Book review: Britain’s Europe — A Thousand Years of Conflict and Co-operation

Neil Robinson cannot take Britain’s wish to sever political ties with the continent at face value. As Brendan Simms’ new book explains, the two will forever be interlinked.

Brendan Simms

Allen Lane, £20.00

IF YOU were in Limerick during the recent Brexit unpleasantness you may have come across an unkempt man wandering around muttering ‘sovereignty is organised hypocrisy’ to himself.

That was me. You probably crossed the road to avoid me. My apologies. 

I can’t do much about my dishevelment, but I have stopped muttering to myself in public because I’m no longer being driven insane by Brexiteer slogans about ‘taking back control’ of their country.

The idea of the UK ‘taking back control’ was an appeal to restore sovereignty. But as the American political scientist Stephen Krasner’s aphorism has it, ‘sovereignty is organised hypocrisy’, in other words, a lie.

States have some sovereignty, of course; if they didn’t Ireland wouldn’t have the corporation taxes that it does. 

But all states routinely sacrifice their sovereignty willingly and suffer having it infringed by other countries and international organisations.

There’s never been a time when this was not the case so there is no golden era of sovereignty to return to.

We may think that medieval kings had a lot of power over their domains, that they really were both sovereigns and ‘sovereign’. In reality, their freedom was constrained by all sorts of competing claims about sovereignty.

Take the medieval kings of England. They were sovereign in England, but they were also vassals of the French king since they held land there. 

Many English and French lords had land in the other country and therefore served, or were supposed to serve, more than one master. 

So who was ‘sovereign’? No one knew, nobles could pick their allegiances. England and France fought the Hundred Years War to try and sort things out.

The creation of the modern state after the seventeenth century was supposed to sort the issue of sovereignty out.

In fact, the creation of states really just changed how one element of sovereignty is defined.

Personal loyalty to a sovereign monarch was increasingly replaced by obedience to impersonal law, and legal constraints on sovereignty grew as international law developed.

Accepting international law means accepting constraints on sovereignty. International human rights laws, for example, limit what countries are allowed to do to their ‘own’ people.

Sovereignty is constrained by many more things than international law in the modern world.

The growth of trade and the mobility of money in the globalised world create informal constraints on sovereignty through the reactions of currency markets and the flight of investment that are as powerful as the formal constraints of laws and treaties.

Finally, no country is ever completely free to act insofar as all states must pay some attention to what others are doing. 

If your neighbour starts arming and muttering about how historically bits of your country belonged to it, you would be wise to think about moving some money from your healthcare budget into defence, just in case.

No state, in other words, is truly sovereign and in control. 

Saying that states are sovereign is a lie that we tell to ourselves to acknowledge that we have some choices. 

Saying that you are going to restore sovereignty by ‘taking back control’ is a great big lie that you tell other people to get them to vote for you. 

Unless you intend to shut the borders and everyone’s happy to live off the local flora and fauna you are going to end up compromising your sovereignty somehow or other.

Nowhere is this truer than in the dense tangle of states that make up Europe. European states were shaped by each other historically and will continue to shape each other in the future.

One European state has spent a lot of time telling itself that this is not the case. 

There are no prizes for guessing that this is country is the United Kingdom, with a particularly virulent strain of self-delusion infecting the bit of it that is England.

England can’t get John of Gaunt’s speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II out of its head and still thinks of itself as a ‘sceptr’d isle ... demi paradise’, a ‘fortress built by Nature herself/ Against infection and the hand of war … this little world/ This precious stone set in the silver sea/ Which serves it in the office of a wall/ Or as a moat defensive to a house/ Against the envy of less happier lands’.

This may be good poetry but it’s bad history. Neither England nor the United Kingdom has ever been isolated from the Continent. 

Brendan Simms’ new book is a counter to the idea that it ever was or can be. He argues that Britain and Europe made each other. 

England was shaped as a kingdom and the United Kingdom as a country by its relations with Europe. 

As Simms puts it in his conclusion ‘no Europe, no England, no United Kingdom, no British empire’.

How Europe has shaped the United Kingdom has obviously changed overtime. Europe has historically been a security problem for first England and later the UK. 

This led to involvement in numerous European wars, and these in turn shaped the English and British polities.

The United Kingdom was itself created out of England, Scotland and Ireland to remove the threat of invasion of England through the backdoor.

The empire was not gained ‘in a fit of absence of mind’ as one eminent Victorian historian put it, but gathered in fits and starts through competition with other European powers and to guard against them becoming too strong.

Dealing with European issues not only created the United Kingdom as a country and later as an empire, but also helped to shape its political institutions. 

British Parliamentarism and its imposition of limits on kingly power were shaped by arguments over the taxation needed to pay for European wars. Debates on how to deal with Europe helped create political parties in parliament.

Many of the things that Britain sees as making it different were thus a product of its engagement with Europe. They certainly weren’t the product of some unique national genius. 

As Britain’s engagement with Europe pushed it to develop, its successful innovations were copied on the continent so that the British-European exchange was a two-way street.

Brexit won’t change the influence of Europe on Britain. British politicians know this, as the response of the British political establishment to the referendum makes clear. 

The cluelessness of the Brexiteers in the aftermath of the leave vote reflects the fact that dealing with Europe and at the same time restoring a sovereignty that has always been a chimera is an impossibility, and will have to leave someone disappointed.

Anyone doubting this should read Simms’s book to understand why Britain is stuck with Europe (and vice versa). There can rarely have been a book that needs a second edition so quickly after publication. 

Simms’s hope that Britain might help Europe democratise looks likely to be by default rather than by leadership and example at the moment.

But while we await a second edition, British politicians might like to read to the end of John of Gaunt’s speech. 

It is a deathbed speech, a warning about what England is in the process of losing, and ends ‘That England that was wont to conquer others/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself’.

Neil Robinson is professor of politics at the University of Limerick.


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