Going forward, thinking back: Rita Ricketts reflects on the origins and consequences of the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union.

AuthorRicketts, Rita

Alister McIntosh, the first head of New Zealand's foreign service, once told diplomatic trainees that 'history has more meaning if traced backward'. (1) Tracing Brexit backwards, Britain was clearly ambivalent about taking part in European integration from the beginning. Yet, in the euphoria of Allied victory in 1945, it could have had the leadership of Europe for a song. And Churchill seemed set to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, who had maintained continuous engagement with Europe. As war drew to a close, Churchill urged France and Germany to work together and, speaking in Zurich in 1946, he floated the idea of a 'kind of United States of Europe'. Such a move was even more imperative, he told an audience in Fulton, Missouri, in the same year, since an Iron Curtain was descending upon Europe and he saw the need for a balance of power. He reiterated his plea for unity in an address to the Congress of Europe in The Hague in 1948, and again in Brussels in 1949. (2) But the torch passed to France's Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet.

Churchill, having lost the general election in July 1945, found it difficult to get proposals for a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) discussed in Parliament. (3) The Labour government had more far-reaching concerns. Parliamentary debate ranged from the state of the economy, gaps in the defence of the North Atlantic, problems in Indochina, troops still in Korea, the direction of travel of the new Communist China under Mao Zedong and reports of an invasion in Tibet to 'having the strength to make peace'. (4) The reality of Britain's reduced 'strength' had been painfully exposed when Singapore fell to the Japanese Army in 1942, considered one of the greatest defeats in British history. The consequent waning of British influence in South-east Asia and the Pacific was heightened by the loss of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Even so, the Labour government had no intention of relinquishing membership of the Big Three (United States, Russia and United Kingdom). It had already begun the costly business of developing an independent nuclear deterrent, even though the economy was crushed by war debt. Writing to a friend in 1948, a New Zealand diplomat observed that 'Britain could recover from her present ills if she formed a solid economic unit with Europe ... [but] I fear now that Britain will not take this course'. (5) He was prophetic. Britain declined to join in plans for the ECSC in the early 1950s and the initial drafting, in 1955, of the Treaty of Rome. (6)

Churchill allegedly told his wife that he might have been the Common Market's first president if he were ten years younger. But back in No 10 in 1951, he procrastinated. Would not Britain be more influential in Europe if it maintained its special relationship with the United States and the Commonwealth, rather than becoming just one alongside six others? Boris Johnson was later to seize on this in support of his Brexit stance. (7) Ignoring geography, and the fact that the European Union is Britain's major trading partner, Brexiteers wanted the freedom to shape the world. (8) Unlike New Zealand, the United Kingdom had never solved the paradox of living in one place and being engaged elsewhere. (9) Its nearest European neighbour is only 50 kilometres away from Dover, but Kent is at the centre of Europhobia, and the ubiquitous Nigel Farage launched his 'Leave' campaign there in a local pub. Brexiteers accept that Britain out of the European Union may temporarily be back within its island chrysalis, but believe that it will soon emerge onto the world stage. In their time, Churchill, Clement Attlee and Anthony Eden had also thought that the world was their oyster. After all, Britain was a nuclear power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and a global trader with a worldwide military presence.

Shattered illusions

The Suez debacle finally put paid to the illusion of Britain as a super-power. The invasion was an atavistic throwback, or, as one New Zealand diplomat had it, Britain was an 'old country suffering from prostrate trouble [and] doing ... silly things'. (10) But it sufficed to show the world that 'however much Britain may want to be a world power, the fact is she is not'. (11) However, after Suez Britain continued to deploy troops overseas for at least another 25 years, in East Africa, Aden, Malaya, Borneo and the Falklands, although largely to defend local regimes and systems, rather than impose London's will. European historian Robert Tombs argues that Britain was only ever a medium-sized power. (12) Prime Minster Harold Macmillan, succeeding Eden, must have grasped some sense of this reality when he sought to join the Common Market. Addressing Parliament in 1961, he sought approval for the move so that Britain could play a positive and full part in European developments. (13) Almost four years previously he had detailed his young henchman Edward Heath to do the homework.

After announcing his intention, Macmillan dispatched Duncan Sandys to try and win over the Commonwealth. (14) The American administration was overjoyed. British membership could bring Commonwealth trade preferences to an end, a goal of US policy evinced by its opposition to the Ottawa agreement of 1932. But de Gaulle, deeply suspicious of American designs in Europe, vetoed Britain's application. It took Britain a further decade before it was admitted to the Common Market, in 1973, but its tortuous attempt to leave would take well over 30 years. The case against membership started as soon as Britain joined, using the well-worn arguments of the 1940s and 1950s. Those on the Left despised the EEC--seeing it as a rich man's club--and the Right saw membership as an abrogation of sovereignty. Only a year after accession, during the 1974 election campaign, Harold Wilson promised to renegotiate Britain's terms and then hold a referendum. As prime minister, Wilson had to contend with seven out of his 23 Cabinet ministers being in favour of leaving. To pacify them, he suspended Cabinet responsibility, which allowed them to campaign according to their...

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