Make England Great Again

It’s not the British who want to leave the EU — it’s the historically successful and newly nationalistic English.

PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 22:  An England fan sits on rocks on the beach on June 22, 2010 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. England play Slovenia at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium tomorrow in the third and final of their group stage matches where England need a win to continue to the next round.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 22: An England fan sits on rocks on the beach on June 22, 2010 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. England play Slovenia at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium tomorrow in the third and final of their group stage matches where England need a win to continue to the next round. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

No one, surely, will be too surprised if the English bring about the decline and fall of the European Union.

If a sizeable majority of English voters support Brexit in the forthcoming referendum on membership in the EU, the tottering European project of “ever closer union” will have lost its momentum. The EU would stagger on, attempting to weather a refugee crisis, a dysfunctional financial system, a sluggish economy, and threats on its borders, but who would bet on its permanence, let alone on its effectiveness? Many would look back to the prescience of French President Charles de Gaulle when he vetoed Britain’s first application to enter the European Economic Community in 1963: “England is an island,” he said, “sea-going, bound up, by its trade, its markets, its food supplies, with the most varied and often the most distant countries” — marked, in other words, by its difference from the rest of the Continent.

It is the gut feelings of the people of England that will be decisive. I stress England because feelings here are very different from those in Scotland, Wales, and perhaps Northern Ireland. England is at the core of British euroskepticism: The largest overtly euroskeptical political movement in Britain, the U.K. Independence Party, despite its name, is a largely English party. The largest semi-euroskeptical party, the Conservatives, are also predominantly English. In a recent front-page pro-Brexit editorial, Britain’s Daily Mail roared, bold and in all caps: ‘Who Will Speak for England?’ Without specifically English support, Brexit would be a nonstarter.

This has not always been the case. When Britain joined the common market in 1973, most hostility was found in Scotland and Northern Ireland, while the most pro-European region was rich and conservative England, including one of its members of parliament — a certain Margaret Thatcher. Now, it is Scottish Nationalists who are the most enthusiastically pro-EU, while the most articulate euroskeptics are English Tories.

What has changed? One straightforward answer is the politics of the EU itself. In the 1970s, left-wing politicians and poorer voters in less prosperous areas were suspicious of “Europe” as a capitalist conspiracy set up to serve the interests of big business, international banks, and the political elite. And as prime minister in the 1980s, Thatcher indeed promoted free trade and deregulation with her plan for a single European market. But French Socialist Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, responded with a raft of social and environmental protection measures designed to restrain Thatcherite neo-liberalism, flipping the politics of the EU on their head. The British left was converted to Europeanism — Delors was given a standing ovation by the 1988 English Trade Union Congress — while British Tories took umbrage. Part of the division over EU membership in Britain today, then, is between neo-liberals — strongest in England — who see EU regulations as a dangerous handicap to trading success in a globalized world, and their opponents — strongest in Scotland — who see EU regulations as a defense against predatory global capitalism.

But economics don’t fully explain the depth of the resistance to more Europe that many English voters see as a fundamental part of their national identity. For that, we must turn to history.

It is only in recent years that a distinctly English national identity has resurfaced. As the core of a United Kingdom of four nations, and previously the center of a multinational empire, the English had been happy to be “British.” They had no national anthem other than “God Save the Queen”; the old red St. George’s Cross flag rarely made an appearance. As long as the United Kingdom seemed both united and effective, “England” was a matter of poetry, not politics.

But Englishness as a political identity has accelerated as a response to two novelties. First, the rise, since the 1980s, of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, which came up in opposition to the free-market policies imposed on the outer regions, from England, by the governments of Thatcher and Tony Blair. In the hope of calming nationalist demands, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — but not England — were given semi-federal governments, creating a new sense of distinction and difference. People in England began to complain of unfair treatment — about English taxes subsidizing Scottish welfare policies and the like. The second stimulus has been the ambition of European idealists to make “Europe,” and not the nation-state, the ultimate source of sovereignty and focus of citizens’ loyalty. At first this seemed just a matter of rhetoric. But the rhetoric, combined with the legal right it has given to large numbers of EU citizens to live, work, and draw welfare benefits in Britain — but mostly, in fact, in England — has fueled a growing sense that England’s parliament, government, and voters no longer have control over their own borders, laws, or population. It was these growing English grievances that helped propel David Cameron’s Tory Party to an unexpected majority in last May’s general elections; the major themes of his campaign were the Labour Party’s supposed dependence on Scottish nationalist support, and Cameron’s promise to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership.

Impatience with the workings of the EU is fueling left- and right-wing populism across Europe — often in forms far more angry and extreme than in England. Yet only in England is there a real possibility of a majority actually voting to leave. Why is England contemplating this bold step, when other large and assertive nations such as the French are not? In part, it’s because the idea of a united Europe fits much better with the broad narrative of history in countries such as France, Germany, or Italy, who naturally feel themselves to be inherently continental. The French often present the whole project of European integration as their own design, traced back not only to Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman in the 1950s, but to Victor Hugo in the 1860s, Napoleon in the 1800s, and the 18th-century Enlightenment. England fits far less easily into this idea of a European destiny — most obviously, as Gen. de Gaulle was aware, because its history is far more global. It’s worth noting, too, that several key EU nations, including France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Ireland, have histories in which great national decisions have been taken by an enlightened vanguard, with the mass of the people eventually acquiescing — sometimes willingly, often not. Germany and Italy, for example, were created in the 19th century by the decision of a few politicians and intellectuals. As one of them put it, “We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians.” Making Europe, and only afterwards making Europeans, has been the blueprint for European integration. Elites decide; the masses eventually obey. No such episode is celebrated in English history. On the contrary, one of England’s great cultural myths — celebrated last year with the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta — is that elites must be made to accept the will of the people. The referendum on EU membership fits this ideal: The people will decide the nation’s destiny, not a few politicians, businessmen, and intellectuals.

Perhaps the greatest difference of all is psychological. European integration is a project based on fear. Fear of war, of foreign domination, of civil conflict, of authoritarian government, of Communism. France and the other pioneers in the 1950s feared Germany. Germany feared being hated. Of the newer members who joined in the 1980s and ‘90s, Spain, Portugal, and Greece feared a return to right-wing dictatorship. The Eastern European countries feared Russia. “Europe” offered a new beginning, an escape from the fears of the past. Some of these fears have lessened, but not all. Most moderate people in most Continental countries are genuinely scared of a breakdown of the EU. England is very different: At least half the population is willing to contemplate Brexit. The basic reason is obvious. England suffered far less from Europe’s great 20th-century disasters. It hasn’t lost a major war since 1783, and hasn’t been conquered since 1066. The country’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the EU is found in other lucky parts of Europe — Scandinavia and Switzerland.

If large nations like France still fear the ghosts of their history too much to go it alone, many small nations such as Catalonia, Flanders, and also Scotland and Wales, continue to see the EU, whatever its failings, as indispensable to their independence and self-esteem, their protection against big neighbors — including England. In England, on the contrary, many see the EU as such an impediment to political autonomy that they would be willing to face a possible breakup of the United Kingdom by supporting Brexit even as Scottish voters oppose it.

Britain had its own fears once, in the postwar period, when it was knocking plaintively at the door of the EEC. It was no longer the great imperial power. Its politicians and diplomats were desperate to avoid becoming merely “a greater Sweden” — isolated and irrelevant. Economically, it seemed to be falling behind, with growth rates much lower than in France, Italy, or Germany. Membership of “Europe” became the official remedy for decline. Britain was sinking and Europe was the only lifeboat.

But these fears have mostly evaporated. Faster Continental growth rates were temporary phenomena due to their postwar recovery and modernization of agriculture. The fear of declining power in the world was a panicky response to decolonization. Since the mid-1980s, Britain’s economic performance has been better than that of most of Europe, and over the last few years it has been markedly better than that of the eurozone. As for its role in the world, this has become less of an issue. In a multipolar world, people have gotten used to Britain being what it has been for the last 300 years: one of the planet’s half-dozen or so richest and most powerful states. The idea of the EU as the lifeboat has been widely replaced with a vision of it as the Titanic, subject to successive crises it is powerless to solve. Consequently, an official Eurobarometer opinion poll in 2013 showed the United Kingdom as the only place in Europe where a majority of people believe that their country would face the modern world more effectively outside the EU than inside it.

When the campaign begins, the “Out” faction will appeal to history, to ancient rights of self-government, to a brighter future as an autonomous global nation. The “In” faction will revive fears of decline and isolation, arguing that Britain will be more vulnerable, poorer, and less influential should it leave. Much of the discussion will be about bread-and-butter issues — jobs, investment, profits, prices, immigration. But behind this will be the deeper question: Are English voters confident about the ability of Britain — or, if necessary, England, if Scotland goes its own way — to function and prosper outside the EU? Or will they be persuaded that they are too small and too weak? In an uncertain world, the advantage lies with the status quo: Doing nothing seems safer. It may be that a majority of the people of England are inclined to leave the EU, but their politicians and bureaucrats mostly shrink from the task. That English nationalism is on the rise is clear; the results of the coming referendum will reveal whether it has yet to find an effective mouthpiece. If effective leaders emerge during the coming days or weeks, then Brexit is a real possibility.

Photo credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Robert Tombs is a professor at the University of Cambridge and the author of The English and Their History.

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