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Saturday, 2 January 2016

A Part of the Main? Britain's Relationship with Europe

'No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main’
John Donne, Meditation XVII

Nobody delivers the rhetoric of ‘our island story’ better than David Cameron. Its heroes are many and varied: the signatories of the Magna Carta; William Shakespeare and John Milton, whose writings contributed to a rejuvenation of native identity and culture; Admiral Nelson, Winston Churchill, and all those captains of industry that forged the industrial revolution. All this achieved by a small island nation, and all because we ploughed an independent furrow, above petty European squabbles. However, as a new year dawns, the Prime Minister is sparing no effort to secure the concessions from his European counterparts that will enable him to campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union in 2016. Why is Cameron, an avowed patriot but otherwise a politician with few discernible ideological principles, going to such lengths to secure a deal that will keep Britain in the EU?
There are a couple of different explanations available. For those who wish to leave, Cameron’s approach looks treacherous; like so many generations of politicians before him, he appears to have been ‘bought’ by Brussels, and is now desperately attempting to deceive the British people into voting to remain in the EU, against their better judgement. Polls certainly show significant hostility in Britain to certain aspects of the European project, especially unrestricted migration and perceived interference with our national laws and customs. Nevertheless, I think our attitudes to Europe are more complex. The majority of people seem to (grudgingly) accept that British interests demand close economic and political ties with our near neighbours. From this perspective, David Cameron can be seen as providing a useful public service: the illusion of renegotiation will provide reassurance on the issues that people are concerned about, providing them with an excuse to be able to vote with their heads rather than their hearts.

So why do we need the excuse? The answer is that we are still in love with a Sinatra-like sense of our own exceptionalism. The story goes back a long way: 950 years ago this month, the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, was crowned: his doomed but heroic defence against the Norman invasion ten months later is still a source of inspiration for nationalists. Since then, other moments of defiant resistance have joined the historical narrative that celebrates England’s independence and self-reliance. If the narrative could be summed it an image, it would surely be that of Elizabeth I’s Armada portrait of 1588. As the battle rages around her, the queen sits confidently and defiantly alone, vindicated by the victory of the English fleet over the Spanish invaders, her finger pointing towards colonial ambitions to the New World.

The Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c.1588.
George Gower. Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, UK.

We are not the only country that is in love with our own national myth (ask the French about liberté, egalité, fraternité), but a closer look suggests that, while art and literature may celebrate the iconography of isolationism and separatism, in reality we have never allowed ourselves to become detached or excluded from continental diplomacy. Even before the Norman Conquest, British rulers were vitally connected with the power struggles of mainland Europe. Harold Godwinson was half-Danish, and spent part of his life in rebellion against his half-Norman predecessor on the English throne, Edward the Confessor. Over the centuries, not much has changed. Far from being a moment of national vindication and triumph, the defeat of the Armada was in reality a short-lived success. Elizabeth I spent the next decade fighting an unglamorous and unheralded military campaign to prop up her Dutch and French allies in order to slowly wear down the Spanish forces. Another potent anniversary this year will be that of the Battle of the Somme, begun primarily to save the French army from annihilation at Verdun. Our island story is paradoxically European, and, while the British have traditionally celebrated our independence, we have tended to make foreign policy decisions that bind us to, rather than detach us from, mainland Europe.

Of course, all this may change in 2016. Expect a good deal of anguished wrestling between head and heart in the run-up to the referendum, and fluctuating opinion polls as a result. And expect the British people to decide, once again, that while Europe may be a problem, she is our problem too.

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