National Security & Defense

England Restored: To Understand Brexit, Look to History

The British character and its liberties were centuries in the making; integration with Europe was a recent mistake.

Three months ago, Britain voted decisively to leave the European Union. Britain’s integration into a federal Europe has been a fixed — and wrong-headed — article of faith of American foreign policy for more than half a century. Across the spectrum of U.S. foreign-policy experts, opinion was united in favor of Britain’s continuing EU membership. Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal informed British voters that it would be imprudent for them to vote for independence. A couple of days after the vote, the dean of foreign-policy pundits, the Council on Foreign Relations’s Richard Haass, predicted that the United Kingdom would disappear within five years. Closer to home, military historian Anthony Beevor warned that in the event of a vote to leave that accelerated the EU’s unravelling, “We will instantly achieve most-hated nation status, not just in Europe but far beyond.” One doesn’t Brexit in polite society.

The immediate aftermath of the referendum tended to bear out the Brexit Cassandras. A political vacuum was created when David Cameron announced he was quitting as prime minister but would stay in place until September. Leave campaigners behaved as if they were a provisional government, and London had an air of St. Petersburg in 1917 between the March and October revolutions. Meanwhile north of the border between England and Scotland, there was a huge spike in favor of Scottish independence. To some observers, it seemed like the United Kingdom was falling apart.

Contrasting the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum with the remain vote in the referendum on Scottish independence two years earlier, a Northern Irish Catholic friend was closer to the mark. “The English had the strength of their convictions to vote for what the Scots didn’t dare to do,” he told me three days after the referendum. By early September, a poll showed that support for Scottish independence had retreated back close to the level of the 2014 referendum and only 37 percent of Scots wanted a second referendum on leaving the United Kingdom. In fact, the main effect of Scottish nationalism has been to destroy Labour’s historic dominance of Scotland, making Labour’s path to a majority at Westminster extremely difficult. A mere 19 days after David Cameron had announced his resignation, a new Conservative prime minister was stepping through the door of No. 10. As in May 1940, Britain’s constitution was ruthlessly efficient at ejecting a failed prime minister and providing fresh leadership.

It was England that had led the Brexit vote, with Wales following, opposed by Scotland and Northern Ireland. One month after the referendum, Cambridge historian Robert Tombs provided an alternative historical interpretation to Beevor’s. “If England is exceptional,” Tombs wrote in the  New Statesman, “its exceptional characteristic is its long-standing and settled scepticism about the European project in principle, greater than in any other EU country.” The argument, constantly trotted out, that European integration was necessary to prevent war received less support in Britain, especially England, than elsewhere. Britain’s experience of the 20th century had been far less traumatic; “loyalty to the nation was not tarnished with fascism, but was rather the buttress of freedom and democracy.”  

The 52–48 margin for Leave, Tombs argues, understates the public’s disengagement from the EU. “What galvanised the vote for Brexit,” Tombs writes, “was a core attachment to national democracy: the only sort of democracy that exists in Europe.” Only 6 percent of Britons supported deeper European integration — the lowest level of any member state — while two thirds wanted powers returned to Britain from Brussels, with a majority even among the relatively Europhile young. Tombs’s conclusion is stark: “In retrospect, joining the Common Market in 1973 has proved an immense historic error.”

Tombs’s Brexit essay forms a coda to his extraordinary The English and Their History, published two years ago. In a December 2015 review in The Atlantic, David Frum called it “spectacular,” a book crammed with explosives “carefully arranged to blow to smithereens three-quarters of a century of accumulated conventional wisdom.” It is a history of a people, of a nation, and of a civilization that changed the world, one stretching back to well before the ninth century when an Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to record the national history was commissioned, most probably by King Alfred, to be written in English.

Three traumas seared this nation, the first and greatest being the Norman Conquest. “What was unique about England lies in the realm of politics: the early development, in response to Viking invasions, of a powerful kingdom occupying a defined territory, with a system of government in which a large part of the population participated,” Tombs writes of the centuries straddling the Conquest. Similar institutions had existed elsewhere in Europe but were swept away. “In England they survived. Being a powerful and yet vulnerable kingdom, able to raise taxes and impose law and order, and yet subject to disputed royal succession and foreign invasion, its kings needed the support of their people, and the people high and low needed to control the actions of their kings. Anglo-Saxon institutions, some of very ancient origin, were preserved and developed by the post-Conquest monarchy, which extended royal justice and created a Common Law.”

The pre-Conquest royal court had, alongside Ireland, been unique in using the language of the people. Britain had been less Romanized than France or Spain, where invading Germanic tribes switched to a Latinized vernacular. Neither did the English adopt Norman French. Instead, after three centuries, English had become the governing language. The French-speaking Angevin and Plantagenet courts had developed English as a second language. In the process, Old English lost its grammatical complexity and its three genders, four cases and ten conjugations, one reason, perhaps, for the ubiquity today of English as the world’s second language.

This put a premium on simplicity of construction and directness of expression. Attempts in the late Middle Ages to emulate Italian and Greek and force English to shed its rustic manners hit a wall of syntactical reality. “Sophisticated English would use long words, and lots of them, in complex sentences copied from the Latin classics — vast juggernauts of words and clauses, piled up and repeated like a verbal fugue. English, having lost its inflexions several centuries earlier, could not easily hold up the structure without collapsing into incoherence.”

What amounts to a linguistic rebirth accompanied England’s second trauma, the Protestant Reformation, what Tombs calls the greatest revolution in English history. William Tyndale translated the Bible into English in a feat some historians see as England’s preeminent cultural contribution to the world. By making the Bible a native work in a relatively free translation using short vivid phrases and inventing new English words rather than borrowing Latin ones (“scapegoat,” “castaway,” “granddaughter”), Tyndale “consecrated the language of ordinary people.”

Thus the language of religion and the language of politics — for a century and more after the Reformation, politics was mostly about religion — was cast in an idiom designed for popular understanding. In the words of Elizabeth I’s tutor, one should “speak as the common people do . . . think as wise men do.” What Tombs describes as the haiku-like elegance of the Collects that Thomas Cranmer wrote for the Book of Common Prayer provide a rhetorical model for the ages; the metrical simplicity and brevity of “Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee, O Lord” were recapitulated three centuries later at Gettysburg when Abraham Lincoln gave an address that began, “Fourscore and seven years ago.” This sets English apart from many other major languages. Shakespeare and Cervantes died ten days apart in 1616 (same date, different calendars), but Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays open themselves to modern English speakers whereas Don Quixote is harder for speakers of modern Spanish.

Tombs turns upside-down received interpretations of the English civil war, the nation’s third trauma, a war about religion, not a proto-Marxist class war, which, far from securing liberty, almost destroyed it. The rule of the eleven Major Generals — appointed to oversee security and punish vice — was an English version of a Middle Eastern Caliphate, in which adultery was made a capital offense and “loose wenches” enslaved and shipped off to the Caribbean. Popular resistance and the need to raise money to fight the Spanish led to their abolition. “Only when the country rejected fighting, and zealots had to abandon their vision of a compulsory New Jerusalem, was liberty possible,” Tombs notes.

In some of the most important sentences in the book, Tombs makes the case that the dualism of the ensuing settlement explains the durability of England’s liberties. “The possibility of a state and society based on enforced uniformity of belief and practice . . . turned out to have gone for good. . . . Disunity was institutionalized, both in religion, the dominant cultural arena, and in ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ political identities.” Far from stable, constitutional government being wrung from reactionary Tories by victorious Whigs, it was a product of the tension between them, Tombs argues. “To the Whigs we owe the principle — Magna Carta restated in modern form — that rulers must obey the law and that legitimate authority requires the consent of the people. From the Tories came the principle — fundamental to any political order — that people have no right to rebel against a government because they disagree with it.”

The Whigs’ version of English history helped furnish what Tombs calls America’s foundation myth, something which itself is of immense historical importance. Parts of the Declaration of Independence’s indictment against George III (“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns”) could have been cribbed from Parliament’s accusations against Charles I (“an unlimited and tyrannical power,” having “traitorously and maliciously levied war,” thus being “guilty of all the treasons, murders, rapines, burnings” that ensued). English politics was split between opposition Whigs, who supported American independence, and a Tory government under Lord North. The anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 (Gordon was a strongly pro-American Whig MP) were the most destructive in modern English history. In five days of mayhem across London, 450 people were killed or wounded, more than the number of casualties on both sides in the battles of Lexington and Concord. At the same time, Britain was engaged in a global war against France, Spain, and Holland, fighting in more theaters around the world than in any conflict before the Second World War, one in which the 13 colonies were thought less strategically important than holding on to the sugar islands of the Caribbean.

Samuel Johnson had remarked that the loudest yelps for liberty had come from drivers of slaves and the loss of the American colonies weakened the pro-slavery lobby at Westminster. Abolition fast became a central moral and political issue. In 1792, William Pitt called for “an atonement for our long and cruel injustice.” The British had not forgotten that during the War of Independence up to 100,000 slaves, some belonging to George Washington, had joined the colors. “Have we not ourselves made them soldiers?,” asked Lord Grenville, the foreign secretary. “Have we not employed them in every service requiring fidelity and courage, and all the intelligence and virtue which go to constitute a good military character? . . . But now . . . shall it be said that . . . they are unfit for trust and confidence, that slavery is their doom by nature?’ Parliament answered that it wasn’t.

When David Cameron decided to throw the weight of his office behind the effort to secure a Remain vote, he was fighting the weight of English history.

Britain had been by far the largest transporter of slaves across the Atlantic (over 3 million of the 6 million who survived the terrible crossing between 1660 and 1807). An 1806 act of parliament abolished most of Britain’s lucrative slave trade, the rest being banned the following year. Britain freed slaves within its jurisdiction and took all available naval and diplomatic steps short of war to end the slave trade (it was, however, a contributory factor to the war with the United States in 1812). From 1807 to 1870, the Royal Navy had a squadron permanently based in West Africa, although ending the trans-African trade by Muslim traders — estimated at 4 to 6 million people over the course of the 19th century — was harder for a sea-borne power.   

Tombs also restores the central place of England in Britain and in British history. The 1707 Act of Union that created the United Kingdom was not a merger of equals. Scotland at the time could be described as a failing state, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. After the Union, Scotland retained its backward electoral system. Its 45 parliamentary seats had a total of only 428 electors, whereas England and Wales had an electorate of over 300,000 — about one fourth of all adult men.

Britishness was voluntary and open, Tombs writes. “The United Kingdom has never tried to become ‘united’ in the sense understood at the end of the eighteenth century by France’s nationalist republic.” National differences were accepted and promoted. The British army has Scottish, Welsh, and Irish regiments, but no regiment is entitled “English.” It is as if, Tombs comments, “Englishness were the root-stock of Britishness onto which the others were grafted.” Visiting London in 1731, the French philosopher Montesquieu praised the English spirit of liberty, its toleration and, albeit less fulsomely, its parliamentary system: “In Europe the last gasp of liberty would come from an Englishman.”

Thus when the former prime minister David Cameron decided to throw the weight of his office behind the effort to secure a Remain vote in the EU referendum, he was fighting the weight of English history. It was a history he had a tendency to mangle. On his first trip to the United States as prime minister, he remarked that Britain had been the junior partner to the United States in 1940, later apologizing for getting his facts wrong but not for belittling his country. Perhaps the low point of his premiership was during the referendum campaign when, as he stood beside President Obama in Downing Street, the president declared, “[The] U.K.’s gonna be at the back of the queue” in negotiating any trade agreement with the U.S. if it voted to leave. The remark was seized on by George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Mr. Cameron’s No. 2, as a reason to vote Remain. It was foolish as well as humiliating and the ploy backfired. Voters resented the president’s intervention and did not believe the prime minister’s scaremongering. 

If Mr. Cameron and Mr. Osborne had better understood their party and their country, it is less likely they would have fought a referendum to have England give its consent to being governed from Brussels. “The Tory party,” Disraeli declared, “is the national party; it is really the democratic party of England.” Even in the 1860s, the Tories had only two seats in Scotland (today the Conservatives have one). Popular Toryism, according to Tombs, was “a loose alliance of gentry, tradesmen, and skilled artisans for whom “Church and king” symbolized traditional communal solidarity, in contrast to grasping [Whig] individualism.” Tombs presents maps showing areas where the Church of England was strong in 1851 and Conservative seats at the 1997 election, when Tony Blair had reduced the party to a rump, that shows an astonishing continuity between religion in mid-Victorian England and voting patterns at the end of the 20th century.

“I grew up the daughter of a local vicar and the granddaughter of a regimental sergeant major,” Theresa May said in launching her bid to become Tory leader one week after the Brexit referendum. “Public service has been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember.” It is also the cloth from which traditional Toryism is cut. When as a leadership candidate and now as prime minister, Mrs. May says Brexit means Brexit, there can be little doubt that the U.K. will leave the EU.

There might well be, as Tombs argues in his New Statesman essay, considerable economic costs to rectifying the original error of joining in the first place, a product of the elite’s loss of nerve at Britain’s relative decline after 1945. If there’s one cloud on the horizon, it is that the May government’s economic policies are a 21st-century version of post-war policies which it took Margaret Thatcher to reject and fashion the economic policies that put Britain back on the map. But then her background was not a traditional Tory one. She was raised a Methodist. On economics at least, Britain could still do with some productive tension between Whig and Tory.