The Irony of Brexit: The UK as Forerunner to the EU

John Bull and Sawney Scot

It shouldn’t surprise you, perhaps, that the debate over Brexit—whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union—has found its way into the British historical profession. The issue has divided historians badly. While they do not argue explicitly in favor of shaking off the EU, “Historians for Britain” have provided some useful ammunition for the “Leave” campaign. Their observations have came under fire in “Fog in Channel, Historians Isolated,” an essay that appeared in History Today. This essay has served as a rallying point for those scholars who oppose Historians for Britain. This group does not go by any particular name, and while their arguments tend to support the EU, they do not argue in favor of “Remain” outright. You can find a nice summary of the debate in this Financial Times article by Gideon Rachman:

The article claims that three main themes characterize the arguments of the Historians for Britain: continuity, moderation, and separation.  First, British institutions, particularly political ones, have shown a long continuity that stretches back to the middle ages. Second, throughout this period, Britain has shown a political moderation not found in other nations (e.g. it has avoided the extremes of fascism, communism, anti-semitism, etc.). Third, Britain has always been semi-detached from Europe. These themes add up to an argument that seems to state, “Britain has developed a distinct set of good institutions on its own and will be just fine without Europe.” Opponents of Historians for Britain have contested every one of these arguments, claiming that Britain is not exceptional and that its history has been characterized by a long and intimate relationship with Europe.

One Thing after Another is happy to see historians tackling important contemporary issues and feels pleased that the Financial Times has taken notice of this debate within the historical profession. However, One Thing after Another feels that much of this discussion is not helpful. First, the argument has been inconclusive; Rachman finishes his article by indicating that neither side has necessarily won. Second, despite Rachman’s claim to the contrary, a good portion of this debate is moot. For example, the fact that Britain has long been engaged with Europe does not necessarily signify that the EU is the best way to sustain that engagement.

It was while considering this question that One Thing after Another ran across the following article by Daniel Gross on Slate:

Gross’ argument is that the free exchange of goods, services, and labor are what made Britain great. With the triumph of Brexit, Britain has turned its back on these pillars of success. One Thing after Another believes that this thesis is simplistic. The extent of free trade’s contribution to British success is difficult to establish, and many other factors accounted for that success. Furthermore, Gross never actually defines what “success” means, and he overlooks the seamier side of Britain’s achievements. Still, Gross’ article made One Thing after Another think of an important historical development that we ought to recall as we consider Britain’s membership in the EU: the formation of the United Kingdom itself which, at the time, created the largest free trade zone in Europe.

It was the Acts of Union (1707) that made the United Kingdom. Before that point, England and Scotland had been separate states. After the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, they had been yoked in a personal union (with some interruptions, the same person happened to fill the position of monarch in both countries), but they were still different countries. Such a situation might sound odd to us, but in Europe at the time, it was a fairly common circumstance. It was also terribly difficult for both parties. The monarch of England and Scotland spent most of his (or her) time in London surrounded by a largely English court with English advisors pursuing English objectives. And since the monarch directed foreign policy (e.g. declared war, made peace, and directed armed forces), Scotland’s interests were often subordinated to England’s. But Scotland still retained a parliament, and after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England, that parliament obtained a number of powers allowing it to pursue goals that ran contrary to what the English saw as their interests.

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when William and Mary had sailed from the Netherlands to take the English throne, England had been enlisted in William’s fight to deny the hegemony of Europe to the Bourbons of France and Spain. Scotland had repeatedly been compelled to fight alongside England. At the beginning of the 18th century, however, the Scottish parliament sought to direct Scotland’s trade and foreign policy (the Wine Act and the Act of Peace and War). Even more important, the Scots put the personal union at risk through the Act of Security (1704). The act stipulated that the Scots would not accept the English succession to the throne as their own unless England made certain guarantees about religion, government, and trade. An exceedingly awkward battle between the two parliaments ensued. English statesmen feared Scotland would eventually find itself arrayed on France’s side (Scotland had traditionally resorted to the “auld alliance” with France as a counterweight against England). In the worst case scenario, Scotland could become a base for French armies to invade England. It was from this tangled mess that both sides pushed forward and produced the Acts of Union.

The Acts of Union are a terribly contentious subject among historians. Many charge that the union of the two states was nothing more than an act of English imperialism (they often point to the large-scale bribery necessary to get the act through Scotland’s parliament). Such a view is not terribly nuanced. For sure, it was not a union of equals. England was rich and had a population of five million. Scotland was poor and had a population of around one million. Moreover, Scotland had recently been bankrupted by the Darien expedition in which the country had tried to colonize Panama. This imbalance explains why the Scots only obtained 45 MPs in the new British House of Commons (as compared to over 500 English MPs). We must remember that at the time, though, representation had nothing to do with numbers but with a combination of factors including wealth and interests. But the Scots were able to obtain a number of concessions. They kept their own church as well as their own courts and laws. They also got a British-wide free trade zone and a common currency (which they wanted). The English, for their part, got the Scots to accept the English succession to a British throne (e.g. the Hanoverian family that succeeded Queen Anne would rule over the new United Kingdom).

As the result of some audacious thinking, hard bargaining, a willingness to compromise, and some liberal doses of English cash in the form of bribes, the English and Scots created the largest free trade zone in Europe. They also erected a state that would become a major European power and give them the ability to dominate world trade for years. For sure, there were winners (the great merchant princes of Glasgow) and losers (Highland clans) within what was a highly coercive mercantilist system. Moreover, we should not forget the costs of union and the growing pangs of the market economy that followed. The Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 indicate all was not well in the early years of the union. That both were crushed by superior British forces indicates, however, that the balance of power on the British Isles lay clearly with the new union. In the long run, Scotland witnessed rising prosperity, and ambitious Scots obtained enormous opportunities within a British, not English, empire. The English obtained security, and the prosperity of Scotland redounded to their own. On top of all that, as a number of historians have pointed out, the two people together quickly created a new, British identity that overlay national and regional identities.

The origins of the United Kingdom give much food for thought as we think about the EU and Brexit. It is possible to draw a number of parallels between the United Kingdom and the EU. Both were created in times of great danger as a means of enhancing security and stability. Both saw the sinking of sovereignty into a larger supranational organization. Both created free trade zones with monetary unions. Both witnessed the integration of poor regions with much richer ones. And both saw resentments arise as people from poorer areas migrated to wealthier ones (for the character of “Sawney Scot,” whom we see in the image above with an early version of John Bull, read “Polish plumber”). It is, of course, possible to overstrain the comparison. For example, integration in the case of the United Kingdom went far beyond what the EU has accomplished. This was largely the case because Britain was formed by a partnership between just two states, a very powerful one that could bring much pressure to bear, and a lesser one whose only trump card was a capacity to make mischief. The EU was the product of a more consensual process that involved 28 states.

One cannot help be struck by the irony that large numbers of Britons, whose state in many ways originally resembled the EU, are now hostile to the EU project. One could retort that the EU is both less and more than the United Kingdom in all the wrong ways. Or, perhaps more to the point, many Britons do not feel that they are in a position where they must tolerate the sacrifices that Scots had to embrace back in 1707 (i.e. loss of sovereignty to a larger supranational organization headquartered in a distant capital). Yet, Britain’s current position does in some ways resemble that of Scotland on the eve of the union. Scotland’s relative weight within the new United Kingdom was roughly the same as Britain’s weight within the contemporary EU: in 1707, Scotland’s population constituted one-sixth of the new United Kingdom while the United Kingdom’s current share of the EU economy is also about one-sixth. Within the union, Scots had similar reasons to complain as Britons do today about the EU: Scots only held just over 10% of the seats in the Commons which sat in distant London (which Scots saw in the same way that many Britons see Brussels today) and made laws for Scotland.

Realistically speaking, though, it is hard to see what better alternative Scotland had in 1707 than the United Kingdom; a small state, it lived in a dangerous world with an overbearing neighbor. It took a risk in joining what it could not beat. The United Kingdom was not perfect, but it was better than other available options. In today’s dangerous world, it is hard to see how Britain, a small state on the fringes of Europe, has a better alternative than membership in a larger organization like the EU. One might wish the EU was more transparent, democratic, and dynamic. One might wish it was better led. One might resent its meddling. But to do a mash-up of a well-known Churchill quote, the EU is Britain’s worst choice—except for all the others.


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