British exceptionalism is an intellectual trap

Helene von Bismarck warns Britons and Europeans against adopting the exceptionalist narrative of British history from the Brexiters. The assumption that the United Kingdom has always been too different from the rest of the EU to make a success of its membership is based on a superficial reading not just of British, but of European history.


What are non-British observers of British politics to make of the Brexit drama of the last few months? Is all this just the culmination of a doomed British EU-membership that was always destined to fail? This interpretation is tempting, but ultimately ahistorical and lacking in nuance. Frustrated as many Europeans understandably are with the extent of ignorance and sometimes open hostility towards the EU displayed in the British Brexit debate, this is no excuse to base one’s interpretation of Brexit on stereotypes or a selective reading of history.

The idea that Britain would never be able to be a constructive partner in the European integration process is not new. French President Charles De Gaulle used this argument to veto British entry into the EEC twice, in 1963 and 1968. De Gaulle argued that the UK, an island state with a close partnership with the US and a trade-based economy, was just too different from the six founding members to be able to integrate into the EEC. Ironically, the essence of his arguments is now quite popular among Brexiters.

People like Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson like to argue that the UK is inherently different from the rest of Europe, that the relationship between UK and EU has never worked, and that a ‘Global Britain’ keeping its distance from the ‘continent’ must be the ultimate aim of Brexit. What De Gaulle and these Brexiters have in common is the basic premise on which their arguments are based: British Exceptionalism.

It must be admitted that British exceptionalism would not be so influential as an idea if it did not have any foundation in British history. Let us therefore have a look at three classic exceptionalist arguments frequently invoked in the debate about Brexit: World War Two, Britain’s unwritten constitution, and the empire.

We must remember that history and memory are not the same, and that the latter is politically at least as influential as the former. Consequently, we need not only assess the intellectual merit of these exceptionalist arguments, but their influence on the Brexit vote and debate.

Is it true that, unlike most peoples of EU27 member states, the British did not undergo occupation, dictatorship or displacement during World War Two. There is then no surprise that the concept of European integration as a peace project has resonated less with the British than it did with other Europeans. Moreover, if the evolutionary character of British democracy has often been overstated, the long and seemingly uninterrupted traditions of Britain’s political system do explain, at least in part, why there is a genuine concern for British sovereignty among many Britons, and not just extreme Leavers.

What about the Empire? One should not confuse a (admittedly over-confident) desire to punch above Britain’s weight on the world stage with hopes for a new version of the Empire. The use of Britain’s imperial history as an argument against EU membership is actually the best example why British exceptionalism is intellectually flawed, as it neglects a sober view on the history of the EU27. After all, there are quite a few former empires among them.

Even if we accepted De Gaulle’s view that the UK of 1963 would have been an ill fit for the EEC, the community has changed since then. Why do Portugal and Romania have more in common than the UK and France? And aren’t there other examples of historical Euroscepticism, for example in Denmark?

Ultimately, it does not matter how “European” the British are (impossible to say that for certain anyway), but how European they want to be. So let us have a look at the UK’s track record within the European Community.

As far as the political aspects of European integration are concerned, it is fair to say that British membership has been half-hearted. Once in, they immediately organized a referendum of 1975 on whether to leave again. This was followed by years of fighting about budget contributions and negotiating opt-outs for Britain. But, at least in the longue durée, it is unfair to regard the UK as the eternally selfish disturbing force in a group of consistently idealistic and constructive Europeans. Other member states, France and Germany among them, have looked out for their national interests as well.

The EU is what it is today not just in spite, but also because of the UK. Thatcher’s Britain was a driving force behind the Single Market. Britain also strongly supported the enlargement of the EU in Central and Eastern Europe.

We other Europeans should not do the arch-Brexiters a favour by adopting their exceptionalist narrative of British history. Yes, there are peculiarities in the UK’s history that may have contributed to the Brexit vote. No, these differences do not automatically make the UK an unfit member. Most importantly, it is intellectually lazy and unconvincing to look at British history and call it exceptional whilst carelessly and superficially lumping the experiences and histories of twenty-seven other states together. If Britain is the exception, what is the rule?

It remains unclear what will happen with Brexit in the coming months: No Deal, May’s Deal, extension, transition, cancellation, everything is possible. One thing, however, is certain: the UK and the EU27 will more than ever depend on a sober and reasoned dialogue with one another. A good reason to dispense with generalisations and stereotypes.


Helene von Bismarck is a historian, writer and public speaker. Her main interest is Britain’s role in international relations during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. @helenebismarck


This blog is based on a longer essay originally published  (in German) by Republik Magazin and is posted with permission.


Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Image from page 257 of “Outlines of the world’s history, ancient, mediæval, and modern, with special relation to the history of civilization and the progress of mankind ..” (1870)

4 thoughts on “British exceptionalism is an intellectual trap

  1. Thank you, it’s helpful to have concise and effective counterpoints to the misconceptions feeding the Brexit debate.

    There is one point which is well-made but, I think, too bien-pensant in its generosity to the leading Brexiteers:

    “What De Gaulle and these Brexiters have in common…”

    De Gaulle placed the interests of France in opposition to those of Britain in a zero-sum view of politics and economics that took very little account of the interests we have in common. Not quite hostile, but the cordiality of tbe entente that emerged was a remarkable feat of goodwill and pragmatic diplomacy.

    What he had in common with the leading Brexiteers is that they, too, place their interests – class identity, personal gain, self-promotion and aggrandisement – above and in opposition to the interests of the United Kingdom.

    Feel free to match each or all these three vices with the leading Brexiteer of your choice.

    It is, of course, ungenerous to compare the virtues of a French President’s pursuit of his country’s interests with the vices of lesser men who act against the interests of their own: but your generosity of spirit is misplaced if you think well of these men.

    Another point in common: Monsieur de Gaulle, at the height of his power and eloquence, achieved a magnificent disdain for the United Kingdom and the British people that two of these leading Brexiteers both share and surpass: one with a touch of class, and the other with ungenerous snobbery; and the third and least of them exceeds it from below with a sneering contempt that de Gaulle would never have entertained.

    You will guess, from reading this, that my admiration for de Gaulle is somewhat mixed: fair enough. Only a Frenchman could like him, and a great many don’t: such are the rewards for serving your country.

    But I have to say that we would all welcome a touch of his elegantly-phrased cordiality in expressing a frank opinion of the leading Brexiteers, and of those who have failed to stand up to them and put them in their proper place.

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  2. Brexit is an illusion for those who believe that Britain can ignore the continent. If you go back in history you cannot separate Britain’s interest from Europe. Sceptics and cynics might do well to remember that the Concert of Europe by and large kept the peace of Europe for a hundred years. The Treaty of Aix la Capelle is revealing in its promotion of a European Union of state interests. But Britain has every reason to recognise its European legacy and its contribution without which the course of European history would have been very different. Europe is in the English/British DNA. It may be ignored and denied but it will always be there.

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  3. This artucje confirms that all Remainers should vote Lib Democrat in the same way all Brexits can vote for the Farage Party without worrying that the Farage Party will be running the UK. .. The Lib Democratics won’t be running the EU eithier and sitting the remain vote is highly damaging.

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