10-Minute Talks: Britain and Europe in a troubled world

by Professor Sir Vernon Bogdanor FBA

7 Oct 2020

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Is Britain a part of Europe? Ahead of the publication of his latest book Britain and Europe in a Troubled World, Professor Vernon Bogdanor FBA untangles the history of Britain’s complex relationship with Europe.


My name is Vernon Bogdanor and I’m a Fellow of the British Academy, the UK's voice for the humanities and the social sciences.

Today, I am going to introduce, in just 10 minutes, my new book Britain and Europe in a Troubled World, published by Yale University Press. This is the book of the Stimson lectures, which I delivered at Yale last year. The book seeks to answer two questions. The first is: why has Britain’s relationship with the continent been so ambivalent for so long? The second is: was Brexit an aberration, or does it reveal real weaknesses in the European Union itself?

That Britain has long had an ambivalent relationship with the continent, few will doubt.

It is apparent even in the way we talk. We speak of entering Europe or leaving Europe when, of course, we mean the continent. Because, naturally, we are part of Europe geographically. But are we politically part of Europe? Or are we, as Churchill often said, "in Europe but not of it"? Britain's imperial past, even though it represents but a comparatively short period of her history, had the effect of pulling her away from the continent. As a result, Britain's leaders formed habits of mind quite different from those of the continental powers. As well as distinctive global, political and trading relations, Britain was, in John of Gaunt's words from Shakespeare's Richard II, "this fortress built by nature for herself against infection and the hand of war". The infection presumably came from the continent. But, both in 1914 and in 1939, Britain found herself at war as a result of what was happening on the continent, not the empire. So Britain's fate has always been intertwined with that of the continent.

But it has not been wholly so intertwined. Indeed, the main events which have stamped British consciousness are events that occurred when Britain was alone in confronting a hostile continent. The Napoleonic Wars and, of course, 1940, when British troops were successfully evacuated from the continent at Dunkirk. It's a measure of the reluctance of Britain to involve herself in the continent that the evacuation of Dunkirk was so widely seen not as a defeat, but as a triumph. After the fall of France, George VI wrote to his mother, "personally I feel happier now that we have no allies to be polite to and pamper". The King's official biographer adds, "in these sentiments – he was at one with the vast majority of his subjects". 1940 seemed to show that Britain did not stand or fall as a nation with the other nations of the continent. Britain, unlike them, could survive a military defeat, withdrawing her troops and continuing to fight. The outcome of the war further emphasised the contrasts between Britain and the continent. For Britain alone, amongst the European powers, except for Russia – a-part European power – was a victor in the war. Furthermore, Britain was the only one of the European countries which had neither been ruled by a Fascist or Nazi government, nor been invaded and occupied by the Nazi or Fascist powers. The continental powers had to start again, to come to terms with the experience of Fascism, Nazism or collaboration. To put the point crudely, young people on the continent had to ask themselves whether they could be proud of what their parents or grandparents had done during the war, or whether shame was a more appropriate reaction. "Being European", the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krestev has said, "it’s about being aware of what we did". The sense of being European, it has been said, was a state of mind born of defeat, occupation and the gulf between those who collaborated and those who resisted. Britain did not share that state of mind. Through the accident of geography, the British could be proud, not ashamed, of their part in the war.

Brexit, therefore, was not an accident. It followed from very deep-seated and ingrained British attitudes. Those, and I include myself, who hoped that Britain would remain in the European Union, also hoped that we could transform long-held British attitudes. We did not succeed.

The second question which the book seeks to answer is whether Brexit was a peculiarly British aberration, or whether it reflects anxieties which are also held elsewhere on the continent. In early 2017, President Macron of France was honest enough to confess in a BBC interview that he could not guarantee that a referendum in France would not yield the same result. And Donald Tusk, when President of the European Council in 2016, declared, "it would be a fatal error to assume that the negative result in the UK referendum represents a specifically British issue. The Brexit vote is a desperate attempt to answer the questions that millions of Europeans ask themselves daily".

The European idea was developed in the 1940s and 1950s by elites who were remote from the people. In President Macron's words, they built Europe in isolation from the people, because they were an enlightened vanguard. The European Union must now face the reality that ever closer union is unlikely to achieve democratic consent amongst 27 highly diverse member states, at very different levels of economic development.

Its people need, as Donald Tusk has pointed out, not more Europe but better Europe.

Practical improvements such as completion of the European services market – the services, after all, make up 70% of all economic activity in the European union – and a European digital market which Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, has calculated would add 400 billion euros to Europe’s GDP.

The Monnet-Schuman conception of Europe, which animated the earliest stages of European integration, is now a merry band. Few countries are prepared to accept the further sacrifice of sovereignty which it involves. The Monnet-Schuman conception needs to be replaced by what Angela Merkel in her lecture of 2010 – as significant as Margaret Thatcher's favourite lecture of 1988 but less noticed – called "the union method": coordinated action by national government. It was indeed that method that was used to resolve the eurozone crisis in 2011 and 2012. The EU then will remain primarily an intergovernmental institution, in which the member states dictate the pace of change, but it will be an intergovernmental organisation with a difference, since the member states will consider not only their own national interests but the interests of Europe as a whole. The continent has suffered in the past from the absence of such a transnational perspective. Had that sort of perspective been present in 1914, had the states of Europe considered the interests of the continent as a whole, rather than restricting their gaze to their own national ambitions, war would have been avoided. My book concludes therefore that Brexit was not an aberration either for Britain or for the European Union. So instead of applauding or condemning it, we must seek to learn its lessons. And what better institution to help us learn the lessons than the British Academy?

This talk originally took place on 22 April 2020, part of the series The British Academy 10-Minute Talks, where the world’s leading professors explain the latest thinking in the humanities and social sciences in just 10 minutes. 10-Minute Talks are screened each Wednesday, 13:00-13:10, on YouTube and available on Apple Podcasts. Subscribe to the British Academy 10-Minute Talks here.

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