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"Both sides of the Brexit debate have got things wrong about our history": Robert Tombs on Britain's complex relationship with Europe

Robert Tombs speaks to Ellie Cawthorne about his book This Sovereign Isle, which examines the complex history of Britain’s relationship with Europe to unpick the long, tangled roots of Brexit

Professor Robert Tombs, Fellow of French history at St John's College
Published: January 6, 2021 at 12:39 pm
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Ellie Cawthorne: Your new book looks at Brexit, but from the perspective of a longer history of the relationship between Britain and Europe. What made you want to write this book?


Robert Tombs: Our ideas about Europe, our relationship with Europe and the difficulties of that relationship – the whole European project, in fact – are all essentially based on an understanding of the past (and hence of the present), and expectations about the future. You could write endless books about Brexit and the EU, analysing political structures, economic systems and so on. But I think there’s a whole dimension of the decision that can only be understood as a reflection on the past, so therefore we have to take a historical approach.

One of the central tenets of your book is that if you look at the past, then Brexit becomes ‘historically explicable’. How so?

Our past has meant that our relationship with Europe is very fluid. We could obviously have chosen to remain in the EU and we almost did, but the outcome of the 2016 referendum shouldn’t be a surprise either. I believe that Brexit is historically explicable, but not historically determined. It’s very common to believe that there is a pre-set direction that history is moving in. We tend to be prone to that kind of thinking – for example that history dictates we are a European country, or that history dictates that we are not a European country. That seems damaging to me, because I think we have to be clear that we make our own decisions about the politics of today. History helps us to understand where we are, but it doesn’t tell us where we have to go from here.

Listen: Robert Tombs discusses the historical background to Brexit, exploring Britain’s long and fluctuating relationship with Europe, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

When Brexit dominated the news agenda, politicians and the media on both sides of the debate made all kinds of historical parallels, from the Reformation to Britain ‘standing alone’ in the Second World War. Why do you think that people are so desperate to enlist history onto their side in debates such as this?

When politicians or commentators look for historical analogies or examples, it’s almost always for rhetorical purposes. It’s very rarely analytical – almost never. Whether you’re professionally involved in the study of history or only occasionally think about the past, we all like to think that there is some sort of meaning in what we do. We don’t like to believe that events are entirely arbitrary or a matter of chance. We crave some sense of direction and certainty. That’s why we hang on to certain great stories from history – to give us a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning. Historians are often pretty annoying and boring people because we’re always poking holes in these stories – pointing out the exceptions and stating that the details are not quite as you think. That’s a good thing, but it can sometimes leave people feeling disoriented, confused or disillusioned.

What do you think people have got wrong about the history of Britain’s relationship with Europe?

This probably sounds terribly arrogant, but I think that both sides of the Brexit debate have got it wrong. I’m simplifying things a bit, but essentially, the pro-EU view argues that the unification of Europe is inevitable. It’s part of the unstoppable tide of history. We’ve been left out before, and being left out again would be a terrible mistake. We’ve heard over and over again that we have to be part of Europe because otherwise we’ll be marginalised, isolated and all that. But I think that’s wrong. Because the future of Europe, like its past, is unpredictable. There’s no reason to think that the EU is simply going to continue as it has done previously. It may break up, or hit all sorts of crises. So the idea that we’re going to be browbeaten into accepting a certain political relationship because people tell us that’s “just how things are” seems wrong to me.

People who say that only one side of the Brexit debate was legitimate seem wrong to me. Both options were rational and had good arguments behind them

On the other side are those in the Leave camp who say: “Britain has always been separate. We stood alone. Our political system and legal system are so different that we could never be part of the EU.” These arguments also seem to me to be an oversimplification. The obvious fact is that we were in the EU for nearly 50 years, and we almost remained in it in 2016. Had we voted the other way, which we could easily have done, then that might have been our future decided for the foreseeable. We would be members of the EU indefinitely and that would have set us on a quite different path from the one we chose.

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People who say that only one side of the Brexit debate was legitimate seem wrong to me. Both options were rational and had good arguments behind them, but in neither case did they dictate the only sensible thing to do.

What have the defining trends in Britain’s relationship with Europe been over time?

For most of our history we’ve had quite loose and changing relationships with parts of Europe – we’ve gone through a succession of close connections, rather than just a single one. I think you can identify six periods in which we’ve had close relationships with the continent. One with the Roman empire; a fairly short one with Scandinavia; one with France lasting 400 years or so; one with Holland after the Glorious Revolution of 1688; and one with Germany after the Hanoverian succession. And then, of course, our more recent relationship with the EU.

It’s quite difficult to say which part of Europe we have had the closest affinity with. Are we really a bit of offshore Scandinavia? Are we very much like France? Are we in fact a Germanic culture at heart? What is clear is that since the 16th century, it’s been very exceptional for us to consider a permanent organic tie with Europe as a whole.

What has the rest of Europe thought of Britain over time?

You’re asking me for a heroic generalisation here. But generally, I think the tendency has been for continental Europe to see Britain as a strange, odd place. Novelties often hail from Britain, and ideas about our eccentricity are a big European cliché.

Of course, opinions of us have changed over time. During the Middle Ages, Britain was seen as a pretty wild and woolly, if rich, country on the edge of civilisation. There was even a belief that the English had tails. In the early modern period, it was the defender of Protestantism. In the 20th century, for many Europeans, it was one of the defenders of freedom against totalitarianism.

But Britain has also sometimes been seen as an enemy. I think many people in France, even those who quite like British visitors, nevertheless think of us as a sort of hereditary foe. Recently there was an interesting opinion poll that asked people of various nationalities which countries they would be willing to help financially in a crisis. While the British replied that they would help out almost everybody in Europe, the majority of other Europeans surveyed said they would not be willing to help Britain. So I think that the way Brexit has been reported has certainly had an impact on the way that Europeans think of us. I think that’s a sense of betrayal for a minority, but on the whole, a feeling of not understanding us. However, it’s often been the case that the British have been perceived as different and unpredictable.

Of course, the story of Britain and Europe can’t be viewed in isolation, as it’s inevitably intertwined with events much further afield. Where does the story of empire fit into this?

It’s important to say that Britain was far from the only European country with an empire. But I think the British empire has left a legacy which is somewhat more important for us than is the case with other European nations and their former colonies.

If there’s one thing we all know, it’s that our survival in two world wars was largely owing to overseas alliances – the empire, the Commonwealth and the United States – in a way that is not true of any other European country. Those alliances still exist to some extent. And hence at various levels – economic, military, defensive and cultural – our links outside of Europe are more important than those of any other European state.

One consequence of that is that Britain, although a member of the EEC and then the EU for nearly 50 years, has never been as integrated economically as the other member countries. We were the only large EU member state that was not part of the Eurozone. Had we joined the Eurozone, which we nearly did, then I believe we would not have voted to leave in 2016, because the dangers would have been much greater. And hence, whatever you say about our long-term history, geographical factors or the empire, had we been in the eurozone, I think we would still be members of the EU.

How has the changing relationship with Europe over history shaped relationships between nations within the British Isles?

It still does, as we are seeing with Scotland at the moment. It’s very clear that the whole Brexit issue has given a great boost to Scottish desires for independence.

One constant through history has been that, for Scotland, Ireland and sometimes Wales, relations with continental states were a way of resisting or opposing the power of England. The Auld Alliance between Scotland and France is the most famous example of that. At the same time, continental enemies of England were eager to use the other nations in the British Isles as allies – the French and the Scots; the French and the Irish during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars; the Germans and the Irish during the First World War. That’s always been a complicating factor in the relationships within Britain. On the other hand, if we had a common European enemy, whether it was France or, later, Germany, then that tended to make ties between the nations in the British Isles closer. So depending on the circumstances, they could either bring us together or split us apart.

How did the Second World War reshape ideas about Europe and Britain’s role within it?

I think that Britain’s very different experience of the 20th century – and of the Second World War in particular – means that we had different attitudes towards the European Union as a project. One way of seeing the EU is as a way of preventing another war or stopping Europe from falling into dictatorship. But I don’t think that Britons see that so vividly as the French or Germans, because the 20th century was simply less traumatic for us. For us, the Second World War is a rather exciting story, a costume drama and a bit of a myth, but if you’re German or French or Polish, it’s a lot more serious than that. You only have to look at literature and cinema to see that continental countries have been asking very serious questions about it in a way that we haven’t in recent years.

The idea that Britain always ‘stood apart’ isn’t really true. In the immediate postwar period, British governments were actually very keen on European integration

The widely held idea that we always ‘stood apart’ isn’t really true. In the immediate postwar period, British governments were actually very keen on European integration because they were afraid, as most people were, of a Russian takeover, a German revival or that Europe would simply collapse into chaos. It was the British who took the lead in creating the Council of Europe, the Western European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights. All these things were largely British initiatives. Therefore, people have asked: “What went wrong?” I think the difference was that British governments, both Labour and Conservative, were very reluctant to give up sovereignty or to give up political control in a way that some European countries were more willing to do, partly because they’d suffered so much or they were already so weakened that it didn’t seem to them a great loss.

How do you think future historians might reflect on how Brexit, and the debate around it, unfolded?

I hope that in a generation people will have largely forgotten it and wonder why we made so much fuss about it. We tend to remember big disasters from our history, such as wars. But there are lots of important events, which at the time seemed absolutely epoch-making, that most people have now completely forgotten. Take, for instance, the separation of Ireland from the UK. From the 1880s to the 1920s, this was practically the dominating theme of British politics. And yet I wonder how many people now even realise that Ireland was once part of the UK or know when it became independent or what the circumstances were. Now it seems the most natural thing in the world. Another example would be the Corn Law debates in the 1840s, which remade our politics. How many people know anything about that? So I rather hope that in 20 years’ time, people will think: “Oh yes, once we were part of the EU and then we decided not to be. What was all the fuss about?”

When you look back from a distance, you tend to overlook the details and just see the big picture. So while I think a lot of the political debate will probably be forgotten in 30 years, I think that future generations will see Brexit as part of an international trend, which is critical of, or at least increasingly hesitant about, institutions like the EU that embody globalisation and neoliberalism. They will probably see it, as many people do already, as showing a conflict between a new international middle class, which has done very well out of globalisation, and a majority of less successful people who cling to the idea of the nation state as the thing to protect them and defend their interests.

What will decide who was right in the long run? I think it will come down to whether this gamble on a democratic nation state was a wise one, because I think that’s what Brexit really was. In some senses our generation will be judged on things that are entirely beyond our control. We don’t know how the world will develop. We don’t know whether the EU will still be around in 20 years or what form it will be in. We’re all having to make guesses to some extent, based on our understanding of the past.

Having looked back at this long history, how would you like to change the discussion around Brexit?

What I would ideally like is that, however people voted, they could see that the result was reasonable. That it was not a completely crazy decision, and in fact, British attitudes to the EU are very little different from those in Europe as a whole. The differences are of circumstance, not of culture or attitude. Therefore we’re not seeing some crazy explosion of racist populism, unless we’re seeing that all over Europe, which I don’t think we really are. Perhaps the people who voted to leave will think: “OK, there were valid reasons, maybe I was right.” And people who voted remain would, I hope, say: “OK, maybe it wasn’t such a crazy decision as I thought, things might not be so bad.” And maybe there’s a way in which we can find things that we agree about.

Robert Tombs is emeritus professor of French history at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow of St John's College. He is co-editor of the pro-Brexit website Briefings for Britain, and his books include The English and Their History (Allen Lane, 2014) and That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British from the Sun King to the Present (Heinemann, 2006). This Sovereign Isle (Allen Lane, 2021) is published on 28 January.

You can listen to an extended version of this interview with Robert Tombs on our podcast.


This article was first published in the January 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine


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