Arm’s length detachment has been the English instinct for at least half a millennium. Over all of those centuries, the central British objective has been the undermining of any continental country, or grouping of countries, that became excessively powerful.
The UK’s membership of the EU goes against that deeply engrained semi-detachment. The tendency in some quarters today, on both the British right and left, to see a united continent as a constraint on, and even a threat to, their freedom of action at home and in the wider world is consistent with centuries-long thinking in our neighbouring island.
Because of our own relationship with our bigger neighbour, we in Ireland tend to overstate its power historically and focus excessively on its relatively short imperial period. British Euroscepticism is often attributed to a desire to dominate when in fact it is really about a much deeper fear of continental domination, from Imperial Rome, the Vikings and the Normans to Napoleon and the Nazis.
“Buccaneering” is a term beloved of Brexiteers. It has in origins in the late 17th century when English adventurers and pirates harried Spanish ships bringing booty back from the new world. These ”plucky” types, also a much-loved adjective among Brexiteers, were underdogs, not representatives of a great power.
Because of its inherent weakness, England teamed up with other weaker countries to balance the bigger powers. Portugal is often described as Britain’s oldest ally. That alliance was based not on friendship, but a common purpose against a common enemy – Spain, then a superpower.
This was nothing new. A century before the buccaneers, Elizabeth I sent troops to the Netherlands to fight Spain. She allied with the weaker French against the Spanish because without allies to counter- balance the dominant power, England would be overrun. She put it in existential terms, justifying the alliance with the old enemy by saying “whenever the last day of France came, it would also be the eve of the destruction of England”.
That entangling Anglo-French alliance proved temporary. As soon as France eclipsed Spain as the dominant European power, it became the focus of English insecurities. Any continental power, or nightmarish coalition of powers, was to be undermined and counter-balanced whenever and wherever possible.
But that was not easy because England was not in the European premier league. Historian Geoffrey Parker puts English military manpower in 1650 on a par with Sweden, well below the heavy hitters of France and Spain.
The 1700s brought greater political stability in the newly-formed British union. Europe’s commercial revolution of the 1500s, scientific revolution of the 1700s and the industrial revolution that followed closely behind brought great change. While France led the first of those revolutions, Britain led the third. Economic success pushed it into the big league, although the limits of British power at the time were to be seen in its failure to hang on to its American colonies in the 1770s. The French revolution came in the following decade. The rise of revolutionary France was immediately seen in Britain in traditional terms. The long-standing strategic objective to prevent any one power on the continent from coming to dominate kicked in. The ensuing conflict was the biggest in British history up to that point. The Napoleonic wars – close-run thing that they were – almost bankrupted Britain, but victory brought superpower status.
The Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 brought together the alliance of European states which defeated Napoleon. Britain’s old fear of continental entanglements asserted itself yet again. In keeping with a policy of not seeking territory on the continent, in place since the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453 (Gibraltar was the exception), Britain did not look for land from defeated France. Rather than joining the most powerful victors – Austria, Prussia and Russia – in their Holy Alliance, Britain wanted a less committed relationship and entered into the looser Quadruple Alliance with them.
The unification of Germany in the late 19th Century, and its rise to become the dominant continental power, led Britain back to conflict – twice – in the first half of the 20th Century. For many Britons their country’s finest hour was not the short period in the 19th Century when it could claim to be the most powerful country in the world, but the early 1940s when it was the underdog holding out alone against German dominance.
In the second half of the 20th Century, when Europeans fixed on a new system to manage their affairs, Britain’s enduring strategic calculus demanded not only non-participation, but an effort to undermine the project. So alarmed by the threat that the creation of a European customs union was perceived to pose to British interests, Prime Minister Harold McMillan wrote in June 1958 that “we would fight back with every weapon in our armoury. We would take our troops out of Europe. We would adopt a policy of isolationism.”
Britain was more comfortable with the US-led Nato alliance, founded a decade earlier and designed (in the words of a British general) “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down”.
When Britain did eventually join the then EEC it did so mainly because it was historically weak economically, and based on a belief that freeing trade with the continent could remedy that weakness.
In the post-1945 era Britain had come to be known the ”sick man of Europe”, a term that originated in the 19th century to describe the collapsing Ottoman regime. The ultimate ignominy took place when the International Monetary Fund arrived in London in 1976 to bail Britain out.
Unlike most other European countries, support for joining the European project did not have the full support of all the main parties. Many in the Labour movement campaigned against membership in the 1975 referendum and the party pledged a Brexit in its 1983 election manifesto.
After joining, Britain almost always sought to prevent deeper entanglement. It tried to put the brake on further integration time and again. But that rarely worked, and the widening politicisation of the project triggered a growing opposition which came to dominate the politics of the Conservative Party, as the on-going convulsions show so clearly.
The deep instinct and inclination on Europe was not confined to the Conservatives, but was also evident in Tony Blair’s ”New” Labour Party.
When back in power in the late 1990s, chancellor Gordon Brown was adamantly opposed to joining the euro. Because there was wide-ranging support for this position across the political spectrum Brown was able to thwart his prime minister’s desire to swap the pound for the euro.
Brown was dismissive, in part because the British economy had overcome decades of its underperformance. In keeping with a history of gazing beyond Europe, he was more interested in what policy lessons could be learned from the US than from the continent.
As prime minister, and perfectly symbolising Britain’s semi-detachment, Brown was the only EU leader who didn’t travel to the Portuguese capital for the signing ceremony of the Lisbon Treaty, the last significant change to the EU’s de facto constitution.
Today, the current leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn is a life-long eurosceptic and in the Conservatives the Brexiteers are purging non-believers.
The implications of all this for Ireland are depressing.
Having a more powerful neighbour, which has been the source of so much insecurity over the centuries, locked into the European rules-based system was as close to ideal as it gets in a world in which relative power will always matter.
Those of us who have hoped that something might turn up in British politics – a second referendum reversing Brexit or the election of a pro-remain government – need to accept that Britain’s relationship with the EU has changed forever and that it will never return to how it was in the 1973-2016 period. Not much can be said with certainty, but staying in the EU, which is a most basic national interest, while managing relations with a semi-detached and instinctively disruptive Britain, will be an enduring strategic nightmare.