One of the most common phrases in political debate in recent decades has been “Britain and Europe”: a formulation that suggests that these two entities are at once somehow monolithic and also distinct from each other. Yet, before the Second World War, the phrase “Britain and Europe” was much less prevalent, and there are good historical reasons why. In messy historical reality, as distinct from much present-day polemic, “Britain” and “Europe” have rarely followed entirely distinctive paths, any more than they have ever – either of them – been monolithic structures.
To be sure, “Britain” is made up of multiple islands, and notions of geographic insularity have often been important for British self-imagining. For much of human history, however, travelling by sea was easier and faster than travelling long distances overland, so being geographically insular has often worked in practice to facilitate, not obstruct, British contacts with other European countries.
To be sure, too, Britain once possessed a mighty maritime empire, and those Brexiteers who argue that Britain should therefore pursue a variety of global alliances are correct. But a one-time maritime empire is actually one of many things that Britain has in common with many other EU states. Denmark, Holland, France, Germany, Portugal, Belgium – all at one time invaded other stretches of the globe. So did Spain, which before 1800 had a bigger overseas empire than Britain’s own.
By the same token, it is certainly true that we have often gone to war with other European states. On occasions, as some Brexiteers point out, this British bellicosity has been in order to prevent a rival European power from becoming overmighty.
However, historical accuracy requires us to recognise that it was sometimes Britain itself which threatened the European balance of power, and that while this country has indeed frequently warred with its neighbours, it has usually done so only in alliance with other European powers.
Given that, in these and countless other ways, the British past has been so intermingled with and has occurred in tandem with the experiences of other Europeans, why has the binary notion of “Britain and Europe” become so pervasive in recent decades?
Part of the answer is war. Britain’s particular experience of the Second World War – its freedom from invasion and its emergence on the winning side – contributed to a sense of distinction from the Continent, and made many of its people and politicians react rather differently to post-1945 experiments for European realignment from those continental Europeans who had experienced defeat and invasion. And because the Second World War was one of the last occasions on which Britain played a central role in world history, it has remained an iconic, perhaps overly iconic, ingredient of popular culture and mythologies.
At the same time – and like other relatively cosseted peoples in the West – British civilians have become blissfully forgetful about the prospect of military conflict. Yet, historically, the comparative peace that western Europe has enjoyed since 1945 is an aberration. Even more than economic matters, this seems to me the prime reason why Britain needs to keep its close Europeans relations in good repair and strengthen them.
It is sometimes argued that it is Nato, not the EU and its predecessors, that should be credited with the post-1945 peace; but both of these transnational organisations have played an essential role. As someone who works in the United States, I must add that we should not – we really should not – discount the possibility of a future President Trump. He (or so he sometimes claims) is no friend of Nato. The US has a long, only partly buried tradition of isolationism, and is anyway increasingly focused on Asia. It would be unwise, therefore, to assume that America will always be available to prop up the European powers. Instead, Europeans – including the British – will need to collaborate ever more closely to defend themselves.
In some respects, current Euroscepticism only underlines just how European Britons are. In many other parts of Europe, too, especially at blue-collar level, and especially on the political right, there has been a marked rise in recent years in dissatisfaction with the EU, and a similar rise in nativist passions.
This resurgent nativism has been caused in general by unhappiness about immigration and globalisation. But British Euroscepticism and nativism also have more specific roots. Since 1945, this polity has experienced both huge change and a rapid contraction in global reach. Many people have been left feeling disoriented and bereft and in need of an energising fresh start. Such responses easily feed into Brexit.
There is consequently a need for new, imaginative stories of British collective and international purpose and identity. Just as – despite last year’s referendum on Scottish independence – the Union will not survive in a happy state unless its rationale and workings can be re-envisioned and relegitimised, so, by the same token, even if Remain triumphs on 23 June this will hardly be enough. Men and women do not live by bread alone. They also need sustaining ideas. If we do remain, we need better (and better-expressed) ideas, not about “Britain and Europe”, but rather about Britain engaging more constructively in Europe.
Linda Colley is a professor of history at Princeton University and the author of Acts of Union and Disunion (Profile). This column is based on a speech she delivered at 11 Downing Street on 24 May.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe