The United Kingdom was then a world superpower with, by far, the largest navy on the planet and the largest empire known to history. Within a year of my birth, it confronted, on its own, in a Thermopylae-like last stand, the Nazi tyranny which had enslaved all Europe and which was bent on world conquest. It seemed to all to have embarked on a suicide mission.
Roosevelt cabled its war leader in that darkest hour the words of Longfellow:
Sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
In these troubled times we do not ask our fellow Europeans to repay this debt of blood and treasure, only to remember that when they needed us most, we were there for them.
I voted to remain in the referendum of 2016. I did so because I believed that reform of the European Union would inevitably come and that, as a heavyweight insider, we would be one of its principal drivers. I believed that the world was moving towards bigger and bigger power blocks until all, in a distant future, morphed into a world government. I still consider, provided we manage not to self-destruct, that to be the likely outcome.
So why do I now believe that Brexit must be made the best of? First, it was the democratic will of the people. Second, for anyone with an understanding of history, there is no reason to believe that Brexit will be Britain’s undoing; indeed, it may very well achieve the reverse and force it to raise its game. Third, it is the one country in Europe which, because of the peculiarity of its circumstance, could take such a step with a better than reasonable chance of making a success of it. It may not seem so right now, but there is a self-confidence that exists nowhere else among its neighbours. Not one of them would dare contemplate a life beyond Mother Europe. Its perceived embrace smothers them to the extent that they will endure endless pain, à la Greece, and still cling to its coattails.
Why do I take this view? The reason is that Britain’s development has been significantly different. We are an island nation, much like Japan. While influenced hugely by what has happened on our adjacent continent – indeed, regularly interfering to prevent what we perceived as overmighty tyrants developing on our doorstep – we have insisted, nevertheless, on keeping our distance, once the business was done.
Europe’s strength, and its half-millennia dominance of the world, began when it broke the monopoly of the Silk Road’s route into and out of the continent to trade goods. It did this by acquiring maritime expertise and building ships which could withstand three-year voyages and the heaviest seas the natural world could throw against them. This allowed it to trade goods in bulk and without umpteen middlemen taking extortionate cuts along the way stations of the overland route. While this was going on, its fiercely competitive nation states benefited from an overarching and temporising religion, as well as a cultural and scientific breakout led by the city states of Italy which it called the Renaissance. Also, the creation of centres of learning in the universities along with their independence helped speed the process towards the Age of Reason. The rivalry between those city states held much in common with the rivalry that propelled the city states of classical Greece to greatness.
The race across the oceans to explore new riches and bring home old ones naturally favoured the countries with easy access to the Atlantic. That explains why the great maritime empires which came about consisted only of them: Portugal, Spain, England, Holland and France. The next race was to see which of them could become top-dog. In turn it was each. When the dust had finally settled it was England – now fortuitously called Great Britain because of its union with Scotland – which emerged triumphant.
With a revolution in both industry and commerce, a population explosion, vast trading networks and a navy which could see off all others, it is not surprising that Britons came to see themselves as a case apart. Because of their island protection, they had escaped the continental upheavals of rampaging armies and had become quite distinctive – again, much like Japan.
One of Britain’s great strengths is that it was always a pragmatic country. If it worked, adopt it; if it didn’t, ditch it. It was never much interested in dogma or political theorising. That is why it returned to monarchical government after the eleven miserable years of the Cromwell republic. But it made sure that the royal power knew, as a condition of its return, it could never again step out of line in the way the previously executed king had. The lesson was well learned.
Britain’s relative isolation, which fostered evolutionary rather than revolutionary progress – allied to its Protestant work ethic – was one of the reasons its efforts at establishing new countries was so much more successful than its Latin rivals. Compare, for instance, the outcomes for Spain and Portugal’s South American colonies to those of North America, Australia and New Zealand. Even when Britain went to work on existing countries, the institutions and infrastructure it left behind outclassed anything the Latins left in place, and that includes France.
Above all, Britain’s language had become ubiquitous, as had its ‘Beautiful Game’. That game, however, struggled in the heat of the Indian plains so another British game, cricket, is now played in many hotspots instead. Its playtime activities proved almost as alluring as the rest.
All of these and many more are reasons why we Britons should embrace our new future with optimism. Our forebears have sown an amazing legacy. Now is the time to harvest it.
The UK joined the Common Market, the predecessor of the European Union, from a position of weakness in the early seventies – the sick man of Europe, so the country was called at the time. The package sold to Britain was that of a trading arrangement. Beyond the inner circle of continental Europe’s political elites, there was little to no talk of the true direction of travel, which has always been a United States of Europe.
The first signs of where the so-called European Project was really headed was the Maastricht Treaty in British prime minister John Major’s premiership. The final curtain raiser, during that of Gordon Brown’s, was the Lisbon Treaty. (Who can forget the unedifying way he waited to be the last to sign and went through the back door so as not to be photographed signing away his nation’s rights?)
Since the Maastricht Treaty, Brits increasingly formed the opinion that they were losing control of their country. As a once trickle of Brussels directives – which took precedence over British law – turned into a flood, Brits began to question the whole concept of EU membership. It was the erosion of sovereignty which I believe formed the bedrock of the opposition which finally stunned the world last year with their decision to quit.
High among the concerns of the Brexiteers, as those seeking to leave the project have come to be known, was their inability to determine who should come to live among them and how many. It was like saying that you had a house but no say in who could pitch up to stay in it and in what numbers. Just like that flood of pettifogging Brussels directives came a new flood, but one that took jobs from the least skilled and most disadvantaged in society. Cheap, plentiful labour was great for the professional and governing classes and, of course, the bosses, but not so great for those struggling to make ends meet.
Then there was the concept that a group of jurists in the European Court of Justice – many with apparent questionable legal experience – could impose their foreign, codified set of laws on the UK’s English common law legal system. English common law, built up assiduously over a thousand years, has become the most common legal system in the world and today covers 30% of the world’s population in 27% of its 320 legal jurisdictions. It should be no surprise then that Brits, with no little justification, were proud of their legal system and took offence at the idea that the European Court of Justice knows best.
This, I believe, was at the heart of concerns over Europe. For sovereignty covers almost everything, including who comes to live among us and who makes our laws.
Much as the British feel free to criticise their own parliament, they still find it objectionable that others from outside their borders can order them around – especially when those others have never subjected themselves to a British ballot box. Where democratic, sovereign nations are concerned, citizens should have the chance to turf their politicians out if there is a failure to perform or if they wish to try something different. There must be accountability.
So can the UK prosper outside the European Union? Although I voted to remain because I believed we could better influence reform of the EU from the inside, I have taken the view nevertheless that we can prosper outside. If there is any nation whose DNA shrieks global trade, it is Britain. The world’s first multinational company was founded by the British in India, growing so prosperous that it had to create its own army to protect its interests. Even the great Napoleon acknowledged that we were a nation of traders (he used the word shopkeepers, but in essence it’s the same).
I can understand why the countries of mainland Europe cleave together with none daring to contemplate a future outside the bloc. Theirs has been a distinct experience from that of the British. All have suffered the horrors of defeat and occupation down the centuries. We have not.
Brits may not bestride the world with hard power in the way they did a hundred years ago. But hard power in today’s world, as our American cousins have come to realise, does not work in quite the way it used to. Soft power is a different matter, however, and Britain has oodles of that. It reaches into every corner of the globe and the widespread adoption of English in official business helps to grease the wheels. The Commonwealth, which represents 31% of the world’s population – united by language, history, culture and their shared values of democracy, free speech, human rights and the rule of law – never wanted Britain to join the European Union in the first place. So, yes, it is entirely possible that we can thrive outside.
The same bracing winds which once filled the sails of Britain’s ocean-going merchant fleets may be just the winds needed to force us to raise our already decent game to new levels. We must fervently hope that is the case, for Britain is the one country in Europe whose situation has allowed it to stick two fingers up to the oppressive EU elites with any hope of getting away with it.
The Europe which we put our signature to almost two generations ago is not the Europe we are being asked to vote on in a few weeks’ time. Then it was all about trade, except that is wasn’t.
The European Common Market began its life as something of a confidence trick. The political classes knew from the very beginning that it was a political project designed to relegate the nation states of Europe to a subservient role. They had concluded that they were nothing but trouble and were the biggest single cause of its terrible wars.
Just the same they knew that the peoples of Europe were, almost without exception, lovers of the lands which bore them and felt a deep attachment to the cultures which had developed within their borders. Talk at that stage of a European Union might have frightened the horses and run the risk of it being still-born. So they had to tread carefully. A mighty trading bloc though? Well, who could object to that? We all want to improve our standard of living.
Thus was born the Common Market. Europe had always been strong on markets and the use of that word was perfectly designed to allay suspicions. They were content to play the long game. Stage one was to lock the lot in lucrative trade arrangements, recognising that nations doing the bulk of their business with each other could not, thereafter, easily break free.
Actually, the whole business had begun even before the Treaty of Rome with the creation of the Iron and Steel Community of France, Germany and the Benelux countries. The idea there was that you couldn’t go charging off with a secret re-armament programme, as Hitlerite Germany had done, if all your iron and steel came from a common source.
Europe had had enough of war and a system, so they reasoned, had to be created whereby future outbreaks would be next to impossible. Although there was nothing wrong about that, hadn’t the setting up of NATO nine years earlier achieved that? As Europe grew richer – helped in no small part by the generosity of Uncle Sam with his Marshall Aid programme – it became safe to move on to stage two of the project and chuck overboard that boring old, and grudgingly conceded title, Common Market. Now it became the European Community.
Still no feathers were ruffled, but the more discerning of us could see where the project was headed. Not long afterwards came the great European Union and all was plain to see. With that came the burgundy coloured passports that let us all know – in case naively, a few of us nursed any continuing illusions of national independence – that we were now part of a burgeoning superstate. The Euro was meant to be the final brick in the wall.
The reason all the member states, with the exception of Britain, had been so accepting of the project was that they believed that the nation state, through its inability to protect them from the ravages of war, had been discredited. Only Britain’s island status had saved it from occupation. It therefore had no reason to lose faith in the nation. It stood proud of its institutions and the fact that its Industrial Revolution had changed the face of humanity. Also its exalted former position as the world’s greatest empire made it harder for it to become just another brick in the wall.
But now we must decide: do we cut loose and regain that independence which has been lost, or do we stick with it and with the confidence of a major player work within the system to bring it to the democratic accountability which we Anglo Saxons insist on? We are far from being alone in wishing this.
The world is increasingly moving in favour of what may be called the Anglosphere with our language and business models reigning supreme. I do not doubt that Britain PLC could cut a swathe in the world, but do we want a mighty power on our doorstep which we are unable to influence?
Nevertheless, worries abound concerning immigration, which apart from putting all our public services under strain, has the power to change the character of our country forever. Much of the fury and distrust of the political class which drives the Trump presidential campaign in America is at work here in Britain. They never asked us, say the doubters, about immigration and they never asked us if we were willing to cede sovereignty. They seem only interested in looking after themselves. And as to what Europe was really all about that, well that too, was founded on a lie.
Although the EU was a work of the utmost deceit, we are where we are and we should not necessarily quit because of that. Perhaps the best reason to stay is a geopolitical one. Out of the EU, however brilliantly we handle our affairs, with a population of 64 million ours might end up being a forlorn voice crying in the wilderness.
It is not an easy choice to make. But then who ever said life was easy?