“Britain has never been able to make up its mind whether it is part of Europe or not,” wrote Bishop Stephen Neil at the start of his history of New Testament scholarship. Neil was writing in the early sixties just as The Common Market- as it was then called- was becoming a hot topic in British politics. He was obviously trying to relate his own somewhat esoteric discussion to the headlines of the day- but he was also placing these same headlines within a broader historical context, which is surely where they belong.
Britain’s relationship with its neighbours on the other side of the Channel was has taken many forms and contains many surprises. For example today we are accustomed to think of Protestantism as being very British. However as readers of Father Philip Hughes, and Eamon Duffy will be aware there was a time at the start of the Reformation when it was Catholicism that was English and Protestantism that was the exotic foreign import. Indeed King Henry and his then Chancellor Sir Thomas More spend much energy in trying to interrupt the flow of Lutheran publications from Germany to the South East coast. John Bull has not always been a Protestant. It was only when Henry’s roving eye was focussed ( however briefly!) on his new love, that things changed.
And they have gone on changing. The key is geography. On the one hand the famous white cliffs are bulwarks which have frustrated invaders. Who can doubt that Hitler’s panzers would have swept North, perhaps to the line of Hadrian’s Wall had they not first encountered the sea! On the other hand England has been deeply influenced by its continental neighbours. While Bristol and Liverpool faced theWest, Hull looked to the Baltic, and Dover to France. Queen Elizabeth initiated trade with Russia. English men and women struggled with French verbs long before the E.U. was ever thought of. British isolation has never been complete, and nor could it ever be. Britain’s engagement with Europe has been constant. Even those two giants of English Protestantism John Wycliffe and Thomas Cranmer had European diplomacy on their C.V.s. General Weygand called the Channel a tank ditch. But one man’s ditch is another man’s pathway- as William of Normandy showed, and the safe arrival of every cross Channel ferry proves!
There is in fact a tight tension in the British psyche between those who see Britain as being an outcrop of Europe, and those who see it as being an essentially separate entity with a different history, and with very different institutions from those that have grown up elsewhere. Perhaps both are right. But whatever the truth the debate between the two views ( which may be as much a matter of temperament as anything else) is not likely ever to be resolved. British empiricism militates against Utopian experiments, and permanent engagements in Europe. But it also cautions the advocates of British isolation splendid or otherwise.
Consequently all attempts to provide a definitive answer to question as to whether Britain should be in or out of Europe are probably futile. The issue will not go away. In the seventies Harold Wilson used the device of a referendum to bridge the gap in his own party between the Europhiles led by Roy Jenkins and his friends, and the Euro-sceptics among whom Tony Benn was prominent. Wilson succeeded in getting the result that he wanted by a wide margin- and yet the debate about Europe has continued ever since.
At present Mr. Cameron is conducting an operation which is very similar to Wilson’s. His purpose of course is to keep The Conservative Party from “banging on about Europe” ( to employ his eloquent phrase ) until he and the beautiful Sam can honourably retire to the old rectory in Oxfordshire. However Mr. Cameron is far too astute a politician ever to have agreed to such a referendum if he believed for a moment that he would not win it. As a result the “negotiations” in which he has just concluded were not really about changing Britain’s relationship with the EU, but rather about finding a formula which will keep his party united, satisfy as many of the diplomatic players involved as possible, and be saleable at the same time to British voters.
While we have no reason to suppose that Mr. Cameron will be any more successful than Mr. Wilson was in settling the issue “once and for all” we also have no reason to suppose that he is any less skilful a political operator than Mr. Wilson was. Consequently the result of the referendum can hardly be in doubt. Britain will therefore probably vote to remain in Europe by a wide, though not, perhaps, an overwhelming, margin.
Partly this will be because the pro- European camp will be able to exploit the fact that the government has apparently made no contingency plans for Brexit. Partly it will be because of the highly effective scare tactics that will be deployed by the Remain campaigners ( the so called “Project Fear.”) Partly it will be because of the absolute shambles that the Brexit campaign has turned out to be, which in turn reflects the lack of leadership in that camp.
But whatever the result the one absolute certainty is that the debate will continue. Bishop Neil was right. Britain has never made up whether it is part of Europe or not, and he should really have added that Britain will never make up its mind about Europe!
Just as the result of the Scottish referendum about independence did not settle that issue, nor will a Europeanist victory in June will settle the European question in British history. In fact the result of the referendum may well be less important than which side does the better job at controlling the narrative after the result has been declared. ( Nicola Sturgeon has a lot to teach Nigel Farage! )
Nevertheless the campaign leading up to the vote will be interesting. There will be some intriguing moments. It will be fascinating to see how Boris Johnston behaves in the upcoming drama. Mr. Johnson’s father was briefly a member of the European Parliament, but I sense that Mr. Johnson junior has his doubts about Europe. Nevertheless he is unlikely to intervene on that side of the debate. [ O.K., we got that wrong ! It is as well this site does not claim to be infallible! ] What will Mr. Gove do? How will Scotland vote? And what of Northern Ireland? Will perhaps Mr. Farage surprise everybody and sound like a responsible voice? And what of the Liberal Democrats? Or have they sunk beneath the waves of electoral disaster?
Unless there are very sensational developments we will not be commenting in detail on the campaign which looks all set to begin soon, but for those who wish to follow the debate and its aftermath we have added a new category of links called UK/ EU, Referendum. We will be including in it representative web sites from both sides of the discussion which promises to be vigorous! Happy surfing!