The Brexit charge is that the European Union has become an overbearing political project threatening British sovereignty and values. Britain, so the story runs, is an exceptional country with an exceptional history, exceptional institutions and an exceptional destiny. For Europeans inured to political instability and bloodshed, supranational institutions are needed to keep the peace. These chosen British lands have no such need. The Brexit vote was a protest vote against an order that had created insupportable lives for too many British citizens, intensified by fears over immigration, but it was underpinned by this cultural narrative of Britain’s uniqueness.Sign up to our Brexit weekly briefingRead more
Like all caricatures, this story contains enough truth to be plausible. As the dominant part of an island to the west of the continent, England after 1066 was able to develop parliamentary government, religious toleration and common law without the periodic invasions that beset other parts of mainland Europe. It was not occupied by Napoleon or Hitler or ravaged for decades by territorial-cum-religious war. It was first into the Industrial Revolution and built the most extensive of the European empires on the basis of maritime prowess as an island nation. It was on the winning side in the 20th century’s two world wars. English, once spoken only in the Thames valley, became the world language.
But there are limits to this account. It greatly overstates the uniqueness of English history, our differences with Europe and our differences with the other nations of the British Isles.
Magna Carta was part of a family of European settlements that fettered monarchical feudal rights across Europe
We have never been truly divorced from our continent. How could it be otherwise? England’s violent record in Ireland, Scotland and Wales should disabuse anyone who thinks our history is distinctively peaceful – and our record in empire-building was of a piece. All the currents that have shaped us – Roman, Saxon, Danish and Norman occupations, the Renaissance, the rise of Protestantism, the gains of overseas expansion, the concept of the nation-state, universal suffrage and the welfare state, industrialisation, the brutalities of early capitalism and the emergence of socialism – have shaped the rest of Europe, too. The development has been symbiotic.
Thus, Magna Carta was part of a family of European settlements that fettered monarchical feudal rights across Europe. England’s break with Rome under Henry VIII prefigured the cataclysm that overcame the Holy Roman Empire; England was part of the European state system established by the 1648 peace of Westphalia.