History suggests that Britain’s relationship with Europe may never truly be resolved.
Brexit is a historical reckoning for the United Kingdom, not least because of the country’s frequent aversion to engaging with its past. That Brexit is rooted in the evasions, divisions and contradictions of Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) has played remarkably little part in the last two years of national political discourse. But the issue also reaches back deep into episodes of English history: when a political elite in London, preoccupied with European affairs, provoked domestic rebellion, as in the Peasants’ Revolt; or found itself helpless, as Henry VIII’s court was, to influence the centres of continental power. These histories show that there can be no resolution of Britain’s relationship to continental Europe, nor any escape from the problems of the British political order that the European question has long amplified; there can be only temporary respite.
Underneath the brazen polemics – which declaim righteously either that Britain has a European destiny or that the EU is irredeemably undemocratic – lies an uncomfortable truth about the present: if it remains outside the Euro, Britain cannot play a leading part in an EU that has come to be preoccupied with its dysfunctional monetary union. Nor can it sidestep the conflicts of European politics and the economic relations that tie Britain to the Continent by leaving the EU. David Cameron, as prime minister, thrust these realities into the existential centre of collective British life when, in Brussels in February 2016, he negotiated a future exclusion for Britain from ever-closer union. He then asked the electorate to vote, for economic reasons, to remain inside an EU constitutionally committed to ever-closer political union.
No British government has, been able, for more than a few years at a time, to penetrate the EU’s hierarchy of power. Consequently, the differences of economic interest with the other member states with which Britain began its membership in 1973 have been exacerbated rather than diminished over the past four and a half decades. Stuck between irreconcilable imperatives, Britain can only choose again and again between competing suites of concurrent disadvantages and advantages. The political and economic circumstances from which it chooses will keep changing, as will prudent judgement about the likely consequences of one course of action over another.
This predicament is not new. Neither Britain nor pre-Union England was ever able to exercise sustained political influence in continental affairs, or establish enduring common interests. The decisive Reformation parallel to Brexit – and many have been made – is the political prelude to the break in 1533. Henry VIII had made himself an ally of the papacy, earning the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ from Leo X for his denunciation of Martin Luther and his burning of Lutherans, as the Peasants’ War plunged the geographical centre of western Christendom into disorder. In 1527 Thomas Wolsey pursued legal and theological arguments he had sought from leading continental universities. But, in a Europe in which the English church had long been marginalised within western Christendom and the Holy Roman Emperor had become the dominant political power, there was never any realistic prospect of Henry securing the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, despite six years of strenuous representations.
Nor could post-Catholic England escape the gravitational influence of Europe on its political order. Elizabeth I worked her way to the religious compromise of Anglicanism. In concurrence with the burgeoning national identity forged by Shakespeare’s history plays, Christopher Saxton’s cartography and the external threat of Catholic invasion, Anglicanism reinvented the idea of the English people as a singular political, social and spiritual community. But, in leaving herself without an heir, partly because of the fear of a continental king, Elizabeth ensured the necessity of the Scottish Stuarts, a dynasty that eventually provoked civil war and who were only banished from the throne when some in Parliament asked the Dutch to invade. Even after the apparent domestic political stability secured in 1689, William and Mary’s continental alliances and the ongoing threat from the Stuarts kept England, and then the new British state, embroiled in an unpopular and costly war with France.
And so the dilemmas of the European question have long been central to the problem of domestic political order. Britain exists as a territorial union because of the problems caused by conflicts with one or another part of continental Europe. The political imperative to make Wales a legal part of England in 1536 arose because, once the separation from Rome created hostile relations with powerful Catholic states, the English state needed to impose the authority of its new church on the Welsh principality and its marches to prevent it serving as a base for invasion. The decisive harbinger for the Anglo-Scottish parliamentary union came when, at the moment the Duke of Marlborough’s army was facing defeat in the Danube valley, the Scottish parliament threatened to withhold taxes and withdraw troops unless Royal Assent was finally given to the Scottish Act of Security, which allowed Scotland to choose a different successor to Queen Anne, if certain economic conditions were not met.
Britain also has different histories in regard to the problems that membership of the EU has created. The tradition of common law and a national discourse around the place of Parliament as the guardian of ‘ancient liberties’ are part of England’s history but not of Scotland’s. Freedom of movement over the past decade or so has left immigration into England significantly higher as a proportion of the population than it has been in Scotland. While the British state has historically proven quite accomplished at accommodating significant legal, religious and linguistic differences across the Union, the matter of membership, or not, of the EU must impose a potentially intolerable uniformity because its treaty-based constitutional rules treat member-states as singular legal entities.
Nonetheless, ending Britain’s membership of the EU has already, paradoxically, strengthened the Anglo-Scottish Union. Without the prospect of ‘independence in Europe’, Scottish secession becomes less practically viable. As the resurgence of the Conservative party in Scotland at the 2017 general election demonstrated, the prospect of ‘independence within Europe’ is not the same if England stands outside the EU. Indeed, even before 2017, the awkward terms of Britain’s participation in the EU came to constrain the Scottish nationalists. If Britain had joined the euro, then an independent Scotland would not have confronted a currency problem. But the conjunction of Britain’s non-membership of the euro and the Eurozone crisis drove the Scottish nationalist leadership into the untenable position that Scotland would leave the Union politically yet retain its currency and its central bank.
Brexit, by contrast, makes Northern Ireland’s position in the Union more precarious. This matter, too, cannot be separated from the European question. When the UK committed to leaving what was a legal and constitutional order it shared with the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland was always likely to re-emerge as a contested territorial issue. Brexit simultaneously divided a Protestant community whose political position ultimately depends on unity and increases the practical obstacles to any eventual reunification of Ireland by creating the conditions for more divergence between the two parts of the island. The Northern Irish problem was intensified when, six months after the Brexit referendum, the existing arrangements for the governance of the province broke down. After the general election of 2017, the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party became a necessity if the Conservatives were to remain in power. The disputed Irish backstop guarantees into perpetuity, via a customs union arrangement and regulatory rules on goods and agriculture for Northern Ireland, an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It became the means of protecting the border provisions of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This attempt to accommodate the EU’s support of Ireland became the parliamentary barrier to Brexit, because it tied the problem of Northern Ireland to the potential long-term trade pay off from Brexit. It bitterly divided Brexit supporters by forcing them to choose between prioritising future trade or ending freedom of movement.
Northern Ireland had been kept out of British politics for the best part of a century after the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, because the leadership of Britain’s main political parties refused to disagree with each other about the province in any way that could destabilise parliamentary politics. This consensus was in sharp contrast to the political disruption created in the 19th century by the introduction of the Irish question into British politics, which broke the Liberal party in the 1880s and led the Conservative party leadership in 1914 to contemplate civil war. Once again, Northern Ireland has the potential to tear apart the British political class. If Brexit began by appearing to risk the end of Scottish consent to the Union, it may yet break English consent to keeping Northern Ireland inside the UK.
Britain’s political history has been created via successive engagements with, and retreats from, continental European politics that don’t quite match the patterns of change seen elsewhere in Europe, not least because of the nature of Britain’s internal divisions. Repeatedly, the present has undone itself and an older past that never quite disappeared has returned. There is no surprise therefore that Britain’s membership of the EU could not, for any length of time, produce the basis of a stable relationship with the dominant continental powers, or that unravelling membership had profound consequences for Britain’s domestic political order. But so long as the EU remains in its present form –without the possibility of differential legal tiers of membership for non-euro members that do not wish to pursue ever-closer union – the question of whether it is better for Britain to be outside the EU with more sovereignty at the cost of weaker economic relations, or inside it with opt-outs and weak political influence, will not go away. Perpetual engagement with the unresolvable European question and what it means for political order in these islands is a historical burden Britain must learn to accept, possibly forever.
Helen Thompson is Professor of Political Economy, University of Cambridge and a panellist on the Talking Politics podcast.