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Winston Churchill. Photo/Getty Images

Why British history made the Brexit shambles almost inevitable

Paul Thomas looks at the United Kingdom's long history of hostility towards Europe.

In April, presumably with a view to reassuring its enlightened readers that the international community felt their pain, the Guardian reviewed what media commentators around the world were saying about Brexit.

The headline, “A shambles on which the sun never sets”, captured the global consensus: a mix of scorn and disbelief with a dollop of schadenfreude, a dash of condescension and the merest soupçon of pity.

To the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, the UK was a country “determined to commit economic suicide but unable even to agree on how to kill itself”. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Nick Rowley compared the Old Dart to an ageing relative in the twilight zone: “You appreciate all they have done for you. But each day they become more inwardly focused. Their world contracts. They seem increasingly incoherent.”

With masochistic zeal, the compilers of the review even sourced comment from basket-case nations such as Afghanistan and Venezuela: it was unselfconsciously dismissive. And there was this from Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy MP in Hong Kong: “I’m baffled as to why and how things got to where they are now.”

Yet, history suggests the current situation was predictable, if not inevitable. Historically, the UK hasn’t seen itself as part of Europe. Since the Norman invasion of 1066, Britons have often had the English Channel, their priceless geopolitical asset, to thank for their independence, notably in 1588 (the Spanish Armada) and 1940. For centuries, the key strategic goal of British foreign policy was to ensure that no European power attained continental dominance. Since 1945, the transatlantic alliance has been the cornerstone of the UK’s security arrangements.

British culture, both highbrow and popular, is permeated with distrust of the Continentals, beginning with the music-hall caricatures of Northern Europeans as humourless automatons and Southern Europeans as sleazy buffoons. During a Commons debate in 1949, Labour MP George Wigg accused the Leader of the Opposition of thinking that “the wogs begin at Calais”. The honourable member in question was none other than Winston Churchill.

And since the European project was first mooted, the British, both the governing class and the man and woman in the street, have been in two minds.

Charles de Gaulle. Photo/Getty Images

Inauspicious beginnings

The UK wasn’t a signatory to the treaties that created the European Union’s forerunner, the European Economic Community aka the Common Market. In 1961, the UK entered negotiations with a view to joining but, in a harbinger of the complicated and sometimes acrimonious relationship to come, its membership applications were vetoed by French President Charles de Gaulle in 1963 and again in 1967.

De Gaulle argued the British harboured “deep-seated hostility” to any pan-European venture, which might have been an overstatement but wasn’t without foundation. He also claimed that what went on in British workplaces and on British farms was incompatible with European practices, an interesting objection given the narrative that later took hold in the UK – that busybody bureaucrats at EU headquarters in Brussels were hell-bent on imposing absurdly intrusive rules and regulations on every aspect of the British way of life.

After de Gaulle relinquished power in 1969, the UK’s application proceeded apace, its membership coming into effect on New Year’s Day, 1973. However, the Labour Party, then in opposition, was divided over Europe and went into the 1974 election on a platform of renegotiating the terms of membership and holding a referendum. In 1975, a special party conference voted two to one in favour of withdrawal.

Labour’s leftward lurch and opposition to Europe led some party notables to break away and form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a development that contributed hugely to Margaret Thatcher’s decade-long dominance of UK politics. In 1983, Labour campaigned on a commitment to withdraw without a referendum – its manifesto was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history” – and lost heavily, its percentage of the vote all but matched by the pro-European SDP-Liberal alliance.

Margaret Thatcher. Photo/Getty Images

Betting the pound

Despite that, Thatcher became increasingly Eurosceptic, which emboldened that tendency within the Conservative Party and beyond. The UK had opted out of the European Monetary System but, despite Thatcher’s reservations, signed up to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) – in effect, pegging the pound to the deutschmark. On Black Wednesday, September 16, 1992, the pound came under pressure from currency speculators. When the carnage abated, the UK had been forced out of the ERM, the British taxpayer was out of pocket to the tune of £3 billion and the anti-European movement had the wind at its back.

Founded in 1993, the UK Independence Party won 27.5% of the vote in the 2014 elections to the European Parliament. It was the first time since 1910 that a party other than Labour or the Tories had taken the largest share of the vote in a nationwide election. In hindsight, this was a more pertinent sample of the national mood than the multitude of pre-referendum opinion polls that put the Remainers comfortably ahead.

In 2016, the vote to Leave was 51.9%, to Remain 48.1%. Both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted decisively against Brexit, meaning that a campaign supposedly to restore British sovereignty has had the indirect effect of calling into question the sustainability of the UK.

Brexiteers insist the will of the people must prevail, even if that means sidelining Parliament. But 2016 wasn’t the first time the British people have expressed their will with regard to membership of the European entity. In June 1975, Britons were asked to vote on the question: Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community? Although the ruling Labour Party was broadly in favour of withdrawal, 67.2% of votes cast were in favour of remaining. Indeed, the only administrative counties or regions that voted “no” were the Shetland Islands and the Outer Hebrides.

Thus, when Brexiteers say the people have spoken and a parliamentary intervention or another referendum is unthinkable, because that would amount to a repudiation of the electorate’s wishes, they’re echoing Turkey’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: “Democracy is like a train,” he said early in his career. “You get off once you’ve reached your destination.”

This article was first published in the September 28, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.