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Brexit as a British State of Mind

Vernon Bogdanor—

Is Britain part of Europe? Of course, geographically we certainly are part of Europe. But politically? The answer is by no means clear. Britain has long had an ambivalent relationship with the Continent. It is apparent even in the way that we speak. We speak of entering Europe or leaving Europe when we mean the Continent. Churchill often used to say that we are in Europe but not of it. So Britain’s break with the European Union was a confirmation of the way Britain already viewed itself in relation to the Continent.

Britain’s island position led her to form habits of mind quite different from those of her continental neighbors as well as distinctive global political and trading relations. In John of Gaunt’s words about Britain in Shakespeare’s Richard II:

“This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war.”

The infection, presumably, came from the Continent! Yet, both in 1914 and 1939, Britain found herself at war as a result of what was happening on the Continent. So Britain’s fate has always been intertwined with that of the Continent. But it has not been wholly so intertwined. Indeed, the main events which have stamped British consciousness occurred when Britain was alone confronting a hostile Continent—the Napoleonic wars and of course the events at Dunkirk in 1940, when British troops were successfully evacuated from the Continent. 

It is a measure perhaps of the reluctance of Britain to involve herself in the Continent that the evacuation at Dunkirk was so widely seen not as a defeat but as a triumph. After the fall of France, George VI wrote to his mother, “Personally I feel happier now that we have no allies to be polite to and pamper.” The king’s official biographer added, “In these sentiments [he] was at one with the vast majority of his subjects.”  Dunkirk seemed to show that Britain did not stand or fall as a nation with the other nations of the Continent. Britain, unlike them, could survive a military defeat, withdrawing her troops and continuing the fight. 

The outcome of the war further emphasized the contrasts between Britain and the Continent. For Britain, alone amongst the European powers (except for Russia—a part-European power), was a victor in the war. Furthermore, Britain was the only European combatant which had neither been ruled by a Fascist or Nazi government nor invaded and occupied by one. Continental powers had to start again and come to terms with their collaboration with Fascism or Nazism. To put the point crudely, young people on the Continent had to ask themselves whether they could be proud of what their parents or grandparents had done during the war, or whether shame was a more appropriate reaction. “Being European,” the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev has said, “is about being aware of what we did.” The sense of being European, according to a senior British diplomat writing in 1955, was “a state of mind born of defeat, occupation and the gulf between those who collaborated and those who resisted.” Britain did not share that state of mind. Through the accident of geography, the British could be proud, not ashamed, of their part in the war.

Brexit, therefore, was not an accident. It followed from very deep-seated and ingrained British attitudes. Those—and I include myself—who hoped that Britain would remain in the European Union also hoped that we could transform long-held attitudes. We did not succeed.

Vernon Bogdanor, C.B.E., is a fellow of the British Academy and professor of government at King’s College, London, and was for many years professor of government at Oxford University. He has been an adviser to several governments, including those of Albania, Czech Republic, Hungary, Kosovo, Israel, and Trinidad.

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