The princess and the pea (or why Britain and Europe make awkward bedfellows)

1066 and all that: Britain’s early relationship with her European neighbours has long been fraught with difficulty. The Bayeux Tapestry

Foundation essay: This essay on Britain’s relationship with Europe by Ivor Gaber, professor of political journalism at City University, London and the University of Bedfordshire, is part of a series of articles marking the launch of The Conversation in the UK. Our foundation essays are longer than our usual comment and analysis articles and take a wider look at key issues affecting society.

The starting point for most analyses of Britain’s tortured relationship with Europe is former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s observation, in 1962, that “Great Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role.” Fifty years on the search Acheson referred to continues. But for me a better, or perhaps, additional way of understanding the European/British relationship can be found in a work published just one year after Acheson’s remark, EP Thompson’s landmark, The Making of the English Working Class.

Before embarking on this explanation, a disclaimer is necessary: I write this analysis from the perspective of an instinctive pro-European (although not one blind to the imperfections of the EU).

The “traditional” explanation for the British public’s discomfort with membership of the European Union relies on an analysis that sees Britain in terms of its apparent exceptionalism. This exceptionalism has many variations, but essentially is based on a claim that a relatively small island off the mainland of Europe has produced writers, inventors, merchants and warriors in a far greater proportion to its population than have other similar nations.

This in turn led, so the argument goes, to the creation of an Empire “upon which the sun never set” (I stress this is a perception, not a statement of historical fact.) My generation of school kids recalls geography lessons that seemed to entail little other than peering at atlases in which the British Empire was coloured “pink”, far outstripping any of the other contemporary “empires” and marching around the playground on “Empire Day” carrying flags of unknown colonies – safe in the knowledge that they were all “ours”.

Even before the “End of Empire” there was the second world war and the “special relationship” - at least that’s what it is known as on this side of the Atlantic. While I suspect that in Washington they roll out the phrase “special relationship” as often as they roll out the red carpet for visiting dignitaries, (with the exception, perhaps, those from Iran, Syria and North Korea). The alliance between Britain and the United States during World War II was certainly a crucial one and close ties were established between Churchill and Roosevelt that were later imitated, and perhaps surpassed, by Thatcher and Reagan, Blair and Clinton and, improbably, Blair and George W. Bush.

Thus the combination of the memory of Empire and the desire to cling to the special relationship made the UK an uncomfortable European bedfellow, something recognised by Charles de Gaulle when he vetoed British membership in 1963 and again in 1967.

European leaders gather for lunch on March 25, 1957 to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Rome. Présidence de la République, service photographique via Creative Commons

Six years later, under the enthusiastic lead of Conservative prime minister Edward Heath (though his party was somewhat less enthusiastic) the UK entered what was then the European Economic Community, but which the British insisted on then, and some still persist today, in calling the Common Market. So uneasy was the national feeling about this proximity to “Johnny Foreigner”, and particularly to one that didn’t speak the Queen’s English, that just two years later the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson felt obliged to call a referendum to affirm Britain’s membership. The “Yes” vote – by more than two to one - should have settled matters.

For much of the country it might have done but for the Conservatives, just as for the princess in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Princess and the Pea, the discomfort remained. Margaret Thatcher’s difficulties with Europe probably best encapsulated the ambiguities of those who felt that Britain’s former “imperial” role and its present, supposedly special relationship meant that it was not just another member of the European but, somehow, should be treated differently.

Tough sell: prime minister David Cameron is pro-Europe, unlike a lot of his fellow Conservatives. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

And although this was not a view shared by any of her European partners, Margaret Thatcher’s strident protestations, both loud and long, enabled her to win a number of concessions and opt-outs that succeeded in boosting this notion of British “exceptionalism”. But the pea under the European mattress continued to irritate and cause problems, not just for Thatcher but also for the long line of Tory leaders who succeeded her; that is until David Cameron.

His modernising drive appeared to have put the European issue to bed (so to speak) but as the events of the last few months have demonstrated, the pea continues to irritate. The recent rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is little more than this discomfort writ large and the adjectives often applied to UKIP and its supporters – “xenophobic”, “little Englanders” and on occasion “racist” - can be seen as just the ugly projections of the end of empire/special relationship mindset.

That’s one narrative, but there’s another story to tell about the UK’s awkward relationship with Europe and that is one that has as much to do with the British left as the previous one had to do with the right. There is, and certainly has been, a long, and some would argue honourable, tradition of left-wing opposition to Europe. This is based on the notion that it is essentially a “rich man’s club” devised to protect and extend capitalism on the European continent. This view sees the project as one formulated and launched to stem the rising tide of socialism, or more specifically communism, that in the decades after the War looked like it was sweeping across Europe.

This view of the European project has very little, if anything, to do with the End of Empire, and far more to do with notions of internationalism, long part of the British working class heritage and best encapsulated by Britain’s contribution to the International Brigade that fought on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war. It also links with the current anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movements of more recent times.

True-born Englishman: Nigel Farage is exploiting the ‘Little Englander tendency. Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

But there’s another current on the left that can help us understand some of the attitudes to Europe which persist today. That tradition is the one characterised in The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson’s argument is that there is an “English exceptionalism”, but one very different from that described above. He suggests that the ordinary Englishman (to use his term) has awkwardness towards all manifestations of authority (British and non-British alike).

This awkwardness stems from a consciousness that, unlike his European counterparts, Englishmen threw off the yoke of authoritarianism at a very early stage – initially in 1649 when they beheaded their king and then in 1688 as a result of the so-called “Glorious Revolution”. According to Thompson, whenever the Englishman rioted, as he did frequently, he saw himself doing this “in some obscure way, to be defending the ‘constitution’ against an alien element who threatened their ‘birthright’”.

In particular this rebelliousness manifested against “foreign” elements - Catholicism and Bonapartism in particular. There was a harking back in the popular mind to what was seen as the last time Britain was dominated by “a foreigner” – the invasion by William the Conqueror in 1066 which led to the notion of the Norman Yoke. Tom Paine, writing in his revolutionary manifesto “Common Sense” railed against “a French bastard landing with an armed banditti and established himself king of England, against the consent of the natives”

Historically these notions might be nonsensical – foreigners have been claiming the British crown for centuries, including the present House of Windsor which is in fact the House of Saxe-Coburg (its name was changed in 1917 when someone realised, three years too late, that in a war against Germany having a head of state with a name that proclaimed his German antecedents wasn’t such a great idea).

History, or people’s ideas about their own history, is not so much about what the historians deduce might have happened and more to do with popular perceptions, or misperceptions, of past events. The notion of the “free-born Englishman” defending “traditional rights” and standing up to threats to his liberties, both internal and external, is one of those myths that has empowered the British working class movement, but has also trapped it in a myopia that has created the ambiguities that explain why in Britain both left and right have never been Euro enthusiasts. This ambiguity also explains why the Labour Party is now beginning to face some of the same difficulties that have plagued their Conservative counterparts for the past four decades and more.

How these two parties come to terms with these difficulties will have a major impact in determining the history of Britain over the decades to come. And if that coming to terms fails to take into account the “free-born Englishman”, then Britain’s awkward relationship with Europe will continue.