Voting is Easy, Leaving is Hard

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Britain’s history of European connections and angst.


By Alex Chase-Levenson | The train from London to Torquay, which carried my wife and me to the final stage of our honeymoon in July, charts a westward course through classic English countryside. Outside the window, the nation remained to all appearances a “green and pleasant land.” But was a mood of unease detectable on this sunny day? Perhaps in the languages spoken around us. French, German, and Italian tourists had recently flocked into England, filling our train along with the many Britons enjoying what the media called a “stay-cation.” Both groups were reacting to the collapsing value of the British pound—a precipitous fall that began in the early hours of June 24, as it became clear that voters had narrowly voted to leave the European Union in the referendum held on the previous day.

For Europeans who have long felt comfortable in the UK, the unease was strong. The heavy focus on immigration during the referendum campaign had left a bitter aftertaste. Many Britons also lamented the anti-immigration rhetoric, particularly citizens in London, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and other areas that voted heavily to “Remain.” The sense that 52 percent of British voters rejected “Europe” stung many people profoundly.

As a historian of modern Britain, I share their sadness that the referendum unleashed a wave of “Little Englander” rhetoric, and, for the moment, an apparent separation between Britain and the Continent. But it’s worth remembering that the relationship between Britain and its Continental neighbors has always been marked by ambivalence. The “Little Englander” tradition of isolationism has, for centuries, coexisted with an impulse towards cosmopolitanism and connection. The close result of the referendum reaffirms this long tradition of competing impulses, and it is not the final chapter. Even now, onetime “Leave” campaigners are seeking a softer Brexit, one that will maintain unfettered trade with the Continent, permit continental Europeans already in Britain to stay, and allow London to retain some of its status as a great financial center.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has recently been boosted by news that Australia will seek an independent free-trade agreement with the UK; ministers hope more nations will follow. Discussions being held now resemble the period after the Second World War, when successive British governments declined to seek membership in the European Coal and Steel Community (the EU’s original instantiation) on the grounds that links to the former Empire and to the United States constituted superior alternatives to cross-Channel integration.

The Commonwealth (largely composed of former British colonies) has proven to be less of a geopolitical force than some of its original backers imagined, and eventually many accepted that Britain would be stronger as a part of the European Economic Community. In a similar way, even ministers who supported “Leave” in the referendum acknowledge that continued membership in the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) is important to the British economy. The conventional wisdom suggests that the government will be forced to give ground on its opposition to the free movement of people (one of the EU’s guiding principles) in order to ensure the continued free flow of goods and services (principles that have been far less controversial on this side of the Channel).

Brexit may well mean a formal separation in which many of the bugbears of the “Leave” camp in fact remain in force, such as rights for continental Europeans to emigrate to the UK and continued constraints on the British economy that would force policymakers to operate within strict EU guidelines. A look to the past suggests that a clean solution, fully in or out, is the least likely.

From a historical standpoint, it is clear how much the “Leave” rhetoric was based on a fanciful nostalgia for a time when Britain was truly “independent” from European influence and constraint. Many look back to the Victorian era and suggest that Britain’s 19th-century industrial strength and imperial power made it immune to Continental influence. And yet, during most of that century, Britain derived more revenue from its exports to Continental Europe than it did from trade with its imperial domains. The most important diplomatic posts were in Paris, Moscow, and Istanbul. The influence was cultural as well; knock-offs of French plays dominated the London stage, and Cook’s Tours and John Murray guidebooks conducted hordes of Victorian tourists through Continental holidays long before the advent of Easyjet and Ryanair.

Part of my academic research focuses on an area that illustrates just how closely Britain was tied to the Continent long before Britons could grumble that the European Court of Human Rights and European Parliament undermined the sovereignty of Westminster: the Mediterranean quarantine system. This was essentially a trans-national border against epidemic disease that all Western European nations agreed to employ against the outside world. Until the middle of the 19th century, all travelers, trade goods, letters, ships, and sailors coming to Europe from the Middle East or North Africa (and many from the Americas and Russia) were required to undergo weeks of detention and rigorous disinfection procedures. Once you were within what came to be called “the Sanitary System of Europe,” you could travel without delay, but to arrive from the outside world was often an ordeal.

The quarantine system was a revealing precursor of the contemporary EU. It depended on a similar idea of nations operating under identical sets of laws. If one nation decided to change the rules, its own ships and people would be removed from the “sanitary system” and placed under a punishing quarantine themselves.

In Britain, the ambivalence and resentment toward Continental authorities that flared during the Brexit debate also raged in response to quarantine. Its early 19th-century opponents criticized the system as an invention of paranoid Southern European Catholics, an impediment to free trade, and an intolerable bureaucratic constraint. In 1825, such opponents persuaded Parliament to liberalize its quarantine laws.

The reaction from Continental boards of health was swift and furious. British ships were placed under a 15-day quarantine, a regulation so damaging that the government scrambled to reverse itself. The law remained unchanged, but the Privy Council wrote its order (a description of how the law would be enforced) to prove to Continental allies that nothing would change in practice. In the end, the quarantine against Britain was ended, and British ships continued to operate within the “sanitary system.”

This episode provides a tantalizing historical analogue to the likely fate of British-EU relations post-Brexit. Then as now, Britons chafed at the idea of external constraints, but then as now, they accepted limits on Parliament’s legislative autonomy in order to preserve important economic links to the Continent.

The quarantine system was a border against the outside world. From questions about the pace of EU enlargement into Eastern Europe to anxiety over the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, many of the issues evoked in the referendum campaign are also about defining the borders of Europe. Britain has long had to strike a balance between protecting its own frontiers and accepting broader European frontiers that do not necessarily fit easily.

Call it an accident of history and geography, but Britain is a European power, and it always will be. Yes, its status as an island and its history of free-trade advocacy endow it with singular characteristics, but it has never operated free from political and economic constraints imposed from the Continent.

Even those most suspicious of “Europe” as an idea need the Continent for reasons of their own. Where would a populist politician like the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage be without Europeans to be his foils? “You have the charisma of a low-grade bank clerk,” he famously told Hermann Van Rompuy, erstwhile European Council president. “We don’t know you, we don’t want you, and the sooner you’re put out to grass the better.” And yet where would Farage himself be without such a figure to berate, on television? Where would UKIP be without a certain idea of Brussels bureaucracy to bash? Has it even got a role in a post-Brexit world? Who knows?

Compare Nigel Farage to a similar figure, albeit a fictional one. In Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, Mr. Podsnap famously conducts all his business with “other countries” and yet considers such countries to be “a mistake.” He sweeps them away with the disdainful assessment “NOT ENGLISH.” He invites a Frenchman to dinner only to badger him about the “English constitution” and how it must clearly reveal British superiority to all visiting foreigners.

In other words, Mr. Podsnap depends on the Frenchman as a European outsider to validate his own brand of petty nationalism. In the same way, as historians like Linda Colley have shown, British identity and patriotism have long been shaped by cross-Channel comparisons.

In the end, then, what are the Leavers leaving? Not Europe, because history and geography can’t be changed by referendum. Not Europeans, because as imaginative foils, military allies, and trading partners, they can’t be set aside.

“Brexit means Brexit,” Britain’s new prime minister has tautologically proclaimed. But what will Brexit truly mean? History suggests that after years of murky negotiations, the result will indubitably be a fudge—a compromise between inward-looking provincialism and outward-looking cosmopolitanism. Much remains uncertain except this once and future truth: Britain will remain connected to the Continent in a myriad of ways and will remain ambivalent about the connection.

Alex Chase-Levenson is an assistant professor of history. He teaches courses on Modern British and Modern European history.
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