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British Exceptionalism and the European Union

Why does the United Kingdom rely so much on an adversarial and confrontational model of political discussion?

February 7, 2013

Credit: Philip Lange,

David Cameron’s speech on Europe reverberates not just in British politics, but also in the rest of the European Union.

The British are far from alone in discussing the future direction of Europe. Many other nations share the UK’s concerns and have been debating them vigorously for some time.

But given the reception in other capitals, one pivotal question must be asked that sheds an interesting light on Europe’s political culture and future: Why does the United Kingdom rely so much on adversarial and confrontational model of political discussion, casting vital issues in an “us against them” mode?

Why not instead cast things more constructively in collegial terms? (Think of an “us with them” — or even “us as part of the whole.”)

The traditional answer to this is to look to the UK’s history and geography. Britain has had no substantive territorial possessions on the European continent for hundreds of years. As a result, as an “offshore” part of Europe, it has built a mental image of “us and them” which the other nations do not share.

The 1930 headline in the Daily Mirror, “Fog in Channel, Continent Cut Off,” may or may not be apocryphal, but it is revealing of the islanders’ mindset.

There may also be an alternative dynamic at work here. For most of the post-Second World War period, most of Western and Northern Europe has enjoyed coalition governments and coalition politics.

The art of compromise, of creating friendships and mutual obligations across a political divide is essential for any continental politician who wants to succeed.

But in the UK, the norm has been majority governments. A British prime minister is used to getting his or her way, whether it be with cabinet, party or Parliament. It breeds a different approach — decide and implement, not discuss and compromise.

Importantly, this decide-and-implement approach requires careful thinking before the adoption of a position. Because a British government has usually been a majority government, it has a good chance of implementing its policies.

In practice, that has meant that British political thought has worked on the basis of implementing details. That stands in stark contrast to the United States in particular, where it’s all about assembling majorities on an issue-by-issue basis.

In the UK, party manifestos at election time have traditionally been very granular. This gives the British political class a good grip on practicalities, but a correspondingly poor concept of “vision.” The UK prefers to work out the next steps exactly — rather than contemplate what may be on the far horizon.

The more common approach in continental European — not just the French one, but to an extent also the German approach — is to focus on “le grand projet.”

That kind of visioning is sometimes done at the cost of letting the details sort out themselves as they happen, the exact opposite to how the UK approaches things.

This creates a political class which is good at immediate problem-solving — and poor at vision and long-term planning. As policy issues become ever more complex, that kind of visionless pragmatism is not necessarily an advantage. It lacks the guiding perspective.

The prevailing political style in Britain also creates leaders who think deeply, but too often in a vacuum. But it doesn’t end there. Having done so, they inevitably convince themselves that they are right and then simply do not know how to interact with people who do not agree.

All of this has created a succession of British prime ministers who are used to dictating events at home. When they get to Brussels and have to negotiate, they founder, with neither diplomatic skills nor prearranged alliances.

The irony is that David Cameron, despite the appearance of embarking on what looks like confrontation “à la mode britannique,” is in fact a different style of British prime minister.

He does lead a coalition government. He can be flexible in his views. He is more pragmatic and less dirigiste than some of his predecessors. And he shares with almost all other EU leaders a desire for a successful, prosperous and democratic Europe.

But all of these personal assets may come too late for him to salvage the UK’s relationship with its EU partners. Many of them are simply exhausted and exasperated by the constant British efforts to carve out a special deal for their own country.

As the saying goes, it has joined a club but then does not want to live by the rules established for its members.

Considering that clubs are generally considered a very British institution and viewed as having firm rules, the British stance perplexes most continental Europeans, to say the least.

The next few years will show whether countries with such close, yet diverse histories and geographies as Britain, France and Germany can coalesce in a common cause — or whether, owing to very different domestic political styles and habits, they will be ineluctably driven apart.


British prime ministers are used to getting their way, whether with the cabinet, party or Parliament.

When Britain's prime ministers have to negotiate in Brussels, they founder, with neither diplomatic skills nor prearranged alliances.

British politics is based on a different approach than the continent's — decide and implement, not discuss and compromise.

The British political class is good at immediate problem-solving, but poor at vision and long-term planning.