Dr. James Ellison ‘The EU Referendum and the history of Britain and Europe’
23 June 2016 will mark a historic vote in Britain. This is the day that the British will go to the polls and decide their future relationship with Europe. Will they stay in or exit the European Union?
James Ellison, Reader in International History at QMUL and author of Threatening Europe: Britain and the Creation of the European Community, 1955-58, reflects on the current referendum debate ahead of Thursday’s historic vote.
The EU referendum on 23 June 2016 will be the second occasion that the British public has cast its vote on Britain’s relationship with Europe. The first was on 5 June 1975, and it produced a 67% majority to stay in the then European Community. The polls suggest that no such majority exists in 2016. In fact, the British public might vote to leave the EU. Vote Leave’s case for Brexit has many features, but the leading slogan – ‘Take Back Control’ – has seemingly had real power in generating support.
In a globalised world where national sovereignty means less than it has since the creation of the nation state and where interdependence and access to major markets are critical to economic stability and growth, that is striking. Positive appeals to the history of European unity and to visions of future harmony in an ever more unstable world have been mostly absent in the referendum campaign. Instead, the campaign has been defined by bickering over facts that no one understands or trusts, party and personality politics, and negativity. The British broadcast media has not helped. It is so committed to instant balance that no sooner has a claim been made by one side or the other, a journalist puts the counter-claim. The British voter must be more confused by the question of Britain’s relationship with Europe and more dissatisfied with the EU than they ever have been.
Back in 1975
The nature of the current campaign certainly explains in part why the British are less likely to vote by a two-thirds majority to remain as they did in June 1975. The case for remaining is less clear now than it was back then. The recent experience of the British people of the mid-1970s was not of a country with the world’s fifth largest economy; it was of a 1960s stop-go economy, sterling crises, devaluation and the decision to withdraw from East of Suez. By the early 1970s, inflation, strikes, the oil crisis and the three-day week all suggested that Britain was not working.
The EC was itself leaving its decade of growth, but there was hope among a British people with no other options that membership would bring economic stability. The equivalent of Vote Remain in 1975, ‘Britain in Europe’, was better funded, organised and more effective than Vote Leave’s forerunner, the ‘National Referendum Campaign’. Moreover, in 1975 most major newspapers supported membership and found it easy to give voice to numerous popular figures, political and otherwise, who argued for Britain’s continued EC status. One of them, famously, was Margaret Thatcher in her flags of Europe jumper.
The EU’s bad press in the UK
Now, no prominent individual would wear such a jumper because the EU is much more discredited as an institution than it was in 1975. Since the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher’s handbag at the Eurosummits, her ‘No, no, no’ rhetoric and her eventual fall, Europe has become a minefield for prime ministers, governments and parties, especially from the early 1990s when Maastricht and the Eurosceptics caused John Major such strife and when the EU got little or no good press in the UK. In fact, where Europe is meant to matter – the economy – there has only been bad press.
The financial history of the ERM, the UK’s in/out debate about the Euro, and the Eurozone crisis has done nothing to improve the EU’s credit with the British people. Most recently, the EU’s response to the migrant crisis has seemingly fuelled support for the Eurosceptic nationalism inherent in UKIP and the easy applause given to Boris Johnson’s anti-EU rhetoric in the current campaign. People do not seem to care that his claim about EU laws banning bent bananas is a myth because they swallow his message: Britain has lost power to the EU and the EU is undemocratic.
Apart from the poverty of 2016’s referendum campaign and the contrasts between Britain and Europe in 2016 and 1975, there are other explanations for the British people’s discomfort with the EU, reaching back to the origins of European unity and Britain’s late entry.
The origins of European unity
From 1945, for those nations either occupied or defeated by the fascists during the Second World War, and for the former fascist nations themselves, European unity was seen as a solution to the ills of European nationalism which had brought the collapse of liberalism and global conflict twice in 50 years. Historians have tempered the federalist narrative of former resistance fighters and the fathers of Europe dreaming of a new European civilisation during the war and constructing it afterwards. This hagiographic history of European integration has to be balanced by more hard-headed accounts of economics, politics and nation states vying for national security and renewal. Yet in terms of conceptions of Europe amongst the populations of the nations forming the founding institutions, it is true to say that there was a belief in Europe.
Those nations were the Six – Belgium, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – and they signed the Treaty of Paris in 1951 and the Treaties of Rome in 1957 which established the European Coal and Steel Community and then the European Economic Community. These institutions were born of war in search of peace. The Second World War had underlined the failure of their national systems: for Germany and Italy those systems had spawned fascism, and for the other countries they had brought defeat and occupation. The integration of the ECSC and the EEC may have been economic, but the intent was political and its ambition was to bring peace through prosperity. Guns would be replaced by butter in the ‘ever closer union among the people of Europe’ called for in the preamble to the Treaties of Rome.
‘With Europe, but not of it’
In the shadow of the Second World War, there were hopes across Europe that the British would be part of this historic unity. Out of office in 1946, Winston Churchill contributed to such expectations. In his Zurich speech of 19 September, he called for a ‘United States of Europe’ in whose ‘urgent work, France and Germany must take the lead together’. Yet he also made Britain’s separate status clear:
Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of nations, mighty America, and I trust Soviet Russia … must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe.
Churchill’s expression of British exceptionalism was nothing new in his own lexicon. In the Saturday Evening Post on 15 February 1930 Churchill wrote an article supporting the plans announced by the French Foreign Minister, Aristide Briand, for a federal Europe. Britain would support this project from across the Channel, but could not join it:
We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked, but not compromised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed.
Never closer union was the policy of British governments in response to the ECSC and the EEC, at first. Britain’s experience of the Second World War was different to that of its post-war European allies, as was its view of its sovereignty, national institutions and economic renewal. In reply to the French plan for the ECSC, the Foreign Office advised the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, that
British participation [would] likely … involve us in Europe beyond the point of no return.
As long as Britain’s economic fortunes enabled the luxury of sovereignty outside of the newly integrated Europe, this line was sustained, but that was not for very long.
International economics, decolonisation, the lack of British economic competitiveness and the unexpected success of the European experiment led to applications to join the EEC in 1961 and 1967. These failed for complex reasons, but principally because the imperious French President Charles de Gaulle said ‘Non’ on both occasions. The barrier he presented to British entry and economic growth did little for popular views of Europe in Britain. The former leader of the Free French had seemed to have forgotten that the French who remained free had done so with Britain’s help. The politics of the war had their legacy on both sides but, as victors, the British people felt that the balance was wrong, and this fact, among others related to the way the EEC was presented to them in the 1960s, meant that at the moment of entry on 1 January 1973, there was no widespread enthusiasm.
By the time the British joined the European Community it had been in existence for 15 years. As newcomers, the British had not only to give up national sovereignty, but they had to do so to an institution whose rules had been written by others. This was an enervating fact for the creation of popular British passion for Europe, but perhaps more important was the rationale for membership. Unlike the peoples of the founding nations, the British did not have the powerful motive of discredited national systems or the hope to enshrine peace through economic integration. Instead, for the most part, the arguments in Britain for entry in 1973 and for remaining in 1975, were about economics, and they had purchase because of national economic weakness in the 1970s, not national humiliation at the hands of the Nazis in the 1940s.
That founding fact of British membership has had longevity and the history of Britain’s relations with the EU since the 1970s has not produced any other motive for sustained membership but the economic. That is why the arguments for remaining in Europe in the 2016 referendum have not called notably on the political. David Cameron has only once fully made the visionary case for the EU’s past and future contribution to political unity and peace. His advisors and pollsters have probably told him that arguments about how the EU preserves values that were fought for during the Second World War or how European unity is intrinsically good for peace, prosperity and stability will not win votes.
Uncommitted to the European idea?
The reason for that is the conviction that the British people were never fundamentally committed to European integration and only register its worth now in economic terms. For everyone who believed in it, the European idea was a product of the Second World War and, except for the oldest of the voting generations, that searing event is history in a way that it was not for the peoples of the 1950s, despite the fact that you can watch the television history channels at any point to see how the war is doing. It is also because there is little or no expectation of future conflict among major European nations.
Few of those who fought and experienced the Second World War could have imagined the peace and prosperity that has followed it through the European Union, whatever they might think of it as an institution. That includes the British servicemen and women and their families and friends to whom the war was and is not history. The values for which they fought in the face of fascism – freedom and democracy, tolerance and liberalism – are as much British as they are European. Yet for reasons historians have yet to explain, the British people have not and apparently do not now associate them and their security with the EU. The European idea seems to mean little to the majority of the British people.
What the referendum campaign suggests, in fact, is that the British find it easier to define themselves in opposition to the EU. That possibility raises yet deeper historical questions about the way Britons were created from the Union of 1707 and whether the referendum has not only exposed disunity between Britain and Europe but also the disunity of the United Kingdom itself.
School of History, Queen Mary University of London