This week, the people of Britain will vote in a referendum which will determine Britain’s future and add a substantial number of pages to the history books of the future. But with the debate so far consisting of the throwing back-and-forth of criticisms and praises of the EU, there is a vital topic missing. Did Britain need close unity with Europe in the past? Or is the isolationist country in history the model to use to put the ‘Great’ in the Britain of today?
Many British people seem to forget that only in 1997 did the Empire formally come to an end. The Empire in which ‘the Sun never set’ contained ‘100 colonies ruled by Britain’. Britain’s use of resources from areas it colonised such as India, and the trade it was capable of as a result, helped its economy expand and develop. This doesn’t sound very isolationist, but the empire held a different attitude to countries it controlled than to those it couldn’t.
Jeremy Paxman, writing in the Telegraph in 2012, stated ‘while the British Empire was motivated by self‑interest, it claimed to aspire to nobler ambitions than many other empires‘. Paxman identifies an important sentiment of imperial Britain, as with control of over one fifth of the world’s population, the pride of our country swelled. Foreign lands were a British responsibility, and resulting trade, safeguarded by military power, was a stunning achievement.
A term that developed alongside growing pride was ‘Splendid Isolation’. This was expounded by Foreign Minister Edward Stanley in 1866, as Britain needing to be on terms of goodwill with surrounding nations, but to ‘not to entangle itself with any single or monopolising alliance’. Now this is starting to ring alarm bells with many on the side of Vote Leave, claiming the EU is such an alliance. Yet in the Remain camp, people like David Cameron state their opposition to these ideas of being a ‘Little England’.
Splendid Isolation summarised the British belief of managing its colonies and surviving through trade, without alliances, coinciding with policy to balance the power in Europe. With a vast and leading Empire, Britain could pursue such a course.
Yet by 1871, Germany became a unified empire, and the attitude of isolationism and the British Empire itself was being challenged in Europe. German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck formed the famous Triple Alliance in 1882, while his predecessors pioneered policies colonising large portions of its own overseas territory, safeguarding it with a navy to rival Britain’s. Britain answered this by forming the Triple Entente and further building up its own navy and colonial power.
With the First World War came, a shaking up of world order and Britain’s Empire become frustrated with countries like Ireland and Egypt being successful in gaining their independence. The grip of imperialism was slipping away, and by 1923 Britain’s dominions could determine their own foreign policy, independent of Britain.
The Second World War completed the work that the First World War began. The combination of two turbulent world wars reduced British authority, alongside diminishing its wealth. The subsequent partitioning of India into countries such as Pakistan marked a loss of Britain’s greatest producer of wealth, which helped pay for the army and therefore defence of the empire as a whole.
Through the Cold War, Britain tried and failed to use trade within the Commonwealth to secure its position as the third great power behind the USA and Russia. Colonies were being granted independence every year, and Britain could no longer put down revolt easily. As the Cold War progressed, Europe further challenged Britain, through growing European alliance of economic interests, beginning with the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC).
Britain, struggling to accept losing prestige and affluence, failed to enter these alliances. It wasn’t until 1973 that Prime Minister Ted Heath had brought Britain into the EEC. Two years later, Prime Minister Harold Wilson held a referendum on Britain’s membership, in which 66% voted to stay ‘in’. In 1993, the EU was formed, pioneering free trade and freedom of movement.
It is evident that Britain’s loss of Empire directly influenced our pursuing of European economic unity. The turbulence of World Wars, which announced both the independence of British colonies and the arrival of new contending powers, destroyed the possibility of isolationism.
Many wishing to leave the EU view such a Brexit as standing up to the decision making of EU bureaucrats, and gaining the ability to become an independent and strong power. Nigel Farage, speaking at the ITV referendum debate on the 7th of June, stated reopening our trade with the commonwealth would be vital in the event of a Brexit, and that outside the EU the world is our oyster.
Those wishing to remain would retort that a Brexit is founded on ‘post-imperialist fantasies’, and that negotiating with the commonwealth would be extremely difficult, with many ex-colonies already embroiled in trade deals with the EU like Canada.
Do you view a Leave vote as being the only way to become the Great Britain of old? Or are you against turning our backs on Europe, especially without an Empire to support us? Whatever your opinion, your vote will decide what the history books write about us.
Words by Jai Curtis