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Why Britain Found the Exit

On June 23, 2016, the British people chose to leave the European Union. On January 31, 2020, after three and a half years of extraordinary political turmoil, at times bordering on constitutional crisis, the UK finally left the EU. It is a story worth telling, and a new book, This Sovereign Isle, tells it well. Putting Britain’s relationship to continental Europe in long historical perspective, Robert Tombs, Emeritus Professor of French History at Cambridge (and a citizen of the French Republic by marriage), explains how the UK came to enter the European project, why the British people became disillusioned with that project, and how the choice to leave was almost thwarted. He also speculates about the historical significance of Brexit, which turns in part on the EU’s future.

Tombs is well-placed to write a history of Brexit. His new book is, as he says, something of an appendix to his The English and Their History, a masterful retelling of English, and thus in part British, history. It is also an offshoot of his post-referendum venture into politics, defending the rationality and legitimacy of the choice to leave the EU. In 2017, Tombs convened a small group of academics, founding the website Briefings for Brexit, which published a wide range of commentary in support of withdrawal. I was part of the group and Tombs published several of my articles on his website. We also corresponded in relation to relevant constitutional developments and his new book relies on my work once or twice.

In and Out of Europe

Before getting to Brexit, Tombs introduces a much wider historical perspective. The book’s first chapter, “Set in a Silver Sea,” is a marvellously written precis of the history of the British Isles in relation to continental Europe. He concludes that since the 1550s, the British have never “pursued or accepted a permanent organic Continental link,” with the Continent “widely considered a source of political difficulties, dangers and unwanted complications.” Relatedly, Britain has eschewed working with a hegemonic Continental power to dominate Europe and on the contrary, repeatedly mobilised global resources to resist such domination and to maintain a balance of power. In contrast to other European countries, including many with their own long imperial history, the British have formed and maintained close connections outside Europe. This is a point also nicely made by Vernon Bogdanor, in Britain and Europe in a Troubled World, stressing how much closer—socially and politically—the UK is to Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, for example, than to continental Europe.

In view of this long history, how is it that the UK came to embrace, even if only for a time, European integration? For many years after the Second World War, successive governments did steer clear, supporting intergovernmental cooperation but holding supranational institutions at bay. This was to change, Tombs argues, when Britain’s political classes panicked about the UK’s relative economic fortunes, fearing that unless the UK was to take up a leading role in the European Economic Community (EEC, as it then was) it would diminish as a first-rate political power. Joining the EEC was a miscalculation, Tombs argues, for it overstated the significance of different growth rates between developing post-war European economies and the more mature UK economy. It was also grounded in the post-imperial delusion that with the loss of empire the UK was in terminal decline, and that joining (and somehow leading) the EEC was the only way in which to restore relative power.

The EU institutions are insulated, by design, from democratic control, with member states bound by treaty commitments that are elaborated, Rumpelstiltskin-like, by the Court of Justice of the EU.

The third chapter, “Second Thoughts,” makes clear the mismatch between the reasons for the UK’s decision to enter the European project and the reality of membership, a mismatch that over time led to disillusionment and eventually the 2016 referendum. Joining the EEC was no guarantee of economic growth, as the 1970s made clear. While a large majority had voted in favour of remaining in the EEC in the 1975 referendum, membership was to prove controversial on both sides of the political divide, especially as European integration deepened. The 2004 entry of Eastern European states to the EU, as it had by then become, resulted in mass migration to the UK, with new European citizens exercising their treaty rights to free movement. EU membership was incompatible with national (democratic) control over who entered the country.

Much of the chapter, and indeed the book, attends to the significance of the adoption of the Euro currency. This was a momentous development, resulting in mass unemployment across Southern Europe and encouraging further migration to the UK, which had eschewed the Euro. The UK was thus detached from the EU’s two main projects, the Eurozone and the Schengen Area, within which passport and other types of border control had been abolished. Tombs ably traces the problems of the Eurozone, including the extent to which Germany has become an accidental hegemon, dominating the European project without taking responsibility for the good of all. He could have said more, I think, about the other great crisis of the European project, which is the refugee or migration crisis, especially on Europe’s southern borders. This crisis, arguably compounded by German unilateralism, was at fever pitch in the summer of 2015, resulting in the partial suspension of the Schengen Area, and imposing much further stress on European integration.

The UK was, as I say, semi-detached from the EU’s main projects and crises. However, it was increasingly apparent that the EU was not a project in good working order, a judgement formed not only by many in the UK but by voters across the continent. Still, it was not obvious that this disillusionment would make any difference to how Europe was governed. The EU institutions are insulated, by design, from democratic control, with member states bound by treaty commitments that are elaborated, Rumpelstiltskin-like, by the Court of Justice of the EU. European integration has routinely, and rather brazenly, proceeded despite popular opposition. When Irish and Danish voters rejected treaty changes, they were asked again until agreement was forthcoming; when proposals in 2005 for a new treaty to establish a European Constitution were rejected by French and Dutch voters, the constitution was largely repackaged in the new Lisbon Treaty.

The Brexit Vote

Tombs moves very quickly over the question of how and why the Conservative Party came to promise to hold a referendum on whether the UK should remain or leave. The answer, I think, is that this was a rational response to electoral competition (heading off the threat posed by UKIP, a pro-Brexit single-issue party), an attempt to manage divisions within the Conservative Party about the European question, and a good faith attempt to secure democratic consent for continuing membership of the EU, consent that seemed in serious doubt. The answer matters because the decision to hold the referendum was not a surrender to populism or a failure of statecraft, but rather a reasonable technique of representative democracy. The political party most committed to European integration, the Liberal Democrats, had been pressing for a referendum since 2007. When legislation enabling the referendum was introduced to Parliament, it was enacted by overwhelming majorities: no one would then deny that EU membership should be put to a vote.

It was very clear, “well before the referendum brought the issue to the fore . . . that people in Britain were not committed, emotionally or intellectually, to the ‘European project.’” What was surprising about the vote, Tombs maintains, is that anyone was surprised and that the majority was so small.  

The book’s longest chapter, “Divisions and Identities,” explores with considerable care the range of reasons why some voted for leave and others for remain, differences which were important in explaining the reaction to the referendum vote, both in the wider culture and in politics. Having noted that British and other European voters had similar (sceptical) attitudes to the EU, Tombs goes on to argue that the utopian vision of the European project had less appeal in the UK than elsewhere, that the UK’s experience of the 20th century was one of national pride rather than humiliation or shame. Unlike in much of continental Europe, most notably in Germany, the UK’s decision to participate in “European integration had nothing to do with escaping past horrors.”

One irony of the Brexit vote is that it seemed to summon an emotional attachment to the European project otherwise held by very few voters.

In addition, the UK’s deep connections with countries outside Europe were at odds with assumptions about the inevitability of European social and political unity. Tombs notes the argument that the British attachment to parliamentary government and common law was hard to square with EU membership, citing an article of mine and agreeing that the argument might well be true. But he downplays it as an explanation for Brexit, reasoning that many parliamentarians and judges rejected it and that parliamentary sovereignty was itself weaponised against Brexit. Tombs prefers instead to stress what he terms “the ‘Magna Carta’ tradition,” which provides that fundamental choices should be made by the people. I would say that the UK’s constitutional tradition, in which Parliament is central, is one that has long made it possible for the British people to exercise self-government. That people’s attachment—emotional but rational—to self-government by parliamentary means, in which Parliament is not subject to foreign courts, does much to explain the Brexit vote.

But what explains the vote to remain? Tombs distinguishes four groups, (1) a narrow set who shared the emotional commitment to the European project, (2) those committed to EU membership by way of career or profession, (3) a much larger group worried about the economic costs of leaving, and (4) a group unenthused by the EU but content with the UK’s semi-detached status. This is a helpful distinction and it grounds his argument that economic misinformation was indispensable in securing the relatively large remain vote. The preface discloses that Tombs himself only avoided falling into group (3) by way of a conversation with Kenneth Arrow, who opposed Brexit but thought it would be no economic disaster. I do not share Tombs’s confidence in evaluating economic arguments about Brexit. I hope withdrawal from the EU does not impoverish the UK, but my working assumption has been that most predictions have been unreliable and/or motivated reasoning. The reason to leave is that European integration hollows out national democracy without replacing it at a European level.  

Still, like Tombs, I can see the rational appeal of (4), with a UK outside the Eurozone enjoying some benefits of EU membership, or at least avoiding the costs of leaving, while retaining exit rights for a later day. The problem is that this underplays the dynamic character of EU membership and the extent to which European integration, per the Euro, is irreversible by design. Happily, another conversation seems to have rescued Tombs from voting on these grounds to remain—this one with Chris Bickerton, a leading Cambridge political scientist who pointed out to him that the question of whether to leave was being asked now (that is, in June 2016) and might not be asked again.

One irony of the Brexit vote, as has often been remarked, is that it seemed to summon an emotional attachment to the European project otherwise held by very few voters. This attachment remained very much a minority pursuit, but one concentrated amongst social and political elites and thus enjoying disproportionate media attention and political access. Some of this newfound passion for the EU took the form of cultural commentary, which Tombs neatly takes apart, but much had a harder political edge, with disappointed enthusiasts for the status quo waging a rearguard action, with some tactical victories, in courts and Parliament until the 2019 general election swept them away. The penultimate chapter of the book traces this recent history, noting government missteps, parliamentary machinations, and judicial interventions in high politics. It is an excellent summary of a complex subject, making clear the extent to which some parliamentarians were willing to defy the electorate and subvert the constitution in order to frustrate Brexit, with some senior judges choosing to abandon long-settled constitutional law in order to strengthen the arm of the parliamentarians in question. For a time, the country was close to ungovernable, but as Tombs says, the political constitution worked in the end, with the 2019 election returning the government to office with the support of a decisive parliamentary majority.

What the Future Holds

The book’s final chapter considers the even more recent history of the UK and EU after the pandemic (published in January this year, the book must have gone to press in late November). I imagine Tombs’s thinking was that the events of 2020, including negotiation of a future free trade deal, form part of the story of Brexit and yet cannot be told without placing them in a wider frame. Maybe so, but it does seem premature. His discussion of the controversy about overriding the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement is underwhelming. And he does not address the UK’s pivotal decision not to participate in the EU’s disastrous vaccine procurement exercise, an option which would not have been taken up but for Brexit. But whereas the book’s very recent history seems to me unsatisfying, its final, speculative conclusions are highly engaging. The historical significance of Brexit, he says, will turn partly on what comes next, on how the UK makes use of its detachment from the European project, and whether it sparks a new economic and political settlement, improving social cohesion and renewing government. Like the choice to leave itself, Tombs reasons, nothing here is inevitable but rests instead on our collective decisions. If the UK after Brexit thrives, and if the EU continues to falter, the assumption that the nation-state has had its day will be put in question and the inevitability of European integration likewise.

This Sovereign Isle makes a powerful case for the British people’s choice to leave the EU, lucidly explaining its historical foundations and its emotional and rational grounds, as well as exposing the shallowness of much argument to the contrary. One of the book’s many virtues is that it rejects the idea that Brexit was inevitable: there was no guarantee the question would be put to the people, that a majority would vote to leave, or that the governing elite would honour the answer. The book’s vice, per the singular noun in its title, is that it perhaps glides too quickly over emerging fractures within the British people, some of whom no longer recognise one another as compatriots. I do not mean the distinction between those who voted for leave or remain, a distinction Tombs considers closely and argues, rightly I think, may be fading with time. I mean divisions between Scotland, England (and Wales), and Northern Ireland. It is not that Tombs ignores this, but I think he may understate the extent to which the unity of the British as such is now in question. His argument that Brexit may well strengthen the Union is a powerful one, but it does not follow that the British will choose to remain one people.

All this is for the future. For now, I agree with Tombs that leaving the EU was the decision of a confident people (British not just English), capable of self-government and of engaging freely, on equal terms, with other peoples, in Europe and beyond.