britainOn 5th December, 1962 Dean Acheson (1893-1971), who had been US President Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, gave a speech at West Point on foreign policy in which he referred, almost with casual indifference, to Britain’s place in the world. His observation, acute and candid as it was, seemed to the British the more devastating for being apparently delivered by a friend:

“Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role — that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength — this role is about played out. Great Britain, attempting to be a broker between the United States and Russia, has seemed to conduct policy as weak as its military power”.

Acheson’s remarks were met by a mixture of hysteria and outrage in London, perhaps because it was a cruelly telling reminder that although Britain had finished on the winning side in the Second World War, it had in fact lost; not only the Empire hastily disappeared, but Britain was now, only too obviously no longer a Great Power: a fact only recently underscored by the excoriating humiliation of Britain by the US at Suez (1956). Beyond the accusations made in the British press of ‘back-stabbing’ by Acheson, and the signals of panic in the British Conservative Government (panic being the conventional ‘modus operandi’ of Conservative leaders in testing times through the ages), as Geoffrey Wheatcroft recently pointed out, ’The Spectator’ of the day managed a little more coolly to hit the nail on the head; “It is the nature of nations diminished in power to feel humiliated when that fact is called to their attention”. While ‘The Spectator’ remained cool, it nevertheless suffered from the same misreading of history as those lost in British hysteria; for what it thought was only a “transitional period” in the event proved chronic; the relentless march of time and decay takes its toll, and like Ozymandias (Shelley), Britain is no more at liberty from the laws of entropy than other States or Empires over the ages. Ironically, and by its very nature, Britain is more prey to the effects of entropy than many other states.

As the 2016 EU referendum campaign amply demonstrates, the search for a “role” continues to elude Britain fifty-four years after Acheson’s West Point speech. Perhaps the truth that eludes Britain is that it has no “role”, or at least it has no entitlement to a role, and the rest of the world is far more indifferent to Britain’s sense of its appropriate place in the world than the British people choose to believe. It should be remembered in our present dilemma, that Britain’s role in the world at the outset of the First World War had been preceded by the high-watermark of Britain’s Great Power conceit, or rather hubris; described in history as the policy of “Splendid Isolation”.

Since the EU referendum is the needless and vexatious cause of our current political problems (brought upon us by the Conservative Party exclusively in its own narrow vested interests, which with complacent self-regard it simply defines as the National Interest), let us look at ‘Britain-in-Europe’ in historical context.

Following the Second World War, outside the dominant position of the US, and given Britain’s role in WWII, the UK had the greatest prestige and authority of any European state in Western Europe, and had considerable influence over the development of the new West German State, and indeed the development of Europe. This was the time for British leadership in Europe to flourish and consolidate, to forge the destiny of a new Europe. In 1946, in a speech in Zurich, Winston Churchill even called for a “kind of United States of Europe”.

Western Europe, in ruins in 1945, determined that never again would Europe become an industrial-scale battleground of Great European Powers, with casualties to match. Led by France and Germany (and by people like Jean Monnet, Franz-Josef Strauss, Robert Schuman and Paul-Henri Spaak; to say nothing of major leaders like Adenauer or de Gaulle) a new determination was born to create a Europe more united, less riven by dangerous divisions, or subject to the instability of shifting ‘balance of power’ politics: often manipulated by a Great Power (Britain) that was noticably protected from the immediate consequences of these paradigm ‘balance shifts’, not just through having no deeply contested European borders, but no critical continental borders at all.

What happened? In 1952 a treaty was ratified between six countries, a precursor of the EEC, EC and EU in the form of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), a common market in coal and steel. The intention behind this treaty was to begin a process that went far beyond coal and steel, and far beyond a ‘single market’. It was to be a political union. Britain, which could have led it, and would probably have written most of the text, refused to join. The six signatories (France, West Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Luxembourg) became the six original, founding members of the EU.

In 1957 the ‘six’ ratified the Treaty of Rome, which formed the EEC; later the EU. Britain, still in a position to have a huge influence on the Treaty, refused to join. In the Preamble to the Treaty of Rome it is made clear that the purpose of this community is a determination “to lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe …..” (Preamble, p.2). It is the very first sentence of the Preamble: you cannot miss it. Ever closer union is thus not the product of a recent deception (of Britain) by Europeans, intended to entrap the British people. It has been a clear and present objective from the very beginning, and successive British Governments have known this perfectly well since before 1957. It is obvious. If anyone in Britain has a problem with this then I suggest that they take it up with the British Governments (represented principally by the Conservative Party) that they must now believe deliberately deceived them, or examine closely their own credulity, or perhaps complacency. They cannot pass the blame for this one to Europe.

It is precisely because the EEC was not what ‘it said on the tin’ (the ‘tin’ being solely the name ‘European Economic Community’, for those too lazy or careless actually to read the Treaty), that Britain declined to be involved. Indeed, in pursuit of nothing more than a single or common market alone, Britain not only turned away from the EEC, but in the immediately succeeding years Britain resorted to creating its own single, common market: the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) in 1960. EFTA consisted of a group of seven, principally northern European countries suspicious of the EEC, cobbled together into a ‘market’ by Britain; Austria, Britain, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland joined (followed by Finland which became an associate member in 1961). Iceland joined in 1970.

The test of the success of the EFTA project, from the cynical British perspective can be seen in two ways. Britain applied to join the EEC in 1963; within three years of having helped induce seven countries to join EFTA in a typically half-baked British project with no plan or prospects, the lead promoter is looking for a way out. Britain came quickly to reconsider the value of EEC membership in the early 1960s, reflecting especially on the success of the resurgent German economy somewhat enviously; compared with EFTA, Britain suddenly decided where its bread was likely to be better buttered. There was no ‘principle’ involved, no strategic thought, no wisdom; just conventional British, short-term economic opportunism.

Charles De Gaulle (1890-1970) famously vetoed the British application to join the EEC in 1963. De Gaulle has always been heavily criticised in Britain for this brusque treatment of his wartime ally; but his response, like almost everything else in this sad history is not quite what it seems, and fails to recognise that De Gaulle was much shrewder and wiser about Britain’s intentions than he has been credited. He knew intuitively that British membership of the EEC would not progress well, or end well. De Gaulle seemed to understand the motives of the British better than the British government (or people) were prepared to admit; Britain was eager to muscle in to the single market opportunity (late) as if it was an à la carte selection, but Britain was not sincere about the EEC table d’hôte menu actually on offer as the price of entry. De Gaulle no doubt remembered that Churchill had told him long before that Britain would always choose the US, the Commonwealth and its buccaneering traditions toward the world, than any commitment it would ever give Europe. De Gaulle also knew that Britain’s pretensions were always framed within a narrow cultural insularity. After all, if that had not been the case, then Britain would no doubt have drafted much of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, or shaped the future progress and development of the EU; probably with the blessing of the United States. A genuine, inclusive European Union was, however quite beyond British imagination, and offered little fulfilment for Britain’s extravagant sense of self-esteem.

Britain was just obtuse enough to apply to enter the EEC again in 1967; and was again vetoed by De Gaulle. By this time Britain’s membership of EFTA could be seen by everyone to be as half-hearted as its earlier commitment to the EEC when it was formed. De Gaulle resigned as President of France in 1969, following defeat in a French referendum, and died soon after in 1970. Britain rapidly and successfully applied for entry to the EEC in 1973, automatically leaving EFTA (which today consists of only four states – Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland). If Britain had finally broken the De Gaulle veto, this does not mean that Britain had learned anything about Europe, or changed its mind about “Union”, or about anything else (least of all acquiring a modicum of self-knowledge). Self-interest and opportunism was all that mattered. Notably it was the Conservatives under Ted Heath that carried Britain into the EEC, and began the myth that this was just a very big free-trade, single market enterprise, with no deep political consquences for Britain. A signal that perhaps all was not well with this strategy in the practical politics of Britain delivered a referendum on Europe in June, 1975; under Harold Wilson’s minority Labour Government. The result was a 67.2% vote by the electorate for Britain to remain in the EEC (32.8% against).

The Maastricht Treaty, signed on 7th February, 1992 established the current European Union; another significant sign-post on the long road to “ever closer union”. It established five key goals: economic and monetary uion, establish a common foreign and security policy, strengthen the democratic institutions, improve institutional effectiveness and develop a ‘social dimension’. Once again it was a Conservative Government, under John Major that signed the Treaty. Then, as now, the Conservatives conveniently offered the electorate two faces on the issue: Margaret Thatcher, not long out of office in 1993, said in a speech in the House of Lords “I could never have signed this treaty” (7th June, 1993).

Throughout the history of the EU, since Britain joined, British policy has been to remain in a Union that it yet openly reviles. At a deeper level the somewhat cynical strategy Britain has developed retains a vested interest in the single market, and then places all Britain’s efforts to ensuring principally that it acquires a long list of exceptions to EU rules (single currency and Schengen exceptions are only the more obvious). British exceptionalism is alive and well within Europe: in consequence Britain has slowly dissipated its great historic prestige in post-war Europe, and instead of being a natural leader in Europe, and shaping it; it has settled for being a sideshow, an awkward, querelous dissenter aiming no higher than permanently to gerrymander the future of the EU at every opportunity. At the same time, perhaps at a yet deeper level (conscious or not), the British effort has been applied slowly to destroy everything it can of the EU from the inside (so much more effectively than ranting from the outside), save only the cherished single market. The endgame would be to turn the EU into the EFTA of 500m people it would prefer, because it does not share the history, culture and aspirations of continental Europeans closely enough.

For example, Britain was among the first and most strident to insist on EU expansion. Expansion would inevitably make closer union more difficult to achieve. The ‘six’ became nine in 1973 (Ireland, Denmark, Britain). Greece joined in 1981; Portugal and Spain in 1986. By 1990 there were thirteen states (just over doubled in size in 33 years). In 2016 there are 28 states (more than doubled in the next 26 years). The rapid expansion of the EU, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union which provided an important impetus to the restructuring in Europe, does not fully explain the relentlessness of the application of the policy of expansion, which led to countries ill prepared for entry hastily being accepted. Earlier in Europe’s development the ‘six’ were more careful and thorough in preparing new entrants for the demands and expectations of the EU that went along with the prospects of transformation. Britain’s approach to expansion, laced with hostility to the EU as an expanding ‘power’, was typically opportunistic. The underlying purpose of this British approach was acutely perceived by William Wallace of the LSE, who wrote in ‘Opening the Door: the enlargement of NATO and the European Union’ (2002), the following crisply trenchant encapsulation of British Policy at the time: “The British government’s response so far has been incoherent. Its initial support for enlargement blended a positive commitment to helping Eastern Europe with the partisan belief that enlargement would sink the federalist schemes of Brussels and Bonn” (Wallace, p.4). And so British policy has remained much the same ever since; deliberately divisive, disruptive and incoherent.

Why is British policy like this? Wallace went on to write that: “The division of Europe after 1945 resolved such questions [as stability or prosperity] by imposing external hegemony, American and Russian: one benevolent, the other politically and economically disastrous. The collapse of the socialist system and the United States’ retreat to semi-commitment has now brought us back to the question of what institutions and rules we want for a wider Europe, within which Germany is the central power and Britain a potentially-significant player on its western edge—if it can decide what role it wishes to play” (Wallace, p.5).

Whatever the outcome of the referendum Britain will not have found a “role”. We have achieved nothing, and evaded everything; but of course that is the founding principle of what the Duke of Wellington called, perhaps with a little unintended irony, the “parti conservateur”.

Britain can never decide what “role” to play, but it instinctively reacts badly to European unification of any kind. I suspect this has its roots in British-European history; a deep British hostility towards any attempt to unify Europe, not essentially out of a concern for Europe or Europeans, but out of a perceived threat to British interests from a strong or dominant, unified European economic and political force. It is a hostility impervious to reason, or to facts. It is visceral. The British, and perhaps especially the Conservatives still live in a kind of virtual 17th century; what are they afraid of? ‘Universal Monarchy’, a compulsive intellectual disorder, newly dressed for the 21st century. Britain silently craves either a dominant US, or a return to the Balance of Power politics in Europe that Britain dominated throughout the 19th century, as the perfect solution: for Britain. Neither are grounded in reality, so Britain is ‘in’ Europe, and ‘out’ at the same time; or uncertain whether it is in or out. It wishes to be both, depending on the contingent circumstances of each day. Meanwhile, British policy remains what it always was: incoherent.

Now, once again a Conservative Government is playing the Europe card; this time so split internally that it is obliged to offer the British people a referendum, as the only alternative to breaking the Conservative Party apart completely, but once again the Conservatives offer not one policy but two faces, so that whatever happens, the Conservative Party wins: the choice is between David Cameron or Boris Johnson. If Cameron wins, he will go on as if nothing had happened; if Johnson wins he will expect to replace Cameron and go on to negotiate the unkown details of Brexit with the EU, also as if nothing had happened. As long as the Conservative Party ends on the ‘winning’ side, that is all that matters in this referendum; even if everyone in Britain and in Europe loses.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum Britain will not have found a “role”. We have achieved nothing, and evaded everything; but of course that is the founding principle of what the Duke of Wellington called, perhaps with a little unintended irony, the “parti conservateur”.