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Keeping the balance of power means resisting European power monopolies

My Times column on Britain’s history with Europe:

[The prime minister argues that “when we turn out back on Europe, sooner or later we come to regret it” and cited 1704, 1805, 1914 and 1940 as examples. This is historical nonsense: in each case it was our separation from Europe that enabled Britain to liberate the continent from a monopolistic tyranny. Had we been integrated, the outcomes would have been different. I argued in my Times column that the existence of the Channel, and its narrowness, have made us inevitably involved in European affairs, but also inevitably resistant to absorption into European hegemonies.]

Whatever your views on Brexit, there is no doubting the peculiar agony of Britain’s relationship with its neighbouring continent. Ever since the day at the end of the last ice age that the sea broke through the chalky gorge between Dover and Calais, it has been our dilemma: are we separate from, or close to, the continent?

Such geographic determinism may seem facile, but consider that Japan is six times further from the nearest mainland than we are. If the Strait of Dover had been six times wider, we would never have joined the Common Market, because we would have had an even more distinct culture. If it had been one sixth as wide, we would be unlikely to be having this referendum because we would have been repeatedly incorporated into European empires and would feel far more blurred in our nationality.

That Philip II, Napoleon and Hitler failed where Claudius and William I (and Eisenhower) succeeded is down largely to the width of the channel: difficult but not impossible to invade across. Britain is close enough to the continent to be repeatedly entangled in continental systems, but far enough away to repeatedly regret having joined them.

Take the events of AD410. Paul Johnson in his book The Offshore Islanders (written the year before Britain joined the common market) argued that the British were by then terminally fed up with the “festering incubus” of toga-clad colonialism. The promising prosperity of cross-channel trade in the century before Claudius showed up had long given way to a nasty occupation characterised by financial exploitation, brutal repression and religious dogmatism. Opportunity came when barbarian armies crossed the Rhine and Goths sacked Rome itself.

At that point something peculiar happened in Britain. A rebel force of semi-Romanised British nationalists, inspired by the British-born theologian Pelagius with his heretical doctrine of free will, captured London and other cities, imposed peace and then wrote to the Emperor Honorius requesting legal recognition of their independence. Otherwise preoccupied, the emperor agreed. As Johnson says: “There was no provision in Roman law for a territory to leave the empire. [Sound familiar?] But by an ingenious use of the Lex Julia the British got round the difficulty and severed their links with the continent by a process of negotiation.”

Of course, division and war rather spoilt things in the centuries that followed, not helped by a colder climate. But the Dark Ages were hardly a picnic in the rest of Europe.


Or take the Synod of Whitby, called by King Oswiu of Northumbria and hosted by St Hilda in AD663-4. The purpose of this summit meeting was superficially to decide on hairstyles (tonsure) and the date of Easter, but its more serious job was to choose which form of Christianity to follow — the hierarchical and bling-rich one of Rome or the decentralised and ascetic one of Iona. It must have been rather like the debate about joining the euro versus keeping the pound, but with a different outcome, since we chose continental.

The losers slunk back to Iona with a few of St Aidan’s bones in a box but it was not till 1066 that England was properly absorbed into the political, economic and even judicial union that the church represented. The pope enthusiastically supported William the Conqueror, and reaped his reward in the form of a Catholic English church barely loyal to English secular authority. Eurosceptic twinges continued, such as Henry II’s murder of Thomas Becket or King John’s excommunication by Innocent III, but we remained for centuries fully committed members of the project of ever closer Catholic union.

Till Henry VIII. The Reformation is rife with parallels with today’s debate: throwing off a European supranational bureaucracy to repatriate the membership fees at the cost of sharp divisions in society. Here is the former MP Lord Salisbury, writing last month to the journalist Bruce Anderson: “Henry VIII declared independence from the Pope and the Emperor for the lowest of reasons, his lust and his wallet . . .[but] I hope that you, as I do, feel that Henry’s passion for Anne and for monastic riches released this country from its obscurantist shackles and made the industrial revolution and the period of British dominance possible.”

Salisbury sees modern Brussels as an ancien régime, as incapable of reform as the Roman church and ripe for collapse: “It is difficult for a construct conceived by visionaries moulded in the Napoleonic hothouse of the Grandes Ecoles . . . to adapt to the enormous and irreversible transfer of power from bureaucracies to the individual.”

Napoleon reminds us of another lesson from this tortured island history. When a hegemon aspires to monopolise the continent, it is often Britain that proves hardest to harmonise, because of the Channel. The empire then cuts us off from trade, as Charlemagne, Innocent III, Charles V, Louis XIV, Bonaparte, the Kaiser and Hitler all did to various degrees and at various times. Yet it is often Britain that provides the resistance and causes the hegemon to fall.

It has thus been our historic role to restore fragmentation to Europe, to dissolve its monopolies of power and help to free its peoples from what Bonaparte called “continental systems”. This is not because we are morally superior, or inferior, but simply because we are on an island. If Britain had not existed, or the Channel had been narrower, Napoleon and Hitler would both have imposed continental monopolies that extinguished alternatives. Another way of saying this is that it is our traditional role to help to preserve the balance of power in Europe.

Fragmentation is not necessarily a bad thing. As David Hume was one of the first to point out, Europe’s overtaking of China after 1500 owed much to the fact that its peninsulas, straits, mountain ranges and islands meant it could not be unified for long, with the result that innovators and experimenters could escape uncongenial regimes by crossing borders. From Gutenberg to Voltaire to Otto Frisch, they did so.

Geographical determinism is now pointing us out to the world. If the width of the Channel has shaped our history with Europe in the 20th century, air travel and telephones surely brought us closer to our continental neighbours. In the 1970s it was suddenly cheaper to travel to, trade with or communicate with Europe. Today, after the revolutions brought about by container shipping, budget airlines, satellites and the internet, other continents and peoples feel almost as close.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times