Britain in Europe To Stay or not to Stay?

Cover Story

Britain is in a different identity trap than the Brexiteers imagine. Its political class has failed to decide if it wishes to be a social democracy such as Scandinavia or a pure free-enterprise system such as America. And hence, the balance is frequently struck incorrectly. It is convenient for nationalists, libertarians, and Brexiteers to blame these faults on the European Union.

Anyone who has spent time on a cricket pitch, in a Pall Mall Gentleman’s Club, or at a British institution of higher education knows how adamantly the British seek to preserve their peculiar traditions. In these enchanted Isles, any and all weird customs quickly acquire the status of hallowed tradition – defended by their adherents as representing in microcosm the idiosyncrasy and the creativity of the British themselves.

Certain British people feel that the European Union (EU) has gradually sought to deprive them of their peculiar customs, laws, and genius through the imposition of homogenising and counterproductive Europe-wide regulations. Despite the UK’s growing economy, some Brits are bitter about immigration, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and housing prices. And Britain’s membership in the EU serves as a perfect scapegoat upon which all these woes (and more) can be blamed.

The Leavers

As such, many Britons – particularly right-leaning English Conservatives – are fed up with Brussels. They want to quit the Union entirely and abandon all the benefits that it affords in terms of trade, market access, freedom of movement, and the like. This outlook resonates particularly with those who believe that the English system of laws protects the individual from ‘Big Government’. It also plays on nostalgia over Britain’s glorious moments in world affairs and the mystical emotions conjured up by English patriotism.

Over my last week of travels in England, I have witnessed characters as divergent as a hackney cab driver, a British-educated diaspora Libyan and a bespoke shoemaker champion to me the virtues of restoring British sovereignty by leaving the EU. Freed from the oppressive regulations emanating from Brussels and released from the burdens of the Syrian refugee crisis and the Greek bailout, I was assured that Britain would cement itself as the epicentre of world finance, play a greater role in the fight against the Islamic State, and experience decreased domestic unemployment. In examining their motivations and rationales, these Brexiteers have struck me as a restrained English version of America’s Trump coalition. Their primary slogan could be encapsulated as ‘Make Britain Great Again.’ And in their mythical past, Britain was a whiter, more libertarian, and more industrious place.

Make no mistake about it, Brexit appeals to those with anti-establishment and populist sensibilities. Both main proponents of Brexit - Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, and Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London - have the charisma of aspiring demagogues, understand how to use the media to tap into people’s fears and hopes, and appeal to the British love of railing against the establishment.

The Stayers

On the other side of the debate, we find those with Centrist, Left-wing or internationalist inclinations -- the young, those of Celtic or non-English ancestry and many intellectuals. They want to stay in the EU as it provides opportunities for educational exchanges, access to markets for British goods and services, and it ensures that Britain adheres to many worthwhile human rights and environmental regulations. For this group, staying in assures Britons a more equitable, humane, and globalised future, while also sharing the advantages of British life with ambitious, skilled, and upwardly mobile individuals from Europe’s southern and eastern flanks.

A Family Feud

This debate between the old, libertarian, traditional, Telegraph-reading patriots and young, hip, Nanny state-supporting, Guardian-reading Europhiles clearly has a left-right dimension to it. However, it also defies party lines. The leading exponent for the Brexit campaign - Boris Johnson - and the leading proponent for the status quo - Prime Minister David Cameron - are both members of the ruling Tory party.

Just as the Tory house is divided, the referendum splits households. Polls suggest the result is too close to call. Relying on the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014 as an indicator, it is quite clear that big shifts are likely in the days and weeks immediately preceding the vote, and we can assume that at the last second many people will swing to the status quo portion of the proposition.

If Britain stays in on June 23rd when the referendum is held, the processes of voting may nonetheless open up existential cleavages that will continue to divide the nation in the coming years. Just as Trump has divided the Republican Party into the establishment and an insurgency, the referendum has cleaved Britain into two tribes.

Emotional not Logical

The debate is so heated that it has been the primary focus of British political and media life for months. Every national issue from Tata’s decision to mothball its steel production in the UK to coalition airstrikes in Syria is dissected vis-à-vis its implications for the Brexit vote.

And despite all this scrutiny, the rational economic, security, and cultural dimensions of the question are poorly understood and the real future implications of leaving the Union are impossible to forecast. Even more obscure to most members of the British public is the historical dimension of Britain’s connection with Europe. According to Brendan Simms, Professor of the History of International Relations at Cambridge University, ‘over the centuries, despite Britain’s global reputation, Europe has always been the main driving force in British debates about security and identity.’

Britain’s European Legacy

From the end of the Seven Year’s War (1756-1763) until the years immediately prior to WWI, Britain was the world’s sole global superpower. It had the greatest navy, possessed the largest empire, established and policed the system of open waterways and occupied the pivotal position in maintaining the balance of power on the European continent. And during Britain’s heyday, its geopolitical orientation was primarily outwards towards its Empire and only secondarily towards Europe or domestic issues. London was the world’s banker and the majority of British trade and investment was not with Europe, but with its formal Empire (such as India and the Dominions) or informal Empire (such as Argentina or Egypt). Yes, Europe was a market for British manufactures and investments, but never the most important market. European countries posed threats to British hegemony in various theatres (Russia in Central Asia and France in parts of Africa). Even when allied with these powers in European affairs, the British were usually rivals with the other European Great Powers overseas.

Given their complex global constellation of interests, British statesmen had enough power to remain aloof from entangling alliances, so long as they could use diplomacy short of formal treaties to avert other major powers from ganging up against British commercial or strategic interests. Their interventions in the Napoleonic Wars or in the struggle for Italian unification were premised on the need to maintain a delicate balance of power in Europe. Professor Simms recent book, Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation, demonstrates that from medieval times to the present, Britain was very much involved in the European balance of power, but that this process never altered her political uniqueness and distinct identity.

Despite ultimately securing victory in World War I and II, Britain sacrificed immense resources of blood and treasure. And although the country was never invaded, Britain emerged from the wars a dependent power. It needed America to maintain its finances and a semblance of its former world position. In the early post-War period, the British initially prioritised the ‘special relationship’ with the USA, snubbing requests to join the European Coal and Steel Community when it was set up in 1950. After the failure of Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s Suez intervention in 1956, British statesmen reconsidered their traditional less-than-intimate relationship with Europe. They wished to join the nascent European free trade zone. Their abject failure at Suez led to the humiliating realisation that British military action even in its informal Empire could only proceed with American approval which would not always be forthcoming. Their accession to the European Community - the precursor to the European Union - could only be actualised when French President Charles De Gaulle finally left office and could no longer exercise his veto.

Even after finally entering the European Community in 1973, British statesmen and businessmen remained hesitant about Britain’s role in Europe. They never wanted to jump in with both feet. Despite the fact that Commonwealth ties were fading, British policymakers longed to preserve an idiosyncratic and unique world role for Britain.

The EU Today

Britain has been instrumental in the EU’s evolution - pushing the Union in a free trading direction, while serving as a key mediator between Europe and the US in global affairs. The past decades have seen the power of the European Executive increase and the perceived inefficiencies and democratic deficit of Brussels magnify. As an EU member state, Britain is not able to establish its own migration policy, its own agricultural standards, or its own financial or trade treaties. As the European project is built on the premise of ever greater integration, countries such as Denmark and Britain which have entered the Union, but rejected the shared currency and other provisions, feel that they face a further democratic deficit vis a vis Brussels - they are implicated in Eurozone decisions over which they have little control. They are happy for Europe to exist, but do not want to cede away more sovereignty as the ‘EU juggernaut’ expands.

Institutions and Path Dependency

Based on cultural peculiarities and its ‘glorious past’, English national discourse is imbued with an obsession with sovereignty. The British are quite rightly proud of their institutions and feel that the balances their system strikes between centralisation and decentralisation and between amateurism and professional bureaucratisation are not only wise but the product of centuries of beneficial institutional evolution. On the other hand, Brussels is a byword for inefficiency, over-centralisation, and inefficient bureaucratisation. Studies show that countries without long traditions of functioning national institutions such as Italy, Portugal, or Slovenia are naturally far more likely to accept Brussel’s intrusion into their domestic affairs than those with centuries of institutional continuity.

The British have institutional continuity in spades. They virtually invented parliamentary democracy and checks and balances between the executive and the legislative via the 1688 Glorious Revolution. They are quite rightly sceptical of Europe’s incursions as a classic case of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Despite various popular frustrations with ‘elitist Westminster politicians’ - other than in the Celtic periphery - British opinion trusts and favours Westminster and not Brussels to make reasonable choices. This trust in the UK’s national institutions and culture is noticeably different from the cynicism and distrust for government, which is growing among the young in many other Western nations.

Many nostalgic Brexiteers assert that the UK’s operating outside of the EU will allow a repositioning of the economy towards the Commonwealth and the offering of special privileges and visas to individuals from the subcontinent and the former Dominions. They quite rightly assert that these individuals share more in common culturally and institutionally with the British than Romanians and Bulgarians who can currently come to the UK and work without a visa. And yet no concrete proposals have been made by the Brexit side detailing how Britain would craft these new Commonwealth-friendly visa regulations.

As a non-European, native-English speaking, Anglophile, I have great sympathy for an idealised post-Brexit scenario that favours Anglophone skilled migration. For Britain to be successful and competitive in the 21st century, it needs to be a hub for English-speaking talent in the service sector, in academia, in finance, and entrepreneurship. I would love to see relaxed visa laws for Americans, Canadians, South Africans, Indians, etc.

However, this was not the path that Britain took as the Empire crumbled. Britain chose Europe over the Commonwealth and hence it is now pinned into the logic of ‘Marry in haste, repent at leisure.’ There would simply be no way to redirect Britain’s global orientation, direction of capital flows, and ebb and flow of migrants in the medium-term. Countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and India have moved on from their Imperial days and may no longer wish to participate in a British-led economic and free movement block if offered. In the 1950s, there were other possible futures for Britain as it ceased to be a superpower and to paraphrase Dean Acheson was losing an Empire and yet to find a role. Voting in 2016 to exit the EU will not roll back the clock and allow history to be rewritten.

Emotions Über Alles

Judging by the tone of the British media debate and polling data, when the electorate walks into the polling booths on June 23rd, they will primarily be voting with their hearts and not their heads. Do Britons wish to consider themselves as part of the European project? Or do they feel themselves closer to the English-speaking people of the New World? Do they blame financiers in the City of London for unemployment? Or do they ‘feel’ that the flaws in their society are the product of migrants and Big Bad Brussels?

The prevailing narrative of the Brexiteers makes clear that the referendum is largely an issue of populism, nationalism, and libertarianism. And yet, the primary things that are broken in British public life are not the fault of the EU incursions. The UK’s train system is in disrepair, there are horrible queues at airport immigration, and the waiting time at the NHS is appalling. And yet, in Eurozone countries such as France, Germany, and Holland, these services all work better. The proponents of Brexit retort that these aspects of British life don’t function because they are overburdened by the sheer number of migrants and visitors that England attracts from Europe.

This argument has been refuted by statistical analysis and by common sense experience. Last week, I waited for over an hour in the queue at Gatwick immigration. Over the course of the day, tens of thousands of people were similarly delayed. Over a year, millions of person-work-hours are clearly lost at queues at Britain’s various entry points.

The reason for this is not excessive legislation from Brussels or a robust British defence of the border. While I waited in line, the reason became amply clear. There were 20 possible posts for immigration agents; only four were manned. If a hundred more agents were hired such that all the posts could be filled at Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, and Heathrow 24/7, millions of productive hours a year would be released into the economy. And yet the Home Office does not make these hires. This is because of another uniquely British trait of ‘muddling through’. Britain is not fundamentally a welfare state; public services are provided on a barebones scale. The health service is not up to Scandinavian levels, the trains and roads are not up to French standards, and public science and vocational education is not at German levels.

None of this will improve if the UK leaves the European Union. Britain is in a different identity trap than the Brexiteers imagine. Its political class has failed to decide if it wishes to be a social democracy such as Scandinavia or a pure free-enterprise system such as America. And hence, the balance is frequently struck incorrectly. It is convenient for nationalists, libertarians, and Brexiteers to blame these faults on the European Union.

Britain is caught up in a world-wide trend of anti-establishment, populist politics. Like Donald Trump’s rhetoric about Mexicans ‘stealing our jobs’ or Marine Le Pen’s disdain for Muslim refugees, the Brexit campaign’s fundamental appeal is to the quintessentially human joy in blaming others for our own problems.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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