Bill Emmott > Masayuki Tadokoro
In trying to explain British hostility towards the European Union, I find myself always torn between long-term historical explanations, which feel powerful but not necessarily adequate in contemporary circumstances, and more short-term reasons which feel adequate but not really powerful enough to explain a hostility that is so contrary to what all British governments for the past 60 years have considered as the country’s strategic interests. So it must be a combination of the two. Let us first remember however how narrow was the referendum result: 48.1% of voters wanted Britain to stay in the EU.
Our historical hostility to influence from the continent of Europe needs to be dated back to the 16th century, when our King Henry VIII broke the country away from the Roman Catholic Church and hence from rulings by the Pope in Rome. This is an important watershed because in our history before that time (the 1530s) England was closely tied to many parts of Europe. Sometimes we were invaded (Roman Empire in 43 AD, Viking raiders from Scandinavia in the ninth century, Norman kings from France in 1066), sometimes our kings fought in and occupied parts of France (15th century). But after the schism with Rome, England (as it then was, not yet Britain) for most of the time over the next five centuries treated continental powers as enemies who might invade us at any moment. That was not always true – we imported royal families from the Netherlands (1688) and Germany (18th century onwards) – but still our foreign policy treated Europe as a threat more than as a partnership. As Britain became stronger thanks to our “Industrial Revolution” our strategic policy became one of intervention in Europe so as to ensure that no power there could dominate and so become a threat to us.
Is this relevant today? Only to the extent that it pervades our culture and some of our traditions. On November 5th every year, for example, we celebrate “Guy Fawkes day”, which celebrates a failed terrorist attack on our Parliament in 1605 led by an English Catholic who had fought for Spain during that country’s long war in the Netherlands. He was therefore the 17th century equivalent of a jihadi terrorist in Europe today who fought in Syria for Islamic State and then returned to, say, France and carried out an atrocity.
Then to that history needs to be added our constitutional tradition. Britain has no written, formal constitution but instead considers all sovereignty to be in the hands of our Parliament. A long constitutional tradition, dating back to John Locke, our great political philosopher from the 17th century, holds that in our system of representative government the people delegate all power to their elected representatives in Parliament, except that those representatives cannot decide to transfer their own lawmaking power to other bodies. That is what they did when Britain joined the EU in 1973, which is in turn why our then government was forced to hold the country’s first ever national referendum in 1975, on that membership.
So (with apologies for being so long, Masayuki, but the issues are complicated!) our final puzzle must be why did British citizens vote so decisively in 1975 to confirm our membership of the EU (with 67% in favour and 33% against) but then vote narrowly in June of this year (51.9% to leave, 48.1% to stay) to depart? This is where pragmatic issues come in. History means that the British have never loved the EU. But in 1975, most felt they needed it, because Britain was economically weak (it was known as “the sick man of Europe”) while France and the then West Germany were economically strong. We needed to be part of the successful European project. Now, in 2016, the continental European countries are economically weak, thanks to the euro sovereign debt crisis over the past five years, and Britain feels economically stronger. That economic strength has meant that Britain has been attractive to immigrants from other EU countries, coming in search of jobs. Which then, in the campaign about EU membership, helped tip the balance in favour of leaving. Immigration is not a huge problem for Britain, in fact, but at a time when plenty of Britons have suffered falling incomes in the years after the Lehman Shock of 2008, it proved an easy target for populist politicians. And it is unarguable that as long as Britain is a member of the EU, it was not allowed by the treaties to put limits of the immigration of EU citizens (just as UK citizens have the right, too, to live elsewhere in the EU if they want). Now, having held what was only the third ever national referendum in our history and through it having chosen to leave the EU, we are now going to have to work out what this means – politically, economically, strategically.