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The Long and Winding Road to Brexit

Markets are stunned. Commenters are shocked. But future historians may view this moment as inevitable.

During a downpour, an afternoon of heavy rainfall in London, a wet man stands in a puddle overlooking the River Thames and parliament, from London's Southbank, on 7th June 2016. In the weeks before Britain goes to the polls to vote whether to stay or leave the EU community of nations, the man represents a poignant pause in the choices faced by Britons during turbulent times. (Photo by Richard Baker / in Pictures via Getty Images)
During a downpour, an afternoon of heavy rainfall in London, a wet man stands in a puddle overlooking the River Thames and parliament, from London's Southbank, on 7th June 2016. In the weeks before Britain goes to the polls to vote whether to stay or leave the EU community of nations, the man represents a poignant pause in the choices faced by Britons during turbulent times. (Photo by Richard Baker / in Pictures via Getty Images)

That the United Kingdom — led by England and Wales — voted by a clear majority this week to leave the European Union has shocked the world. Markets, seemingly taken by surprise, have panicked; commentators seem stunned.

However, if we take a longer view, this result is not surprising; future historians may even regard it as inevitable. As it has done many times in the past, Britain will now renegotiate a new relationship with its near neighbors and with the wider world. And as has also been the case many times in the past, this will mean internal divisions and potentially painful conflicts.

Great Britain is the only large temperate island in the world that sits a mere 20 miles from a continent. This is the raw material of its history, which revolves round the changing relationships between the island, the continent, and the world beyond the seas.

For most of the first 1,400 years of Britain’s recorded history — three-quarters of its total history to date — it was part of some wider European entity. These entities have included the Roman empire, the Scandinavian realm of King Canute, William the Conqueror’s Normandy, and the Angevin Empire (which included half of modern France). Its language, architecture, art and gene pool were European, and so were its politics: The Magna Carta was influenced by European models, and the very word “parliament” comes from the French. England’s most charismatic king, the Shakespearean hero Henry V, also claimed the French throne. Neither he nor his subjects would have thought of themselves as outside the Christian European world.

Britain and Europe stayed intertwined through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and into the Age of Discovery. Its politics and world role were transformed when Willem van Oranje, ruler of Holland, became William III, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1689. Until 1837– when Queen Victoria, as a woman, was excluded from succession to the throne of Hanover –Britain was linked through its monarchs first with Holland and then with Germany, and it played a full, and often bloody, role in Continental power struggles. But it was also during these periods that two major changes were taking place that would permanently transform Britain’s relationship with Europe.

The first change was that after England was forced out its territories in France in the early 1400s, following the boost to French resistance provided by an inspired farmer’s daughter called Joan of Arc, it developed a much more defensive attitude towards the Continent. With the rise of a succession of European superpowers — Spain in the 16th century, France in the 17th and 18th, Germany in the 19th, and Russia in the 20th — English, and later British, policy aimed to organize and often lead other European states in opposition to these Continental hegemons. Unlike France or Germany, Britain never came up with a plan to organize Europe under its leadership: Instead, to put it bluntly, the United Kingdom has, historically, aimed to keep Europe divided, so that it cannot threaten the Isles’ security and trade. Something of this suspicion towards what Margaret Thatcher called a “European super-state” still remains, now directed at the European Union. Because Britain’s experience of the 20th century was less negative and less frightening than that of most of Europe, it does not share the ideal of a federal Europe as an escape from the nightmares of the past — the conquests, dictatorships, and civil wars. On the contrary, most Brits have seen European federalism as another Continental threat, and governments of all parties have tried — pretty successfully — to weaken its integration and block its military potential. A recent article in this magazine referred to this process as a “a subtle form of sabotage” that has left the EU a mere “hollowed-out shell.”

The other great historic change that took place from the 17th century onwards was that the British Isles became much more global in their contacts, trade, and culture than any other European country. Maritime, commercial, and finally, political links went farther and farther around the globe, turning the offshore island into first an “Atlantic nation” and eventually into the center of a worldwide network of trade, culture, and politics known today as the Anglosphere. A clear debate between those who wanted close engagement in European politics and those who wanted what was once called a “blue-water policy” based on overseas trade has now been going on in Britain intermittently for three centuries. Are today’s blue-water advocates just nostalgic for a past age? Or are they recognizing present and future realities?

Even people who may not know or care much about history are still affected, even subconsciously, by traditions and attitudes that become embedded into their cultures — what historian James Joll called the “unspoken assumptions” that guide our actions. Compare those assumptions in Britain today with those in most Continental European countries. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center shows that the EU has as many critics in Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands as in Britain, and far more critics in France and Greece. The difference is that only Britain has seriously debated whether to leave altogether, and now has actually voted to do so. The country’s history of globalism and suspicion of Continental domination has made a large proportion of British people believe that this risky step is both desirable and possible.

Yet without the catalyst of the referendum offered by David Cameron, the EU issue might have remained in the political background. Cameron once criticized Conservative Euroskeptics for “banging on about Europe,” implying that no one was listening. Sophisticated commentators assumed that EU membership was a concern only of a die-hard minority. This, to put it mildly, has proved erroneous. Precisely because exit from the Union suddenly became a real possibility — in a way that it has not been in Spain, France, or Greece (at least voluntarily) — the referendum campaign brought out, or even created, divisions whose emotional depth has been a surprise and a source of alarm. The murder of the Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox, even though the act of a mentally disturbed individual, serves as a tragic warning about the level of polemic that has emerged, and for which both sides in the campaign share responsibility.

The debate has cut across the usual divisions of Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat. There are left-wing Brexiteers (who dislike the EU for its lack of democracy and enforced economic austerity) and left-wing Remainers (who like its internationalism); right-wing Remainers (who see the EU as a huge market) and right-wing Brexiteers (who see it as an affront to national sovereignty). There has also been a national dimension: The biggest supporters of Brexit have been the English, and now suddenly the Welsh; the Scots and Irish, for different reasons, have taken the opposite view.

The campaign has highlighted differences too among generations, among regions, and perhaps most importantly among classes and among cultures. Supporters of the “Remain” campaign were disproportionately the young, educated middle classes, who saw the EU as both in their interests and as the political equivalent of motherhood and apple pie. Supporters of Brexit were disproportionately older, less educated, and less wealthy, and think their voices are more likely to be heard in an autonomous national state. Attitudes to immigration from the EU — unrestricted under EU law and running at nearly 200,000 per year — became the shibboleth. Remain saw immigration as a token of enlightenment, economic freedom and cosmopolitanism. The “Leave” campaign saw it as a cause of depressed wages, stressed public services, and long-term danger to national identity. The EU question has become more polarized ideologically in Britain than anywhere else in Europe.

The political and cultural establishment overwhelmingly favored the EU. It found, however, to its increasing and visible alarm that a large part of the country had stopped believing or even listening to it. Bishops, bankers, academics, party leaders, businessmen, show-business celebrities and foreign statesmen found that their exhortations and warnings — which began to sound increasingly like threats — were being ignored as support from Brexit grew in the opinion polls. The final vote confirmed a long-standing popular Euroskepticism, galvanized by impatience with the political class of all parties similar to that we now see across the democratic world.

This is not the first time British politics has been dominated by relations with Europe. The 18th-century Tory ancestors of modern-day Brexiteers ended up impeached or locked in the Tower of London. The Chancellor Sir Thomas More, an ideal patron saint for Remain (he refused what he saw as Henry VIII’s split from the Christian Europe) was beheaded in 1535. There were bitter divisions between pacifists and supporters of rearmament in the 1930s.

By comparison, today’s problems — dire though they may seem — are infinitely less fraught and dangerous. More than anything, they recall the recurring debate between free-traders and protectionists in the 1840s and the 1900s, when the issue was whether to protect domestic production or go for the cheapest imports. On both occasions the Conservative Party was divided and subsequently defeated, because then as now the emotions stirred up were deep enough to wreck parties and change allegiances. Today, the Conservative leaders, Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, have tried and failed to prevent the Brexit that most of their grass-roots supporters wanted, and Cameron immediately announced that he would soon be stepping down. Normally opposition parties would benefit from divisions in the ruling party, but the Labour Party has been half-hearted during this campaign and the Liberal Democrats invisible. Moreover, Labour MPs have been alarmed to find how many of their grassroots supporters support Brexit, in opposition to the party line. So who, if anyone, will benefit politically? Who can rally popular support to govern at Westminster? The effects on the links between the British nations is equally unpredictable: the different choices of the British nations places further strain on the cohesion of the United Kingdom, and already politicians in Scotland and Northern Ireland have again spoken of leaving the United Kingdom.

In short, this campaign has inflicted wounds on the British body politic, and unlike the last referendum on EU membership in 1975, it is most unlikely to bring back calm and reconciliation. Its impact, both short and long term, on Britain’s political system is impossible to predict. British voters have been forced to think about who they really are, how they interpret their history, how they see their future, and whom they trust. They have come up with fundamentally conflicting answers. They have asserted popular sovereignty, but what this will mean in practice will only emerge over the coming months. People who voted Leave have had their expectations for a better future raised. The defeated Remain party, who in their own eyes embody modernity, progress, and enlightenment, will be embittered by yet another rejection by what they have long been inclined to see as an incorrigibly reactionary country. They are likely to see every political, diplomatic, or economic problem as caused by Brexit. Whether or not they will try to obstruct Britain’s departure, it is hard to imagine them working enthusiastically to make Brexit a success, or contributing to the national political, economic, and cultural renaissance of which some Brexiteers dream.

Those of us now suffering from Euro-fatigue can only hope that the rest of the country is too, and that a period of calm and reconciliation will follow. But this might be too complacent. Behind the traditional facade of their political life, the British have old divisions of class, culture, history and loyalty. These are usually concealed, or at least restrained, by a certain political civility and a strong dose of public apathy. But now the knives are out.

Photo credit: Richard Baker / in Pictures via 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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