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A history of leaving and remaining

Brexit is not the first time we have given up our stake in the continent – it’s just one more step in our long European adventure.

How helpful is history to understanding Brexit? Surely guidance from the past is one of the most useful tools that we have – and, indeed, this is what justifies its study?

Sadly, I fear that history very rapidly becomes pretty gnomic and tiresome. Historians immediately enact one of those scenes from Battle Royale or The Hunger Games where they all rush to grab the nearest weapon to hand, commit an act of ghastly violence with it and then themselves fall victim to something awful with prongs. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that history encompasses the entire course of human experience and can be as legitimately read as an onward-and-upward narrative of increased decency and diminished violence, or as a sort of endless comic strip of Dadaist accident, wretchedness and absurdity.

British (or English) attitudes towards mainland Europe provide ample weapons for both Brexit and Remain arguments, all of which can be repurposed with a different twist by the opposing side. It is undoubtedly the case that every century sees British (I will use this term throughout in an attempt to avoid the argument about which usage is correct in which century) troops engaged on the mainland. In each century these would have been the most vivid, controversial and anxious years for much of the country, only diminished in drama by passing time.

From a Brexit-Remain point of view all these engagements, however, create a nil-all draw. There are striking and less familiar examples of this. One absolute constant has been the safety of the Strait of Dover. Since long before the arrival of the Romans it has been a seaway dense with shipping and yet almost always under potentially hostile control. Until its loss in 1558, Calais, the last piece of booty from the Hundred Years War, had fulfilled that guard function. But the subsequent attempts to fix the loss were dismayingly lackadaisical.

Just recently I was in Zeeland in the Netherlands, wandering around Vlissingen (Flushing) and the charismatically haggard old Fort Rammekens, guarding the mouth of the River Scheldt as monstrous container ships nudge their way up the river to Antwerp. The river’s upper reaches were thick with storage cylinders and piping seemingly modelled on the futuristic industrial complex that blows up at the beginning of each episode of Thunderbirds.

In 1585, during her tentative steps to help the Dutch rebels fighting Spain, Elizabeth I formally took over the sovereignty of Vlissingen, Rammekens and the town of Brielle (Brill) further to the north. These “Cautionary Towns”, as they were cheerfully known, anchored Britain to the continent, linked the Protestant powers and helped trade and security. And yet Elizabeth’s successor, the cash-strapped James I, simply sold them back to the Dutch.

A similarly woeful tale unfolded in 1658 during the English Commonwealth, when in a somewhat surreal geopolitical twist Oliver Cromwell’s dour troops fought alongside the French to defeat a Spanish and British Royalist exile army outside Dunkirk. This Spanish town (Dunquerque!) was now handed over to Cromwell on 25 June, “the Mad Day” (when Dunkirk was Spanish in the morning, French at lunchtime, British in the afternoon).

Dunkirk’s position was formidable, protected by huge, shifting sandbanks and with its harbour only approachable from sea between the Splinter Sands moles – two state-of-the-art stone piers driven through the sands and bristling with forts and cannon. Under Spanish control it had devastated British shipping, but now in British hands it at last ensured a safe future. But no! Just four years later Charles II sold it to the French, who have owned it ever since. The jetties were further upgraded and in subsequent wars with Britain, the French pirates using Dunkirk captured and destroyed hundreds of British ships.

In 1688 one of the most famous of British entanglements in Europe was launched by William of Orange’s enormous invasion fleet sweeping down the Channel – a fleet so large that it almost simultaneously fired a salute as it passed Dover on its right wing and Calais on its left. The resulting shared monarchy was a fresh and startling bit of European engagement that transformed Britain and brought to an end a period of low-rent weakness that historians other than Macaulay tend to pass over with
all speed.

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This on-again-off-again engagement with Europe offers little comfort for either side in our current argument. The pattern continued during the 18th century, where the British monarch also being Elector of Hanover helped entangle Britain in a serious of immense wars. These epic struggles (the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, the American Revolutionary War) now have little grip on our minds and yet were central to generations of British subjects.

One major anti-Brexit point can be made for the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Whenever London disengaged from Europe it was because there was a major Plan B – such as invading India or settling North America or inventing the Industrial Revolution. Equally, a lot of colonial fighting was in fact a form of surrogacy to wind up European rivals with less shipping. These European powers would be obliged to send scarce ships, which could otherwise have been blocking the Channel, to Asia to protect their remote little outposts. Many parts of the world have English speakers today simply as a side-effect of European wars, their modern cultural orientation the result of London’s inability many years ago to invade Amsterdam, Paris or Madrid successfully. It could be argued therefore that one of Brexit’s historical oddities is that the UK has no conceivable Plan B, with no new markets to find, nowhere left to invade or settle and no unique, paradigm-changing invention to monopolise.

At the end of British “involvement” in Europe during the decades of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, there was a further opportunity for a permanent British presence. With France prostrate and the future sovereignty of the old Austrian Netherlands (inherited a century before from Spain and roughly equivalent to modern-day Belgium) up for grabs, the map of Europe was ripe for reshaping.

The plan evolved for permanent fortresses and garrisons on France’s borders, with an enlarged Netherlands ruled from Amsterdam and taking in the whole Low Countries. In a moment of staggering geopolitical significance, Prussia was persuaded to take over the old rubble of small German territories around Cologne, Koblenz and Essen, so at the first cheeky gesture by the French their army could roll in. The Russian army, which occupied Champagne, was on the other hand encouraged to go home as, with the war over, its presence seemed increasingly unnerving.

The large British occupation army based in northern France simply packed up, and no coastal base was claimed to allow future deployment. So the British, in their haste to exit, accidentally made Prussia into a major western power, handed them the Ruhr Valley – which was about to become mainland Europe’s greatest industrial centre – and patched together a new Dutch kingdom that fell apart only 15 years later with the Belgian Revolution.

The following century to 1914 has often been described as the Pax Britannica, but for many peoples all over the world it did not, to be honest, look tremendously paxy. It was true that Britain did not fight in Europe except on the Black Sea and very briefly in the Baltic, but it established its key concern – which was that the new Kingdom of Belgium had to be a neutral state. This neutrality was not the same as, say, Switzerland’s. It was an externally guaranteed one: Belgian sovereignty was real but constrained by the needs of the (not necessarily benevolent) states that were meant by treaty to protect it. As Belgium thrived and became a major industrial state, its neutrality was extremely helpful to the UK, again guaranteeing British access to Europe even at times of considerable military tension with France.

The gradual British realisation during the following decades that France had burned itself out as the expansive power – and that the problem now possibly lay further east – is the century’s great theme. Both France and Britain, of course, sublimated their urges through countless colonial scuffles, spreading a complex net of violence, appropriation and settlement throughout the world, with even the tiniest Pacific island ravaged by disease and picked over by missionaries and phosphate and copra companies.

Even at the height of British imperial power there were multiple connections with the rest of Europe – it is just that these did not involve warfare. Investment, tourism, royal links, congresses all made the UK a major European power, albeit more readily distractible than others. The century also saw two key varieties of European unease: about the rise of the United States and the rise of Russia. Both presented staggering investment opportunities, the former becoming home to floods of European migrants, but both suggesting to pessimists that Europe may have an increasingly limited room for manoeuvre – a malaise that we are reliving today with the rise of China.

The Fashoda Incident of 1898, when British forces in Sudan faced off against a smaller French force attempting to create a colonial empire running from Dakar to Djibouti is traditionally seen as the point when, following French humiliation there, the British and the French decide to bury the hatchet. But it also marked the final phase of the two countries grabbing bits of the world, working together in the following years to parcel up the remaining parts of Africa, make Siam a buffer zone between their empires and fix the last Pacific islands.

It is in a way hardly surprising that the First World War follows so closely on this final reckoning. The world was now seemingly sealed up and colonially complete. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia-Herzegovina happened almost where you would expect it, in the turmoil of the different Balkan states fighting over the last European scraps of the Ottoman empire.

British involvement in “the European project” became central to its existence, with the same ports that had featured in earlier wars now pouring British troops into battlefields familiar from earlier centuries. Outrage over the German invasion of Belgium was genuine, setting off alarm-bells to which the Germans themselves in Berlin had been deaf. Military technology had now entered a phase familiar to the Dutch wars with Spain and France in the 16th and 17th centuries: all the advantages lying with whichever side was on the defensive – with catastrophic results.

As in 1815, with the war’s end the British were unenthusiastic about occupation duties, leaving much of these to the French, although keeping a zone around Cologne (there are striking photos of British tanks parked outside the cathedral). Unlike France, which rapidly recovered after Napoleon, Germany was viewed as such an abject nation, ruined by hyper-inflation, reparations, epidemic and internal dissent, that anxiety about the country as a locus for a future war seemed implausible.

The British engagement with Europe throughout the 1920s was intense, particularly focused on the now rather forgotten figure of Austen Chamberlain, Neville’s half-brother, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925 for seemingly fixing all outstanding territorial issues in Western Europe. Neville Chamberlain’s “appeasement” policy was an extension of this deep British engagement in Europe, with Britain putting itself forward as the continuing arbiter on frontiers and nations, albeit with terrible consequences.


Unenthusiastic occupiers: the British Grenadier Guards in Cologne after the First World War

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To describe the Second World War in pro- or anti-Brexit terms is to trivialise it hopelessly. The initial key issues were traditional for London: the control of the Channel; Calais’s transformation in 1939-40 into a conduit for a new, high-technology British army; and deep unease around Belgian neutrality. The Channel ports again became crucial – but for the wrong reason that Britain itself had been defeated, with Dunkirk for a short period the focus of the hopes and fears of the world. Curiously, in both world wars the German army had argued about the priority to be given to the Channel ports. In 1914 the German strategy saw them in the end as secondary and Britain’s declaration of war came too late for the “Schlieffen Plan” to be adapted, giving Britain unthreatened access to the continent throughout the war. In 1939 the original German plans had given top priority to the ports, but this was superseded by Lieutenant General Erich von Manstein’s revisions to the “Fall Gelb” plan for the invasion of France and the Low Countries – which, as an accidental side-effect, allowed an Allied retreat to the ports. It is arguable that these opening German decisions lost them both wars.

British involvement with Europe post-1945 was extensive, both as a major occupying power and as a moral beacon (London had offered wartime shelter to several Allied exile governments). One of the permanent and absolutely surprising impacts of the Second World War was to beat back and finally defang completely Europe in the rest of the world. Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies and British, French and American possessions, British promises made to South Asia, and the Americans and Soviets having the whip-hand – all these factors helped to chase the Europeans out of most of the world between roughly 1947 and 1963, a shorter period of extraordinary drama than lies between ourselves and, say, 9/11.

I have been battling to present this essay as being neither a pro- nor an anti-Brexit assessment. It is undoubtedly true that for long periods of its history the UK has seen itself as apart. But it is noticeable that these can either be put under the heading of periods of abject weakness (Charles II) or to do with enacting a Plan B (settling Australasia). It could be that the Brexit vote indeed ushers in a new period of abject weakness. After all, a key impact of leaving will be that we will no longer have any say in the affairs of the rest of Europe. At the moment, from Dingle to the Dodecanese and from Lapland to Lisbon, we have a serious form of sovereignty – and we are voluntarily handing this in. And yet with the rest of the European Union much bigger than ourselves we will inevitably, and no doubt resentfully, either firmly remain in its orbit or become a tasty scrap fought for between the EU and USA.

But perhaps we should embrace this. After all, Charles II’s reign still resonates today as a time of cheerful self-indulgence and sexual rampancy. A final shedding of the idea of Britain as a special case may be in all our interests: living with ourselves simply as a normal country may be refreshing. Brexit decisively breaks the trajectory begun with the Entente Cordiale, just as fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has broken our last appetite for a “global role”. Of course Charles II’s reign also saw the Great Plague and London burned to the ground, but you can’t have everything. 

Simon Winder is the author of “Lotharingia: A Personal History of Europe’s Lost Country”

This article appears in the 12 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure