islam can only really be made sense of in the light of the civilisations and religions of late antiquity. Partly, that is because it genuinely seems to me the best way to try to understand what might have happened in the 7th century; but I am sure it also reflects a subliminal desire on my part, in love with antiquity as I am, to feel that Islam, like Christianity, was bred of the ancient world.

NJ This debate has, until now, been limited to specialists, for the good reason that it requires a vast amount of study and a good knowledge of Arabic, at least, in order to draw authoritative conclusions from the available sources. Revisionists are few, and those such as Patricia Crone and Michael Cook who argue that Islam was born after the burgeoning of the Caliphate and the Arab conquests do so with the authority of their close understanding of the period, albeit little concrete evidence.

While you obviously draw on the work of such historians and are enthusiastic about the period, is it fair to present a narrative not grounded in direct engagement with the available sources?

TH In writing this book, I am standing on the shoulders of giants – or, to mix metaphors, rushing in where angels fear to tread. My justification is that if a generalist is not prepared to attempt it, then no one will. Perhaps, somewhere, there is a scholar with Latin, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic and Coptic, doctorates in Talmudic studies, patristics, Christian theology and Quranic studies and an ability to write accessibly for the general public – but if so, he or she is yet to write the book on the subject that I strongly felt merited being written.

Even the greatest historian of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, Edward Gibbon, had to profess his “ignorance of the Oriental tongues, and . . . gratitude to the learned interpreters”. Where I had the advantage, perhaps, was in having a brilliant research assistant, a native Arabic speaker with a specialisation in Syriac, and the incredible generosity of a wide range of scholars.

NJ Locating religious construction in the centuries that followed the death of Muhammad involves saying some particularly challenging things about the Quran and the Prophet himself. For example, you accept that the Quran seems to date from around Muhammad’s time, and certainly recent carbon-dating research suggests an early-7th-century date for indicative Quranic fragments.

When the German Quranic scholar Gerd Puin was allowed to examine the ancient manuscripts recently discovered in Sana’a, Yemen, he found possible evidence of minor changes to verse order and spelling, but uncovered no hint of deliberate fabrication. In the light of all this, proposing that figures such as the 7th-century caliph Abd al-Malik, whom you suggest put the Quran through an “editing process”, and the historian Ibn Hisham constructed a retrospective religion centred on a man named Muhammad, whom they situated in Mecca, seems a little extreme. There are direct mentions of Muhammad in the Quran itself, among dozens of other allusions to his life.

TH The problem for any non-Muslim trying to explain the origins of Islam is what to make of the Quran. It seems to me clearly to derive, in the form we have it, from the lifetime of Muhammad – which makes it, a few other brief and enigmatic documents aside, our only primary source for his career.

The problem is, I cannot possibly accept what Muslims take for granted: that it originates from God. And yet Mecca, so the biographies of the Prophet teach us, was an inveterately pagan city devoid of any large-scale Jewish or Christian presence, situated in the midst of a vast, untenanted desert. How else, then, are we to account for the sudden appearance there of a fully fledged monotheism, complete with references to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, if not as a miracle? You can only answer that question by asking yourself whether Muslims, at some point in the evolution of Islam, might not have situated the origins of the Quran deep in a desert for the same reason that Christians cast the mother of Christ as a virgin. In both cases, what is presumed to be an intrusion of the divine into the dimension of the mortal is being certified as an authentic, bona fide act of God.

NJ I don’t argue that religious practices shouldn’t be understood as firmly within their political and cultural contexts as possible. But religions are necessarily a human phenomenon in their practice, however divine we believe their inspiration and aspiration to be. “Monotheistic revolution” is a misnomer: the evolution of faith didn’t end with the melting pot of Byzantine.

TH I think in the early history of what emerges as rabbinical Judaism, of Christianity and of Islam, you see a near-identical process: the gradual fashioning, out of a great swirl of often inchoate rituals, convictions and scriptures, of a distinct religion that is coherent, in terms of both doctrine and institutions. Watchtowers and barriers go up, the aim being to keep the faithful inside set limits and to keep non-believers out. Histories are then written which make it seem as though the religion has always existed in the form that it now possesses, right from the very beginning – that Moses was a rabbi, that Jesus would have signed up to the Nicaean Creed, that Muhammad was truly the fountainhead of the sunna.

The concrete, initially so soft and malleable, by now has set. This does not mean, of course, that the various religions do not continue to evolve – but they do so within parameters that by now are irrevocably rigid, and exclude contributions from peoples of other faiths. It is in that sense, I would argue, that Jews, Christians and Muslims all today worship different gods.

“In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” by Tom Holland is out now (Little Brown, £25)
Nabeelah Jaffer is a journalist who specialises in Islamic culture and feminism

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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The world after Brexit

 The crucial variable is not British power but the weakness of Europe.

The challenges facing the United Kingdom over the next two years are numerous and increasing by the day: how to negotiate with the European Union, how to manage trade access after leaving the single market and customs union, how to deal with the rights of EU residents in Britain, how to sort out the Irish border, how to maintain the integrity of the United Kingdom and how to deal with an increasingly belligerent US president with a dwindling interest in the defence of Europe. This list is far from exhaustive.

All of these issues are hugely important and they are closely interconnected. At root, however, they are a question of order, not so much of the “rules-based” global international community, significant though that is, but of the European order around which the world system was originally constructed and that remains – for the UK, at least – the primary pivot.

To most eurozoners and many British Remainers, the UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU, the principal political ordering mechanism of our continent, was a tragic act of self-indulgence based on a risible overestimation of the country’s current significance and bargaining power. In this narrative, particular emphasis is placed on the role of England and the English, who are quixotically defying the march of history.

The Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole summed up this sentiment when he wrote, “The English are no longer dominant and powerful. They are a mid-sized, fairly average western European nation.” O’Toole dismissed as “hilarious” the Prime Minister’s threats that if Europe “does not play nice, she and Boris will destroy its economic artillery with their flashing sabres”. On this basis, he characterised Brexit as “imperial England’s last stand”, in the tradition of British “heroic failure”, from the Charge of the Light Brigade and Isandlwana to the Somme and Dunkirk.

In the same spirit, the distinguished Cambridge Goethe scholar Nicholas Boyle recently located Brexit in “a specifically English psychosis, the narcissistic outcome of a specifically English crisis of identity”. The first phase of this process, he argued, lay in the unions with Scotland and Ireland when the “English gave up their Englishness in order to become British”.

The second phase, Boyle suggested, has been the past fifty years or so, when the English “lost even that surrogate for identity and have been wandering ever since through the imperial debris that litters their homeland, unable to say who they are”. This explains, he continued, “the trauma of lost exceptionalism”, the English refusal to “become just another nation like everybody else . . . neither specially honourable nor specially dishonourable, with limited weight, limited resources, and limited importance in the world”, and to learn “to live in the world on an equal footing with other people”.

Instead, the English cling to “Britain” as a “figment . . . to disguise their oppressive, indeed colonial, relation to the other nations inhabiting Great Britain and Ireland”, a “self-deceptive device by the English to deny the Scots and the Irish a will of their own”. For this reason, Boyle concluded, the English resist not so much “the goal of a ‘super­state’”, which exists only in their “fearful imagination”, but the “idea of collaborating with equals”. The English Brexiteers, in short, are the “lager louts of Europe” who have engaged in “an act of geopolitical vandalism”.

These sentiments are echoed in continental Europe, sometimes equally trenchantly, sometimes in a more measured fashion. There, the emphasis is on the “rules” of the European “club”, whose members co-­operate on the basis of equality and will not accept any “cherry-picking”, such as Britain’s attempts to maintain access to the single market without paying the “dues”, including the unrestricted free movement of people that Brexit was designed to prevent.

This theme was reprised in January by Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, who now holds the rotating EU presidency and as such will be closely involved in the Brexit negotiations. He compared the EU to a “sports club”, from which the UK, as a former member, might expect some small favours after Brexit but no more. “You can aspire, maybe, to park your car in their parking lot if there is a free space,” he explained. “You can aspire to get into the gym at some times” – but that would be it.

On these readings, Britain’s future will be grim. It will be “adrift and irrelevant”, as some would have it, helplessly exposed to the chill winds of economic globalisation and friendless abroad. Even the integrity of the UK is in doubt, as the Scots and the Northern Irish move to assert their right to independence within Europe after Brexit.

Often, this is anticipated with satisfaction, as the just deserts for English vandalism. In Germany and much of the rest of Europe, such “Gott strafe England” thinking was much in evidence immediately after the referendum. Sometimes, it is contemplated with fear and regret – for example, in the New Statesman, which argued in a Leader in January: “A new constitutional settlement and the creation of a fully federal state are necessary if the UK is to survive.”

All of these analyses contain important truths and insights. Brexit has reopened the Scottish Question, for, though the 2014 referendum on independence was held after the intention to hold a vote on EU membership was announced, most of the people casting their ballots did so in the assumption that Britain would remain in the bloc.

The SNP First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is thus perfectly entitled to demand that the issue is revisited. It is equally correct that Brexit will mix the cards in Northern Ireland in ways that are deeply unhelpful to the peace process there, which rests partly on the involvement of the EU, and which would be damaged by any restrictions on free travel across the border.

Finally, it is right to warn of the economic effects that we will experience once Brexit is finally carried out. These are currently far less dire than “project fear” warned, but the present economic “phoney war” will surely end once Britain leaves the single market, with serious short-to-medium-term consequences for the City, manufacturing and other areas of the economy. Because the EU is a political project – just as Brexit is – we should not assume, as the prominent Brexiteer Daniel Hannan did recently, that Brussels or the national capitals will follow a purely economic logic.

Unfortunately, these analyses also rest on a flawed understanding of the European order and Britain’s place in it, which makes them unreliable guides to what lies ahead. In order to understand why this is so, we first have to remind ourselves of the historical and political foundations of the system that we inhabit.

The continental order is largely a product of British and latterly Anglo-American attempts to create a balance of power that would prevent the emergence of a hostile hegemon (first Spain, then France and then Germany), while being at the same time robust enough to ward off external predators (first the Turks, then Russia and then the Soviet Union). The resulting “goldilocks” problem, in which the continentals were
either too strong or too weak, has been one of the central axes of European history in the past half-millennium.

After the Second World War, the Americans, some visionary continentals and even some Britons (such as Winston Churchill) realised that the only way to cook porridge at exactly the right temperature was to establish a full democratic political union, with or without the UK. Such a United States of Europe could look after itself without endangering its neighbours and both embed and mobilise Germany for the common good. For various reasons, most of them to do with the incompetence and divisions of the continental Europeans, full union was never achieved; and while it remains the only answer to the European Question, its realisation seems further away today than ever.

The UK played and plays a unique role in the system. It is not in any meaningful sense “equal” to the other states of the “club” that it is leaving. Over the past three centuries – from the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, through the 18th-century European balance of power, the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, the Versailles Treaty of 1919, to the 1945 settlement and beyond – Britain has been central to the European order, far more than any other power. This remains true today, because the EU depends entirely on Nato, of which Britain is the dominant European member, for its security.

Though France likes to think of itself as a military superpower and boasts that it will be the only EU state with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council after Brexit, the reality is that it is a far inferior power in the European system. Its sovereignty was restored, perhaps unwisely, by the Anglo-Americans in 1944-45, and is now strongly qualified by how France controls neither its own currency nor its own borders, and while it could theoretically restore its sovereignty, this cannot be done without simultaneously establishing that of Germany, which is the one thing that French participation in the European enterprise was designed to prevent.

The EU may be a club and it can make whatever rules it likes, but it should never forget that the Anglo-Americans own the freehold of the property on which the club is built. Brussels and the continental capitals are at best leaseholders, and in many cases just tenants of this order. Put another way, the UK is not just another European “space” to be ordered, but one of the principal ordering powers of the continent.

In the same way, relations between the four nations of the United Kingdom have been largely determined by considerations of European order. Wales and Ireland were reduced so as to secure their resources and deny the enemy a “back door” to England. England combined with Scotland in 1707 for much the same reasons. With conquest and union came representation. Some of the oldest constituencies in the British parliament are Welsh; the Scots sent MPs to Westminster, as did the Irish after the Acts of Union in 1800, including Catholics eventually.

This arrangement had its faults, but it kept the lid on tensions within the nations (even in Ireland, where Union was designed as the answer to the fratricide of the 17th century and the 1790s) and between the nations. It also enabled the smaller peoples to be represented at the heart of government and to enjoy access to the empire and the global economic connections mediated by England, where “independence” meant both dominance by England, in any case, and exposure to foreign subversion and the English fear of it.

Geopolitically, therefore, English or British sovereignty is meaningful in a way that that of the Irish Republic is not, and that of an independent Scotland or Wales would not be. Politically, to be sure, the outcome of Brexit will put considerable pressure on the relations between the nations of the UK but, in the long term, as the intermediary role of the EU recedes, the bonds may well strengthen.

The nations of the United Kingdom, and especially England, thus already have their Union, which has survived the test of time – unlike the continental Europeans, who are either too big to be allowed to have national sovereignty (the Germans) or too weak for it to be meaningful (almost everybody else, probably including France). The English have a “goldilocks” constitutional and geopolitical body shape: small enough to be distinct and large enough to be viable. They therefore see no need to submerge their sovereignty in a still larger union. To them, the unrestricted free movement of people, which – if managed properly – elevates continental Europeans and knocks the edges off their more malign nationalisms, is unnecessary and potentially subversive of their own identity, regardless of what economic advantages it might bring.

Many Europeans and the more pessimistic Remainers believe that the post-imperial United Kingdom is too weak to survive outside of the EU and will probably fragment as a result of Brexit. This is almost certainly untrue. The power of the UK ultimately rests on the strength of England, enhanced by the support of the Scots, the Welsh and the (Northern) Irish.

England was a major power in Europe long before the overseas empire, and the UK remains one in military, economic and cultural terms today. The UK’s economy is more than twice the size of Russia’s, for example and, unlike Germany or Japan, it possesses nuclear weaponry and (notwithstanding some technical issues) the capacity to deliver them. In a Europe menaced by Vladimir Putin, that matters, particularly to the northern and eastern Europeans on whom Donald Trump has turned his back. So to call the UK or even England a “mid-sized, fairly average western European nation” seems very wide of the mark. It is a mistake that many have made over the years, invariably to their own cost.

In my view, the UK is unlikely to fragment under the shock of Brexit. The Welsh voted to leave the EU in similar proportions to the English. Scotland united with England three centuries ago partly because it was broke, partly to avoid being completely dominated by England, but mainly in order to present a common front to a menacing Europe. The Scots renewed that bond for similar reasons less than three years ago.

That calculus hasn’t substantially changed today, the principal difference being that a breach would create potential barriers to the 63 per cent of Scotland’s trade that is with the rest of the UK, as opposed to the 16 per cent that is with the EU. If Nicola Sturgeon calls another vote on the basis of staying within the single market or customs union, she will be beaten and she knows it.

Independence was only viable so long as both states were members of the EU. A vote to leave the UK would simply increase English power over Scotland and reduce the role that Scots currently play in deciding their own destinies. The economic and political might of England would shape the lives of Scots without them having even a numerically proportionate voice in those decisions, which is what the Union
grants today.

Nor should it be assumed that Brexit will fracture the UK in Northern Ireland. The role of London in containing tensions there remains unchanged and, while there was a clear majority for Remain in the province, there is an equally clear, overriding desire to remain part of the UK.

What will change is the status of the border. The blame game here will be complex, but it is far from certain that all of the opprobrium will land at London’s door. Theresa May has stated that whatever the position on goods, the free movement of people in the Common Travel Area, which long predates both countries’ membership of the EU, should continue. Dublin would dearly welcome such a solution.

The problem is not London, but Brussels. EU rules state that any member with a land border with a non-member state that is not a part of the Schengen Area – and that is what the UK will be after Brexit – is obliged to have border controls. It won’t be the British but the Europeans who will be dividing Ireland (or, by analogy, forcing an independent EU-member Scotland to erect a hard border with Britain). To submit to such a demand from Brussels would be as politically impossible for the Irish Republic as it would be difficult for it to resist the economic reprisals that may result from failing to do so. Once again – the last time being during the 2008 financial crisis – Dublin is discovering that it risks becoming an object buffeted by broader European forces that it is unable to control.

The truth is that Europe will struggle to devise a punishment for the UK that will not seriously harm Ireland first; or Scotland, if it manages to get past a Spanish veto on its independence. This is understood in Dublin, which is why the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has been trying to mitigate the effects of the British departure in Brussels. This is also understood in Berlin, where the chancellor, Angela Merkel, informally refers to the Irish leader as “Mr Brexit”. Unless the EU compromises here, Dublin will refuse to comply, and if it does compromise, it is hard to see how Brussels could effectively police a tariff barrier should London go for de facto free trade with Ireland. Ireland is now Britain’s greatest friend in Europe. The result may be that whatever the feats of Irish arms in the British uniform in years past, the greatest Irish services for the UK may lie ahead.

Moreover, the crucial variable is not British power but the weakness of Europe. Even before 2016, the European order was in a serious and largely self-generated crisis, as a result of the EU’s inability to get a grip on the common defence by deterring Russia; to defend the external border against illegal mass migration or redistribute those who had been admitted; and to sort out the euro crisis once and for all. First, the EU was upended by the vote for Brexit, then it was further shattered by the election of Donald Trump in the US.

The result of all this, in geopolitical terms, will be the opposite of what the pessimists predicted for Britain. Here, the crucial factor is not Trump’s enthusiasm for Britain, which may be fickle, but his undying contempt for the EU and most of its leaders. It was reiterated most recently during Theresa May’s visit to the US and further evidenced by his exemption of dual nationals of Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia from his arbitrary and unjust immigration ban. This defied all rationality – as the threat from British-born Islamists is considerable – but gave the US president another opportunity to show disrespect to mainland Europe. The contrast with the Obama administration and, indeed, with the entire thrust of postwar US policy, which has broadly welcomed European integration and underpinned the security of the continent, could not be greater. One way or the other, as the US reduces its stake in the European order – at least for four or even eight years – that of the other and previously junior principal shareholder, namely the UK, increases. Those are the laws of geopolitics.

Here, the remarks of the Maltese prime minister, Joseph Muscat, and the history of his country illustrate the nature of the European order in times past, the problems facing it today and the contrast between the UK and most of continental Europe. The fate of Malta over the past 500 years has been determined by many: the Turks, the Spanish Habsburgs, the Russians, the French, the Russians and the Americans, but most often and for the longest time by Britain, which is still present to the east and west of the island, in Gibraltar and Cyprus.

Through no particular fault of their own, the Maltese have had relatively little to do with it all (and for Malta, read much of continental Europe). They have been largely objects and not subjects of the European system. Today, Muscat speaks not with the democratically legitimated authority of a leader of a federal Europe, but as the passing chairman of a confederation with federal aspirations. When Bill Clinton spoke, he did so as the president of a mighty union, not as a representative of little Arkansas, but who does Muscat speak for? Until mainland Europe can answer that question satisfactorily, Britain is unlikely to be quaking in its boots.

This is why a confrontation is so risky for the EU. If it tries to impose a punitive trade regime in order to compel Britain to accept the free movement of people – and thus a surrender of sovereignty – London will retaliate. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister said this in no uncertain terms when they threatened to explore alternative tax regimes. This would be an asymmetrical struggle. On trade, the EU would at first have the upper hand; indeed, a trade war is just about the only thing that Brussels can wage effectively.

Unlike Greece, however, Britain cannot be forced to its knees by economic measures alone, and unlike Greece it would adapt and diversify. London would apply the considerable talents and resources of its various institutions to subverting the EU. The UK would be unable to uphold its security guarantees in Nato if those being protected were engaged in a vicious war against British livelihoods.

In the end, victory would go not to those who can inflict the most but those who can endure the most – and those are the nations of the UK. British society will cohere under pressure, whereas the peoples of most European states will wobble. Whatever the rhetoric, there is no stomach for fighting Britain in Germany, in many other member states, or in eastern Europe. The EU would fragment long before the UK does, alas.

If the continentals wish to change this situation – and it would be in everybody’s ultimate interest if they did – they will need to do what the British did in 1707, which, as I have argued before in these pages, is to
establish a full political union of nations with a common parliament to sustain the common currency and the common defence. It is the one thing that they steadfastly refuse to do. In this sense, the Europeans are driving on the wrong side of the road and the continent really is cut off, isolated from the basic principles of constitutional construction by its mental fog.

The Americans, Winston Churchill remarked, always do the right thing in the end, having tried all other options first. He might have added that the continental Europeans never exhaust the other possibilities. In the EU, as it is currently configured, they have created a dysfunctional monster so bizarre that it could not have been invented by the most sadistic KGB agent in a political laboratory in the Lubyanka.

The Europeans have taken the immense economic, military and cultural powers of the continent and shrunk them, so that the whole is far less than the sum of the parts. The record shows Europe’s almost infinite capacity for the creative pursuit of political unhappiness.

The significance of all this for the present day lies in the reality that what truly matters is not the detail of how Article 50 is to be implemented, or how trade should be managed during and after Brexit, or how Europe is to be defended if the question mark over the American commitment to Nato grows, as important and often intractable those issues might be. Rather, what matters is the deeper issue of European order. Will the EU accept that the only answer to its problems is the full federal union of the eurozone and those who wish to join it, in a deep confederal association with a sovereign UK in trade and defence? Or will it insist on making an example of Britain economically, thus precipitating a confrontation in which the Europeans hold much weaker cards than they imagine?

And will the UK encourage the establishment of a stable political union on the continent that would be to its own ultimate benefit? Or will it promote the further dissolution of an already tottering EU, and thus aggravate a crisis of the European order that Britain may survive better than any other actor, but at an unacceptable economic and military price? A grand bargain between the two unions is achievable, but confrontation is possible and even likely.

In this context, it is encouraging that the government seems to be thinking of the European order and Britain’s place in it in broader terms. The problem confronting the Prime Minister today is similar to what faced her forefathers for hundreds of years. How to construct a European system that is stable enough to provide a viable trading partner and to defend itself, but not so strong or so malevolent as to become a threat to the sovereignty of the UK? How to arrange the relations between the nations of these islands for the benefit of all in the context of severe external challenges? Here, Theresa May’s speeches at Lancaster House and in Philadelphia, whatever reservations one might have on the detail, pointed in the right direction. She spoke of the “preservation of our precious Union” – that is the United Kingdom – and of her belief that it “remains overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”.

She pointedly repeated these words to a US Republican Party audience in Philadelphia, and she bravely nailed Donald Trump down on the defence of eastern Europe in Washington, DC. Even such a confirmed Brexiteer as Daniel Hannan has called for Britain to support the European order as a “flying buttress” from the outside. The UK is, or could be, the best friend that the EU has, if only it would see it.

London understands that the European humpty-dumpty is hanging on by its fingernails, as Trump, Vladimir Putin and the various pre-existing crises stomp along the wall. If it comes to a confrontation, Britain could push it off – if the EU does not fall or jump of its own accord first. Even if it were done in self-defence, that would be a passing and hollow triumph for Theresa May, because she knows that, like her predecessors over the ages, she will have to help put humpty-dumpty together again. 

Brendan Simms is a professor of international relations and the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge, and a New Statesman contributing writer. He is the author (with Charlie Laderman) of “Donald Trump: the Making of a World-View” (Kindle ebook only, Endeavour Press)

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit