Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, 20. Concluding Remarks

This series (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16i, 16.ii17, 18, 19) has explored a number of ways in which those who support a very sovereign United Kingdom completely separate from the European Union, and even other European institutions like the European Court for Human Rights, which is attached to the Council of Europe rather than the European Union, are attached to unsupportable ideas about the separateness and superiority of England, Britain or the UK.

What Britain’s past was does not prove anything about where it should be now with regard to European institutions, but it is at least possible to say that claims according to which Britain has always stood apart from Europe are false, and so is any connected claim that Britain is somehow fated by history, geography and national character to stand aside from arrangements made by European nations to share sovereignty.

Britain was connected to the rest of Europe through Celtic culture and language, then through the Roman Empire, then through the Saxon conquest, then partial Viking conquest, then Norman-French conquest, then ties with the Netherlands, then a union in the person of the joint monarch with the Netherlands, then a union in the person of a series of kings with Hanover in Germany, then through constant British intervention in European affairs, land holdings which go back to the Channel Islands (originally French), the remains of which still exist in Gibraltar and sovereign military bases in Cyprus, then through postwar European institutions like the Council of Europe (which loosely groups all democracies, broadly defined) and then the European Union.

The peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain are rather less firmly committed to maintaining the existing state than the peoples of France and Germany are, the two European nations usually taken by British Eurosceptics as the negative opposite of Britain in all its glory. There is a distinct possibility that Scotland will leave, with strong separatist tendencies in Northern Ireland and to a lesser but real extent in Wales. So Britain is not uniquely well formed and self-confident as a nation.

As with all other nations, Britain was built through war, state appropriation and the enforcement of a national state system. It is not a country of unique liberty, neither does the Anglosphere of UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand exist as a uniquely coherent transnational grouping based on medieval and early modern English institutions. The Anglosphere countries are diverse, with different historical experiences, with Britain as the odd one out in the sense that all the other Anglosphere countries are still dealing with the status of indigenous peoples who lived there before the relatively recent history of the Anglosphere states.

Other European states have links with ex-colonies, where the language of the colonial power is still widely spoken. More French people live in Britain than those from the Anglosphere (300 000 versus 191 000). Links with the Anglosphere are certainly quite real and exist quite happily alongside EU membership, so the whole idea of making the Anglosphere something that excludes a European path is misleading in any case.

The historical interpretations referred to in this and previous posts are not contentious. No educated and fastidious sovereigntist-Eurosceptic is going to deny them, the trouble is that a lot of less fastidious sovereigntist-Eurosceptic assumptions about history are not in happy accord with these historical realities, and even the more fastidious are trying to emphasise an unrealistic counter-narrative of British distinctness that goes beyond the normal level of distinctness between major nations. Britain has certainly made its contribution to the history of liberty, civil and commercial society, but is not obviously more blessed in these respects than the other most advanced European nations.

The case against the United Kingdom’s participation in the European Union can only be the case against the existence of a transnational political union for any large grouping of European nations. There are problems with the EU and I can agree with many sovereigntist-Eurosceptics on many of these problems, but if we reject the more myth making kinds of nationalism these are problems I suggest that can be addressed with better, more decentralised and flexible institutional arrangements. India, which has a greater population than the EU, and at least as much diversity of language and other aspects of human life survives.

It is of course difficult to know what Europe would look like without the EU and what good things in Europe are due to the EU, but I suggest that it is not a complete coincidence that the period of the EU has been a time of growing democracy and peace, with many countries taking EU membership as part of the path from dictatorship to democracy. The Euro crisis and the more recent Mediterranean refugee crisis are bringing strain to the EU, but that is what happens to political communities, they encounter problems and survive them if they have robust institutions. The economic problems of southern Europe precede the EU and tensions round migration exist in other parts of the world. Britain has anyway remained aside from the Euro, as have Sweden and Denmark, suggesting that the EU can accommodate flexibility and allow member states with doubts about the most ambitious schemes to stand aside from them. This is certainly the path to go down if the EU is to be a robust political community.

The basic point in this series has been that nothing makes British history separate from European history, so that questions about membership of a European political community which pools sovereignty are not answered by looking to a supposed distinct and superior history. Britain is part of Europe and always has been and has frequently shared sovereignty in some way with some mainland European state. Past history does not exclude Britain from Europe and trans-national European institutions, which may or may not be appropriate for Britain and other countries, for reasons in the here and now. As far as history determines Britain’s place, the appropriate place is Europe.

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5 thoughts on “Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, 20. Concluding Remarks

  1. I’ll still catching up to the series (I’m around the 15th entry), but I just wanted to congratulate you on finishing up.

  2. “…..the period of the EU has been a time of growing democracy and peace….”

    Pull the other one. The EU is unashamedly anti-democratic and increasingly a warmonger in its role as NATO pawn and US’ vassal.

    • The Hand,

      First things first. Is this statement – “…..the period of the EU has been a time of growing democracy and peace….” – true, or not?

      A ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer will suffice, thank you.

      Secondly – and I am only trying to get you to think things through here – what does the statement you highlighted have to do with the EU being “unashamedly anti-democratic and increasingly a warmonger”?

      Please, think it through slowly.

      I’ll help: Stocker’s statement of fact (“…..the period of the EU has been a time of growing democracy and peace….”) can tell us nothing about how democratic or undemocratic the EU is. These are two different topics, which, in turn, tells us that you have inadvertently changed the subject while trying to tackle Stocker’s argument. This happens all the time, which is why I take the time to point it out when I see it.

      There is plenty to bitch and moan about in regards to the EU. Stocker never claims otherwise.

      Your second point – that the EU is a warmongering “NATO pawn and US vassal” – is interesting, to say the least. Yet, in spite of your clear wording, I have no idea what you are talking about. Could you elaborate a bit more on what you mean by the EU being a NATO pawn and a US vassal?

Please keep it civil

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