Was Brexit, in the context of history, society and British culture, always bound to happen?
For some, Brexit was unforeseeable. The connotations of the UK ripping itself out of a deep and complex political and economic union were simply too great and the potential for disaster simply too high. The intertwined relationships between the UK and her European neighbours were too good and personal to cut off. This turned out not to be the case. Whilst I would hesitate to say that Vote Leave was always bound to win the Referendum – I had no doubt that the case for Remain was more convincing and a better path for the country in the long-run – I did consider after the vote that looking at history there was a certain inevitability about our vote to leave the EU, especially when the history of the United Kingdom is understood and its wider meaning for the British mentality and self-belief.
In historical terms, Brexit can be traced to 8,000 years ago when the true split between the United Kingdom and Europe came – when the island of Great Britain physically split from the European mainland and Britannia became an island. The importance of this geographical Brexit cannot be underestimated. The nature of our island home has been prominent in shaping our identity as a maritime power, in which subsequently was shaped the image of an imperialist power, a nation of traders and a country that was strong whilst being detached from everyone else and yet perhaps more importantly it has allowed Britain to remain sovereign over herself since 1066. The fact that Britain has been self-governing for almost a thousand years and sees itself as the victor over such dominant and conquering empires as those of Napoleon and Hitler, enabled by the English Channel separating Britain’s lands from those of the Continent, means that the UK has had profoundly different historical experiences to those of our European neighbours – explaining in part the rift between us and our understanding of where the future should take us in the context of our history. In part, our non-experience of conquest, occupation, destruction and societal renewal is why the United Kingdom cannot be said to be European, in the sense that our shared experience is not that of the history of Europe. It is alone a British history which marks us out as different.
Another historical Brexit may also be cited as a reason for British detachment from the Continent – the split with Rome under Henry VIII. For the sake of Henry’s marriage, the Kingdom of England in the 1530’s demoted the Pope as head of the Church of England, laying the foundations for the establishment of a distinctly English Protestant Church which would mark the later United Kingdom out from its predominantly Catholic European neighbours (the Calvinist Church in Scotland would too help reinforce this clear difference between the UK and Europe in matters of faith, which so often in Medieval and Georgian Europe bled in matters of politics, culture and society). Whilst Europe was united (mostly) under the Pope, the British Isles were lead by the Monarch, further cementing ideas of self-determination into the British identity through faith.
History has a profound effect on a nation or society’s culture. The shared experiences of the past help to shape self-perceptions which are manifested in cultural terms – whether it be films, books, art or merely the understanding that a people has of its past. For Britain, her culture, as the sum of her history, has been that of pride and glory but one very much of Britain alone – endeavouring herself to meet the challenges and claim the victories of the day. This theme runs deep: take for instance the memory of the British Empire, which remembers Britain as the world’s first superpower, with an Empire on which the Sun never set, despite the founders being from what is in effect a damp island in the North Sea; the Industrial Revolution in which Britain lead the world as a pioneer of technology which would shape the modern age of which Britain was predicted to be the master, or the memory of the Second World War, perhaps the most profound influence on British national spirit since the Victorian Era. The Second World War evokes memories throughout nearly every British citizen, be they a veteran of Normandy, or a teen learning about it in history books, of Britannia, mighty and strong, standing defiant and, possibly most importantly, alone, against the Nazi menace. Britain alone was a bastion of peace and freedom against a Europe-wide tyranny and alone survived against the odds. The spirit of the Blitz lives on very much so in the UK and reminds us of what we accomplished alone, when all seemed lost – this is a very important idea which became yet more ingrained in the British sentiment: the Keep Calm and Carry On, ‘We’ll manage whatever is thrown at us’ concept of doing things which is central to the British character.
Portrayals of the Second World War, the most famous being films such as The Great Escape (still broadcast every year at Christmas on British TV), The Bridge over the River Kwai and The Dambusters all have the constant theme of making-do and standing up despite the odds – this can also be seen at its theatrical best in the film Zulu. Along with the hero-worship of Churchill, undoubtedly one of Britain’s greatest rulers and also great fans of the Empire have only reinstalled the classic British values – clearly established by this point – and that these values are not easily compatible with a pan-European union which demands a certain loss of sovereignty and binding commitment to cooperation.
Aside from historical influences on culture, there’s also the geographical factor again. The fact is that Britain, whilst being proud of having single-handedly established English as a global language, is almost completely isolated from its neighbours. From my own experience it is incredible to stand in a train station on the Continent and know that so many cultures, cities and nations are at your fingertips. From Berlin for instance you can travel to the ski-resorts of the Swiss Alps, the metropolis of Paris, the stunning coastline of Croatia, visit the opera houses of Vienna or the fjords of Norway. From York for instance, you can reach Birmingham, Slough and Clacton-on-Sea. Whilst I am underplaying the natural beauty of the UK, it is simply the case that the UK does not feel connected to Europe. The Channel, a great natural asset for trade and war, means a concerted effort is necessary to travel abroad. Whereas a German may cross the border into Czechia or Belgium and have seen Czech TV or listened to Belgian music before, or even visited by car, a Briton abroad will not have. The Continent to us is distinctly foreign and makes it harder to feel part of.
British Society and Europe Today
From the context of history and culture, it is not difficult to see how British society does not gel well with the European idea. British society is built on the pillars of the Empire – Britain as a pioneer, plotting its own course in the world for the sake of trade, as befitting of a maritime power and for the sake of the British ideals which we believe the world would benefit from experiencing. The European Union, and it is my sincere belief that it is so, is a marvellous institution which has united a continent which has experienced such war and hardship for the sake of each other. The simple fact is that the United Kingdom cannot be part of the EU for those reasons because we have never known the hardships of occupation, displacement or even genocide.
In modern times, I would say two factors especially exacerbated our chances of departure. The first is the collapse of the Empire. This was inevitable and certainly diminished the hard power of the UK abroad and yet the UK has maintained a belief that it is a global power – both in Government and in societal outlook. Whether this is true or not, it is the case that a significant number of British people perceive our nation as of global outlook with global power. The second is the move of the EU towards increased integration with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 which established the European Union from the European Community. Maastricht came with a host of systems into which European states were to further integrate, such as the Euro. This marked a significant change to what the British people had been promised at their accession into the then European Economic Community in 1973. The EEC membership was that of a common market and intended to be an economic boon for the UK but was certainly not a vote for political integration with Europe. To do so would erode the British spirit and be detrimental to the fabric of British identity, namely that of Britannia as sovereign over herself.
To this end the Euro and the common immigration policy were nails in the coffin, Britain for so long had been supreme over itself, stood firm against Napoleon and Hitler, pioneered the modern age of industry, built for herself the greatest empire ever seen and survived the Blitz with posters and cups of tea and now believed it could not control its own borders because that was now the preserve of Eurocrats in Brussels. For a nation which was not duly European for the European project, which had always been sovereign, which was not bound by history as her neighbours and which never experienced the cultural mixture of Europe – the European Union had become too much. In this way, Brexit, to some degree, was without doubt inevitable.
Thank you for reading this lengthy return! Personally, I believe that the UK, with due effort, could have shaped itself into a truly European nation and perhaps it will in the future, but as it stands, I hope you enjoyed this week’s piece and coincidentally, I hope you have a enjoyable Easter holiday also!
I’ve got a new logo in the works and recently bought the Oxford Dictionary of Law so expect some new legal articles in the future!