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4 January 2023

Fifty years after joining the European Communities, Britain still doesn’t know what it is or wants

Britain’s unresolved Europe question is inseparable from its unresolved England question.

By Jeremy Cliffe

It is easy, as a British Remainer, to survey the country precisely 50 years after it joined the European integration project and lament its recent submission to bloviating Brexiteer tribunes of “Global Britain” who have not got over the loss of empire. After all, this makes for a flattering narrative. They, the Faragistes, are captive to tweedy post-imperial insecurities about the country being “not what it was”. By contrast we, the European Brits, are over it. We are at ease with the changing of the times and with a national destiny as a normal continental country.

Yet you can believe that Brexit has been a national disaster – which it has – and also that things are not quite as neat as all that. When on 1 January 1973 Britain became a member of the European Economic Community (EEC), it did not do so cosily reconciled to its new status but in many respects clinging to its old one. As the (pro-Remain) historian Robert Saunders put it in a paper in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History in 2020, “Europe [was] a symbol, not of hope, but of loss… [The] desire to lead Europe has as strong an imperial pedigree as the desire to leave it.”

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He noted that even Europhiles of the time evinced the deep insecurities ascribed to Europhobes today. As chancellor in the 1960s, Roy Jenkins saw accession as consistent with “imperial commitments worthy of… Joseph Chamberlain, Kitchener of Khartoum and George Nathaniel Curzon”. Margaret Thatcher, campaigning for Yes in the 1975 referendum, presented EEC membership as a restoration of the old tradition whereby “enterprising Britons carried our flags, our trade, our culture and our justice to the corners of the Earth”.

Such arguments echoed in the 2016 Remain campaign and continue to do so among many liberal Rejoiners today, in the insistence that Britain should wield outsized influence in Europe consistent with a kind of buccaneering grandeur that goes beyond a simple assertion of the UK’s national interest. I recognise elements of my own opposition to Brexit in such convictions.

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Can we really say these axioms are not at least partly rooted in the same British exceptionalism as harrumphing Brexitism? That they do not also draw on what the writer Aris Roussinos recently called “the ideology of global Britain [that] has made the British governing class incapable of running a small north-west European archipelago, prisoners of a delusion that Britain must always strive to be world-beating, even as it struggles to maintain parity with its closest neighbours”? That all that talk of “punching above our weight” via the EU does not betray certain insecurities about our country’s post-imperial status? That, buried in such claims, there is not a nagging sense of loss?

The truth is that something binds together both the Britain of 1973 with that of 2023, and much of the pro-Brexit cause with significant parts of the pro-European one: what the theorist Paul Gilroy in 2004 described as “postcolonial melancholia”. That kinship across time and creed is summed up today by Westminster and Whitehall, where Brexiteer and Remainer elites alike battle the declinist deluge rising through the fraying carpets and seeping through the leaky roofs of buildings from which a quarter of the world was once governed: the Palace of Westminster, the Treasury, the Foreign Office. Think Vienna with less self-awareness, lower living standards and more asbestos.

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Britain has been an imperial entity for the majority of its political existence. It came together in the Acts of Union 1707 after the failure of Scotland’s own imperial Darien venture in Panama. Britishness as an identity and experience is thus shaped primarily by empire – with the welfare state that emerged alongside decolonisation in the postwar years in a distant second place that becomes more distant the more it disintegrates. The identities that most confidently transcend this today are those of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which draw on pre-empire cultural, legal, religious or political traditions. Meanwhile, England remains the big gap in the middle. It lacks its own political institutions and its identity is often shunned and abandoned to the white working-class fringe. As Rudyard Kipling, imperial Brit par excellence, once sneered: “What should they know of England who only England know?”

Yet look more closely and this is both paradoxical and explanatory. Paradoxical as England’s identity has become weighted down by a sense of post-imperial loss that really belongs to Britain. And explanatory as it is the missing part of the puzzle. England constitutes 84 per cent of Britain by population. Its capital city is the British capital. It possesses deep pre-imperial seams of culture and inspiration that could undergird a post-exceptionalist identity not reliant on lingering pretensions of empire, whether in Europe or the wider world: “Jerusalem”, not “Rule, Britannia!”.

The key to Britain’s current malaise is this elision of the unresolved Europe question with the unresolved English question. To find a settled place in Europe, Britain must overcome the seething post-imperial melancholy that, whether it takes Remainer or Brexiteer form, is fundamentally destabilising to its role in the continental order. To do that it must revive England, its institutions and identity. It must bring an inclusive, progressive Englishness out from under the imperial carapace of Britishness – whether as a European nation state in its own right or as a proud part of a genuinely federal, poly-centric, quadripartite union. To stabilise Britain, let England shake.

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This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege