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Why Britain Stands Apart

Is Britain’s ‘splendid isolation’ really so splendid?

April 6, 2001

Is Britain's 'splendid isolation' really so splendid?

The ideal of a united Europe is old and stained with blood. Since the collapse of Rome, it has been predominantly a Franco-German enterprise. Hitler, like the Kaiser Wilhelm II before him, saw himself as the successor of the German kings who ruled over the Holy Roman Empire. In turn, those kings had behaved as successors to the Roman emperors. It is hardly surprising that Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself in a quasi-Roman ceremony, after transferring the imperial center from the German lands to Paris.

Britain was always on the periphery of these developments and usually hostile to them. Napoleon regarded Britain as his archenemy. His dream was to unite Europe as a federation of “free” peoples, clustered gratefully around glorious France and ruled by Napoleonic laws. And this, in his view, excited the envy of perfidious England, whose eternal goal was to keep the Continent divided.

Something of Napoleon’s attitude persists in France to this day. And so does the British distrust of Franco-German schemes to unite Europe. This distrust owes much to the central myth of England as the island of freedom facing a Continent of darkness. But it has become as threadbare as the idea of enlightened upper-class rule.

For the first time almost all Europeans have the right to speak freely and elect their own governments. Absolute monarchy has vanished everywhere, and, apart from some rare exceptions, dictators no longer rule.

The examples of Britain and the United States have played a part in this. But there is an irony in the result: other European nations have written constitutions, encoding citizens’ rights, while Britain does not. Europeans are citizens, the British are still subjects. And yet it is the British, above all, who see “Europe” as a threat to their freedom.

The difference between Britain and other European nations is not, however, that British institutions are natural and that French or German ones are not. All political arrangements are a mixture of historical accident and human decisions. The difference is that most Europeans, having seen their nations occupied, humiliated, impoverished, or taken over by thugs, have lost confidence in the nation-state as the only, or indeed the best, guarantor of liberty, prosperity, and peace. Britain never had this problem.

So perhaps de Gaulle was right. Perhaps Britain never should have joined “Europe” in the first place. The fact that Britain did so anyway, largely for commercial reasons, only confirmed the old suspicion that the British are nothing but shopkeepers at heart.

Today’s “Europe” is neither a commercial empire nor a tyranny, nor anything that the kings of the Holy Roman Empire or Napoleon or Hitler would recognize. It is certainly not a democratic state either. It is the half-finished outline of a political ideal, fueled by fear of war and by a dream that a unified Europe would replace the failed nation-states. The fear is passing with the generation that lived under Hitler. The idealism, too, is fading.

But what about the British myth of unique insular freedom? When Britain joined “Europe,” there could be no more splendid isolation. The myth was given a longer life by British misgivings about the European ideal. The desire of other Europeans to unite made Britain feel more exceptional. It was as though it had to fight the old European dream of the Holy Roman kings, Napoleon and Hitler once again — only this time from the inside.

Still, despite its resistance to continental ideals, Britain still has many allies on the European continent. That arc of trading cities from the Baltics, via Hamburg, down to Lisbon and Milan still exists. That Europe could not survive without Britain — as the champion of popular sovereignty and free trade.

But Britain cannot cultivate its allies by fighting “Europe.” For European democracies to survive, Europeans must regain the confidence to govern themselves — and that cause is not helped by the notion that only Britain, by some historic miracle, has the organic, homegrown political traditions to sustain a liberal state.