Robert Tombs, professor of European history at Cambridge University, and Labour peer Andrew Adonis took part in a discussion on the following question: Should those who know their history welcome Brexit? Here is an edited transcript of their arguments in the debate hosted by ‘Our Future, Our Choice’ and Clare College, Cambridge:
Andrew Adonis: Robert Tombs has been very strident about Brexit in his post-2016 statements. He says joining the European Union was ‘an immense historical error, borne of exaggerated fears of national decline and marginalisation, and a vain attempt to be at the heart of Europe’. However, what I find interesting reading his book, The English And Their History, you will not be able to detect that Professor Tombs is a Brexiteer.
There is no statement (in the book) of the [hostility] towards the European Union, or of anything unnatural about Britain and its engagement with Europe. On the contrary, what we’ve (got) is a very fine textured account of Britain’s complex and constantly changing relationship with its continent. In the final sections, the big thing that comes out to me…is of the multi-identity nature of being English over the last millennium.
The striking fact (is that) the state of England, the nation of England, has spent far more (time) over the last thousand years in political union of one kind or another with parts of the continent, than it has with other parts of the United Kingdom. (In terms of the UK), we’ve only had a legislative union with Scotland since 1707, (and) a political union since 1603. We’ve only had a legislative union with Ireland since 1800 and, of course, it was only under Henry VIII that Wales becomes fully part of England in terms of the legislature and administration. Whereas, of course, over most of the previous 700 years, we’ve been, in one form or another, in political unions with bits of France, with bits of Germany.
England is one of Europe’s oldest and most powerful and largest states (and is), of course, geographically semi-detached – both from the mainland of Europe and also, crucially, semi-detached from Ireland as well. We’ve always had very, very difficult relationships with our neighbours, and at different points we’ve actually been very close to them. What we’ve never [been able] to do is to ignore them by nature of our geography, our power and our trade, and that’s as true now as it has been at any point in the last millennium.
England has had huge difficulty in getting on with not only its biggest neighbour on the continent, but crucially with its neighbour(s) within the United Kingdom. Our (relations) with other parts of the United Kingdom have been at least as problematic…as relations with our European neighbours. And the interesting thing about it is that continues to be the case up until the present day.
We have spent a huge amount of time (in the Brexit debate) discussing future relations within the United Kingdom, between England and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Because we have given formal devolution, statutory devolution to the Parliament in Scotland, and the Assembly in Wales, and the Assembly in Northern Ireland – though it’s not meeting at the moment, but it’s legally in existence – there has been a huge set of very difficult issues to do with European Union negotiations and the acquired rights and constitutional rights of the other parts of the United Kingdom outside England.
Now, the really interesting view that comes to my mind, is that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland represent ten million out of a population of the United Kingdom of 63 million. That ten million is extremely important, it’s crucially important for future governments and the prosperity of these islands. That whole set of issues between Britain and Ireland are hugely important, too: is there going to be a hard border or not? It’s interesting that some of the Brexiteers who admire Professor Tombs’ work, and think that what we need is a Brexit which embraces the whole of the United Kingdom, want Ireland to leave the European Union. Because they think that by far the best way to maintain the customs and trading union with the Republic of Ireland is for them, in a kind of neo-colonial way, to mimic everything that we do.
However, the big dog that has not barked in all of these discussions is: what is going to happen to the government of England after Brexit? And, in particular: are we going to have significant devolution?
It is the case, particularly in the areas that voted (for) Brexit, which are most remote and isolated from London, that there is an increasingly strong feeling that this very centralised English state cannot continue, and a good part of the vote for Brexit two years ago is, ironically, a vote against a very centralised English state. There’s a passage in (Tombs’) book which talks about the difference between us, France, Germany and Spain, which have, on average, twice as much taxation as we have, which are levied in various regional and local levels. And I think whether Brexit happens next year or not, we, ironically, are going to have to become a much more European style state in the way we govern England.
So what’s my conclusion? There’s a lot that’s distinct and exceptional about England, there’s a lot that’s distinct and exceptional about all countries. We’re also intimately and integrally tied up in the politics and the cultures of other [nations] of our continent, both west, north and east. It’s been hugely problematic and difficult for us as a country over the last millennium, and that certainly isn’t going to change in our lifetime.
Robert Tombs: One thing I said in my book was that our relationships (with other countries), perhaps typically for an island nation, have tended to be rather unstable and short. But yes, we are, of course, a European country. No one can deny that.
But I don’t intend to say an awful lot about history, and the reason for this is I don’t believe that history dictates our future. (In) the 20th century, we did not, of course, suffer invasion, we did not suffer dictatorship, we did not suffer foreign rule, and therefore the fears that many of our European friends have about the possible consequences of a breakdown of the EU, we tend not to share. And, for similar reasons, the idea of loyalty to the nation, the idea of national sovereignty is much less tarnished (in Britain) than it is in many European countries. I have German friends, for example, who say ‘I don’t agree with being German, I don’t see myself as a German, I think of myself as a European’. And many people in a number of countries do feel that. A Eurobarometer asked how many people in Britain felt that; it was something like four per cent. In Germany, they actually found 30 per cent who considered themselves European rather than German.
Nevertheless, I would very strongly contest the view that there is a fundamental difference in our history or our culture that means that we were predestined not to be part of the EU or predestined to leave it. Had we been part of the eurozone, which could easily have happened, we would not – I am quite sure – have voted to Leave. That’s got nothing to do with the sentiment, but it’s got everything to do with the calculation of interest and risk. If you go to Greece, the Greeks have no reason whatever to love the EU and indeed, they don’t. But if you ask the people if they’d like to leave, at least in my experience, they’ll say ‘No’. Their fear of the consequences are great. The same happened in France, (when) Le Pen’s support collapsed when she started talking about leaving Europe. So many people think that the EU (is) saving them from danger when the chaos beckons, and I have no doubt that many people in this country would have felt the same had we been part of the eurozone, whatever our historical differences, whatever (the) differences in cultures.
Nevertheless, there are differences…and here I think General de Gaulle got it right when he said in his famous press conference in which he vetoed Britain’s first application to join the common market: ‘l’Angleterre…est insulaire’. It almost translates as ‘England is insular’, but that’s not at all what he meant in the English sense. He, of course, went on to say that England ‘insulaire’ is connected with a whole range of countries by its trade, by its culture, by its history. We have relationships with other parts of the world which are unique among Europeans.
There’s been an interesting study which showed that, on present trends – of course, present trends don’t always continue – the level of our trade with the eurozone would fall to the same level, whether we were inside or outside the EU. It had fallen to about 30 per cent of our foreign trade, it was quite a small proportion of our total economy. Most of our economy is not trade…so the difference of being in or out of the EU is in general terms is not very great, though of course we can always mess things up.
But I don’t want to talk about economics. I want to talk about present day politics, perhaps from a historic slant, and I want to look at Europe. And I think when we’re talking about Europe and our relations, we should think also about Europe and what is good for Europe and what is good for the peoples of Europe, not necessarily for the rulers of Europe, not the European Union, but the people. And I would say that the EU has been pretty disastrous (for them).
For many people the EU is a protective organisation: it protects vested interests, it protects against foreign competition, it protects against foreign immigration, it protects against the young. If you look at France, the country I know best, a lot of people [think the system] is there to protect those who have, and it works to exclude those who haven’t. Why does it work like that? Because of the way the euro works. I’m cutting a few corners but essentially the euro operates in a way that penalises the less efficient, without giving any way to make themselves more efficient other than government austerity. Normally, if you have a country that’s in serious economic trouble it gets a bailout, and part of the condition of that bailout is that it devalues its currency. In the eurozone, of course, you can’t devalue your currency, (so) you cut people’s living standards, you cut employment, you cut waste. But it hasn’t worked.
For countries in serious debt…this is…a systemic problem of the euro, which cannot be solved except by what the French call ‘en vol avant’ – ‘a flight forward’ – which is what the official policy of the EU is…and has been put forward strongly by President Macron. In other words, the only way of solving the EU’s problems (is) by pushing ahead to what we call a sovereign Europe, i.e. the EU and its central bodies should be responsible for budgets, employment policy, welfare policy, immigration policy, or even educational policy, in some areas. It’s essentially a managerial view of what the EU is. It’s not about giving people what…(they want but what) Macron thinks they want. If they don’t want this, it’s because they’re wrong, and they need to be told they’re wrong and they need to change their minds, which they have a number of times. European governments, legally elected, have been forced out of office. Referendum results have been reversed. We shall see whether we follow in that line.
European democracy, and this is an historical point, has a rather shallow [past]. Much of Europe has only known democracy in our lifetime. Treating democracy in the cavalier way I’m afraid the EU does seem to me to be playing with fire, (as evidenced by) the growth of extremist parties, not only in fringe countries, but also in some of the core countries, Germany being the most obvious recent example, and in much of eastern Europe and parts of southern Europe, too.
Another is the growth of regional separatism. It seems to me the EU has, no doubt with the best of intentions, encouraged the growth of regional separatism without knowing how to handle it. We saw that rather tragically in the case of Catalan. The Catalans voted to become independent and they say: ‘The EU’s going to support us, the EU’s going to stand by us’. What does the EU do? It stands by the Spanish government, the only government in Western Europe that hold political prisoners.
What about us? One could say, idealistically: ‘We’re a European country, our duty is to stand by our European friends and try to get them out of the mess they’ve got themselves into’. That’s a sort of William Pitt argument: ‘England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example’. The only thing that matters [is] that I don’t think Europe is in a mood to be saved, or indeed its rulers are not going to change direction.
So what should we do? It seems to me that unless you’re willing to support a system that seems to me to be a damaging system, then you should have a moral duty to leave it. And that’s what we did. Now you could say: ‘Was this the right time to do it? Should we have waited a few years and see how things pan out?’ Maybe we should, but Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority to call a referendum. Only 53 MPs voted against. We had the vote, we voted. The vote was a very small but clear majority. I think it would have been a much larger majority had the government not pulled out all the stops in a rather unscrupulous manner to bully the electorate into voting Remain.
Now, what do we do about it? Some would say it’s a terribly bad idea, some of us think it’s a rather good idea. Some of us hope that it could lead to a regeneration of democracy in Britain. But even if you don’t think that, the question now has changed. It seems to me that the question is no longer whether it was a good idea in 2016 to leave the EU or not, whether there were small economic benefits in staying or going. The question now is: ‘How is the country governed? Who has the final say?’. Now, Parliament gave that decision to the people very clearly and unambiguously in a popular vote. A general election then saw the two main parties both endorse this position. The Labour party is now behaving in a way that seems to me utterly illogical and unprincipled, unless you think it’s only logic is a search to overthrow the government.
Just try to imagine what would happen if the noble Lords…are able to block the decision we made legally. It seems to me this would cause not only a constitutional crisis, but would cause a deep moral crisis within our political system. And I think those who advocate it are actually very, very clear in what they are doing.
So what I think will happen, either we have some sort of Brexit – I hope not too fudged – or we shall have some sort of unpredictable [crisis]. I would prefer the former to the latter, even if I voted to Remain in 2016.