Our Island Story?

As the next Brexit deadline looms ever closer (at time of writing 31 October 2019, but watch this space), perhaps this is a good moment to take a step back and ask a more fundamental question: what was Britain doing in the European Union in the first place?

Of course, there are many histories documenting Britain’s rather torturous and drawn-out pathway into the then European Community in 1973. However, even at this late hour, the positive case for membership seems conspicuous by its absence, even amongst ardent ‘Remainers’. Undoubtedly, the negative case for ‘Remain’ is strong, that is, in terms of the negative effects (short and long-term) of leaving the EU after such a long time, even if this is, to some extent, based on ‘Project Fear’ as opposed to ‘Project Reality’.

The problem with ‘Project Reality’, of course, is it’s one particular version of ‘reality’ and is underpinned by a particular set of ideological beliefs, just as is the ‘reality’ of ‘Leave’. At the moment, however, ‘Project Reality (Leave)’ seems to be winning. And perhaps the reason for this goes back to the fact that positive case for ‘Remain’ has yet to be made – even though supporters of the EU have had over forty years to make it. It is equally true, of course, that the positive case for ‘Leave’ is, at best, vague and nebulous, and at the end of the day seems grounded in an unwillingness to truly accept that Britain ever joined the EU in the first place.

But in one sense, there is a more fundamental truth here: Britain, or at least England, never really did join the EU, at least not in an ideological sense. And in many ways this has been the problem all along; the English, in particular, never ‘bought into’ the idea of ‘Europe’ in the first place, which might explain why even now no-one is seriously making the case for staying in. The question, though, is why? And I would argue that one reason is that deep down in the English psyche, even so-called ‘Remainers’ do not really see themselves as ‘European’.

In his paper ‘Set in the silver sea’ Anthony Smith puts forward the argument that English Euroscepticism (and he emphasises the term ‘English’), is rooted in the idea of ‘England as Island’ rather than ‘England as part of Europe’.[1] He begins by citing Winston Churchill’s remarks in Zurich in 1946 where he appeared to be endorsing the idea of an United Europe. However, although Churchill was supporting this idea, he did not see Britain as being part of it. As Smith points out, to understand Churchill’s position we only have to read his Saturday Evening Post article in 1930: “We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked, but not comprised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed”’[2]

However, according to Smith, this idea of English ‘separateness’, or, as it is sometimes described, ‘English exceptionalism’, goes back many centuries.[3] Although this can be framed as ‘Euroscepticism’, Smith argues that this should not be treated as a purely philosophical or intellectual position; rather, it is rooted in an emotional detachment “from particular claims, doctrines and ideals, and a certain coolness towards their devotees.”[4] And these ‘particular claims, doctrines and ideals’ are those of a politically and culturally integrated Europe, whereas the English, or at least, the English elites, have only ever been interested in the free-trade dimension of Europe. Furthermore, according to Smith, Britain’s relations with its once close ally France have played a key role in this ‘distancing’ of Britain from mainland (political) Europe. Since 1945, Britain has no longer been viewed by France as a key ally, and Britain’s close relations to the United States have not helped in this regard.

But just as ‘English exceptionalism’ has a long history, so does the idea of a politically and culturally united Europe. Smith argues that this expresses itself in the notion of ‘Europe-as-Christendom’ which can be traced back to the time of Charlemagne in the eighth century. It is important to point out that ‘Europe-as-Christendom’ refers to a realm of sovereignty rather than to Christianity itself as a faith. This is what allows the idea of ‘Europe-as-Christendom’ to survive in a secular world; essentially, according to Smith, the European Union is a secular form of ‘Europe-as-Christendom’. He quotes Mary Anne Perkins on this:

This secularised narrative of Christendom – which, I shall argue, not only survived but informed the Enlightenment – still has resonance with many Europeans at both conscious and unconscious levels. Despite the weakening of its spiritual roots, it has continued to shape European identity-consciousness and to influence perceptions of Europe in relation to its ‘Others’.[5]

Smith goes on to argue, again citing Perkins, that the idea of ‘(Western) Europe-as-Christendom’ was heavily influential in the development of a European movement post-1945, and that it provided it with “myths and memories of a ‘golden age’ of European unity, based on histories of Christendom like those of Christopher Dawson and Denis de Rougemont that were still influential in the 1960s.’[6] It is important to note that this idea not only excluded the ‘atheistic’ (communist) countries that were now within the orbit of the Soviet Union, but also Britain and Ireland which were seen as having escaped “the sovereignty of Charlemagne, the ancestor and presiding spirit of the ‘Europe-as-Christendom” narrative.[7]

Clearly, the idea of ‘Europe-as-Christendom’ did not catch on in Britain, and especially in England. Smith argues that Henry VIII’s break from Rome in 1553 was an important factor, but also the way that the Reformation took hold in England, and especially with regards to the influence of Puritanism at the time of the English Civil Wars. A close link developed between patriotism and Protestantism, which led a form of ‘English Christendom’.

But, according to Smith, to fully understand and appreciate the power (and mythology) of ‘English exceptionalism’, we need to go even further back in history. Ever since Britain (geologically) detached itself from mainland Europe in the Mesolithic epoch, “it experienced continual traffic and movements of ideas and peoples from its neighbours, most decisively from Rome.”[8] And this highlights a paradox regarding British, and especially English, national consciousness that is still unresolved today: the ‘island race’ is constituted by immigrants from mainland Europe (and beyond). Although Smith does not explore this paradox in his paper, it is remains ‘the elephant in the room’, so to speak, especially when it comes to arguments regarding ‘Englishness’ and ‘English exceptionalism’.

Be that as it may, as Smith goes onto argue: “A sense of the ‘uncrossable ring of sea’ has been perhaps the most potent of England’s historic ethnoscapes, both as military bastion and as peaceful idyll.”[9] This is in spite of the fact (or perhaps because of it?) that this ‘uncrossable ring of sea’ has been crossed many times since the Roman invasion. It is perhaps important to note at this point that by the end of the Hundred Years’ War, England had essentially lost its foothold in mainland Europe, i.e. in France, and perhaps this helped foster a sense of ‘retreat’ behind the ‘uncrossable ring of sea’ (which is what it essentially remained) and a sense of ‘insularity’, especially with regards to anything European (and particularly French).

Smith argues that the early development of a specifically English national state is also an important factor in the emergence of the ‘Our Island Story’ narrative. This can be traced back to Alfred the Great and his success in keeping the Danish invaders at bay “long enough to consolidate a specifically English state under an English king, rex Anglorum, buttressed by English law and custom.”[10] This process of political consolidation and centralisation intensified after the Norman invasion, and was essentially completed by the fourteenth century when London became the capital of a unitary state, and English became, to borrow a term from Anderson, the ‘administrative language’.[11] Things developed even further under Henry VIII, who, according to Smith, likened himself to a latter-day King David, and even more so under Edward VI and Elizabeth I, who regarded herself as a ‘sacred monarch’.

However, according to Smith, it is important to distinguish between a sense of national consciousness and identity on the one hand, and a strong, nationalist ideology on the other. So whilst the peculiar nature of ‘Englishness’ and ‘English identity’ was (and still is) seen as having a long history, stretching back into antiquity, it was only at the time of the Civil War that specifically nationalist movements, driven by a biblical and Puritan ideology emerged for the first time. And the role of Puritan covenantalism is especially important in this respect, with its ardent opposition to Catholicism and its strong belief that they (the English Puritans) are God’s Chosen People “…dwelling in their own land, obeying God’s law, conquering or separating themselves from their idolatrous neighbours.”[12]

Puritan covenantalism reached its zenith in England during the Civil War and the Interregnum that followed. And although its direct, religious and ideological influence waned after the Restoration, Smith argues that it was crucial in providing a ‘massive reinforcement’ of pre-existing ideas and feelings of national identity:

In fact, without the powerful injection of a Puritan religious nationalism, there could have been no Glorious Revolution, no Protestant Succession, no Protestant nation of Britain of the kind analysed by Linda Colley and J. C. D. Clark, nor indeed the Protestant revival of Victorian times. Nor, most likely, would there have been that self-imposed imperial British mission of bringing British civilisation and its true faith to the ‘heathen’ inhabitants of Africa and India.[13]

In other words, the foundations of the British Empire and sense of mission and destiny owe a great deal to Puritan religious nationalism. And at this point in his argument, Smith puts forward his central thesis: the fusion of a dissenting religion with a national identity strongly wedded with a monarchical state is what gave rise to the idea of ‘English exceptionalism’ and its strong sense of national identity:

…Protestantism added a powerful new layer to the palimpsest of an English national identity, one that energised the people and was to provide a potent rationale for subsequent British foreign policies in the concert of European states and for later maritime expansion, imperial annexations and large-scale conversions.[14]

And it is the idea of a dissenting religion that is critical here, rather than simply being the case of a strong symbiosis between state and religion, as was the case in Poland and, even after the disestablishment of the Church in 1905, in France. And such a fusion helps explain, according to Smith, modern-day English opposition towards the European Union as a secular ‘Europe-as-Christendom’.

To return to my original question: what was Britain doing in the European Union in the first place? Perhaps it might be better to ask: why did Britain never (properly) join the European Union in the first place? In other words, why did Britain, or rather, England, never ideologically ‘buy-into’ the European project? And I think the idea of ‘English exceptionalism’ which is encapsulated in the narrative of ‘Our Island Story’, goes a long way to answering this question.

Of course, Britain is not the only nation to be deeply unhappy with its relationship with ‘Europe-as-Christendom’; there are plenty of rumblings of discontent all across the continent, from Sweden, to Poland and Hungary, to Italy, and even in the heartlands of the EU itself, namely Germany and France. Furthermore, there appears to be no real evidence that the idea of a ‘European identity’ has ever really caught on, even in the heartlands. What seems more evident is that the hegemony of liberal democracy, of which the EU is a particular manifestation, is currently on the retreat.[15] Just as the original Christendom did not survive the Reformation and the Thirty Year War, so perhaps its modern day, secular, equivalent is about to suffer the same fate…

Notes and references

  1. Anthony Smith, ‘“Set in the Silver Sea”: English National Identity and European Integration’, Nations and Nationalism, 12.3 (2006), 433–52
  2. Ibid p.449, cited in Mary Anne Perkins 2004. Christendom and European Identity: the Legacy of a Grand Narrative since 178 (2004), Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, p.104.
  3. The idea of ‘English exceptionalism’ is discussed in some detail in Ben Wellings’ English Nationalism and Euroscepticism (Oxford, United Kingdom: Peter Lang GmbH, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, 2012)
  4. Smith, ‘Set in the Silver Sea’, p.434.
  5. Perkins op cit, p.5, quoted in Smith. ‘Set in the Sliver Sea’, p.436.
  6. Smith, ‘Set in the Silver Sea’, p.437.
  7. Ibid p.437.
  8. Ibid p.438.
  9. Ibid p.438.
  10. Ibid p.440.
  11. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Second Edition (Revised) (London: Verso, 2006).
  12. Smith, ‘Set in the Silver Sea’, p.443.
  13. Ibid p.444.
  14. Ibid p.445.
  15. The relationship between liberal democracy and the idea of ‘Europe-as-Christendom’ is equally as complex and fascinating as that between ‘England-as-Island (Race)’ and ‘Europe’.