Like it or not, Britain is a part of Europe

A figurine of Queen Elizabeth planted squarely on the Union Jack at a souvenir shop in London. The ruling family hails from Germany.
A Union Jack alongside the European Union flag in London. Come June, the two might be parting company for good.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
A Union Jack alongside the European Union flag in London. Come June, the two might be parting company for good.
A figurine of Queen Elizabeth planted squarely on the Union Jack at a souvenir shop in London. The ruling family hails from Germany. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Question of identity will persist even if the economic impact of a Brexit is contained

The cars zipping unexpectedly by from right to left as you try to cross the street can be jarring for an American newly arrived in Britain. But it's nowhere near as disorienting as hearing the locals talk about "Europe" as being somewhere else. It begs the existentialist question: If I'm not in Europe, where exactly have I landed?

Indeed, that same question has haunted British and European history for more than a millennium. On the one hand, Shakespeare's "precious stone set in the silver sea" is an island apart. It has been the most influential global trendsetter in human history (especially if you credit Britain with spawning the United States). American exceptionalism is nothing but an uncertain toddler in comparison with Britain's own sense of prideful exceptionalism.

And yet, much as Americans are often in denial about the extent to which we are the product of our British roots, the British are often in denial about the extent to which their history (and destiny?) is interwoven with that of the larger - or adjacent, if you insist - European continent.

Start with the fact that London was founded by Romans. Then consider that two of the most consequential Williams to rule Britain (a professor of mine once quipped that the history of Britain could be told in a half-dozen Williams) came from across the Channel.

The English don't like being reminded that William I (the Conqueror), who prevailed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, was basically French and that the king who put an end to what seemed like never-ending cycles of religious warfare and destructive Crown-Parliament tensions was Dutch (William of Orange). To some degree, the iconic freedoms that the world associates with Britain, consolidated by this William's Glorious Revolution of 1688, were (gasp!) Dutch imports.

Today's beloved Prince William, meanwhile, hails from a German family. Don't be fooled by the "House of Windsor" nomenclature - the ruling family adopted that name only because being the "House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha" proved rather awkward when Britain was at war with Queen Victoria's other grandson, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II.

 
 

For centuries, before it became the centre of the world (literally, according to how we keep time), the British island-nation fretted about being a lesser power on the periphery of Europe. Before British monarchs realised that it was far more cost-effective to rule over the rest of the world than over Europe, they were judged by their military conquests across the Channel. Few Americans know that British monarchs claimed to be the rightful rulers of France until 1800 (when they finally dropped the claim from their title) - a grudge they had nursed since the 1340s.

On the economic merits, Britain has the best of all worlds, as an EU member enjoying free access to the continent's vast markets without the albatross of the shared euro currency. The English love playing up the burdens imposed by "harmonising" regulations issued by officious technocrats in Brussels, but the burdens are more imagined than real.

But the British also felt a competing ambivalence towards Europe that would come to prevail over time. Henry VIII's "divorce" from the Roman Catholic Church in order to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, whose nephew was the most powerful emperor of the day, amounted to one of several divorces from Europe.

MONARCH OF FAR-FLUNG EMPIRES

Britain became wary of being a European player also because, over time, the stakes seemed smaller and smaller. Why worry about small French provinces when you could rule all of India, half of Africa and the Caribbean for less effort and far greater profit? Britain's role within Europe shifted to that of a remote arbiter dabbling intermittently in European affairs only to prevent any one power - be it Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany - from dominating the entire continent.

British culture, even more so than the nation's geopolitical outlook, developed in ways antithetical to the European norm (although there is more diversity and less of a "norm" on the continent than the British like to concede).

If gross generalisations are ever fair, it's fair to say that British society was less statist, less orchestrated from on high, than French or Prussian society. British monarchs were historically weak in comparison with their European peers. In Britain - unlike elsewhere, except in the Netherlands - the Industrial Revolution and overseas colonial enterprises were driven as much, if not more, by private enterprise as by the state.

You could spend the rest of your life ploughing through the voluminous literature dwelling on the distinctiveness of Britishness. Suffice it to say that the importance of the individual, the laws pertaining to that individual's place in society and the supremacy of that individual's private sphere and associations are common threads throughout. The most famous put-down of the British people in history might have been Napoleon's description of them as a "nation of shopkeepers", although the British, being British, didn't see it as much of an insult.

George Orwell provides a representative portrait of this British distinctiveness in his classic wartime essay, England Your England, written at the height of the German bombing of London. Among the things that set his people apart from a "European crowd", he writes, are an "addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life".

He continues: "We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official - the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the 'nice cup of tea'."

To Orwell, the English prize liberty above all. He isn't necessarily referring to a self-righteous or heroic "Liberty", but merely the "small-l" liberty to be left alone, in your own private realm. Hence, for Orwell, in the days before he conjured up Big Brother, "the most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker".

Britain's days as the reigning global superpower are long past. Nowadays, the island-nation must exert its still-considerable moral, economic and military power in concert with other players to have an impact. This is a painful reality for the British public to acknowledge, even before they get to the question of whether it's best to submit themselves to a transatlantic "special relationship" binding Britain to America or as a full member of an "ever closer" European Union.

The economic marriage with the EU, now made up of 28 nations, was uneasy from the start - with a series of prenuptials insisted upon by London, exempting Britain from some of the togetherness that more enthusiastic continentals desire and entitling it to a rebate for some of the monies paid into the EU.

The British were late to join the Union, and might be early to divorce if the "Leave" campaign prevails in the June 23 referendum, and they have engaged throughout in endless hand-wringing over whether to try to "fix" the Union and make it more to their liking, or to bolt. Prime Minister David Cameron is only the latest British leader to attempt to seek the former by threatening the latter.

This all becomes rather tiresome to other Europeans - stuck in a marriage with an aloof spouse who whines endlessly about how she has better places to be, and about how back in the day she wouldn't have been caught dead with them. Polls across the continent show Europeans to be more fed up with Britain's marital behaviour than the British public is with the marriage, although there have been times when Germany and other EU members have appreciated Britain playing its spoiler role, as a counterweight to previous French political dominance.

And European leaders have been solicitous of Mr Cameron's demands and British impatience leading up to June's referendum because, with other crises facing the Union, they fear the precedent that could be established by the decision of any one nation, let alone one of its major powers, to split.

On the economic merits, Britain has the best of all worlds, as an EU member enjoying free access to the continent's vast markets without the albatross of the shared euro currency. The English love playing up the burdens imposed by "harmonising" regulations issued by officious technocrats in Brussels, but the burdens are more imagined than real.

The economic impact of a "Brexit" - if handled properly with an amicable settlement that doesn't destroy the symbiotic cross-channel trading relationship - could very well turn out to be negligible, regardless of what both sides of the current debate claim. The larger question about the future, and the underlying wariness in Britain, remains a more political and cultural matter, a question of identity - of whether Britain remains, now and forever, truly exceptional.

•This article first appeared in Zocalo Public Square, a project of the Centre for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and a not-for-profit "ideas exchange" that blends live events and humanities journalism.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'Like it or not, Britain is a part of Europe'. Print Edition | Subscribe