Best of both worlds or take back control? Safer and stronger – but does that mean in or out? Red, white and blue – but who does that belong to? There are competing histories too – one where Britain did best on its own, and the other where it was intertwined both with Europe and a wider world.
In the welter of slogans, arguments, statistics, insults, appeals to history, the European Referendum was also about what Britain has been, is and should be. This is not an easy question to answer. Even the meaning of the name is disputed. Britain can simply be a geographical term, to describe the biggest of the British Isles. More often it is used as a synonym for the political unit of the United Kingdom of England and Scotland or, more recently, of Northern Ireland as well. Or, conversely,‘England’ is carelessly used, to stand in for the whole – to the annoyance of the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish, who have never stopped enjoying their distinct cultures.
If we are looking at the future of Britain the nation state, it is quite possibly going to be smaller than the one of today. The Scottish nationalists may never win an independence vote and the Northern Irish may not decide to throw in their lot with the South, but stranger things have happened. Punching above your weight is a compelling image much loved by British nationalists, but after a crash diet or an amputation you may need a bit of recalibrating.
So this is a good time to ask what it means to be British. History might provide part of the answer but the trouble with history is that there is so much of it and its messages are not always coherent or clear. Was British culture and the British character shaped more by Catholicism than Protestantism? Is the story of Britain one of building a great and glorious empire or rather of ruthless exploitation of much of the rest of the world? And, always, what is England and where do the Scots, Welsh and Irish fit in to the story?
Looking to the future, will Britain open its arms to the rest of the world or wrap its cardigan close and sit by the fire? Will it welcome foreigners or want to pull up the drawbridges?
These are important questions, and I suspect that they will continue to be debated for considerable time to come. You may say that, as a foreigner – a Canadian – I have no right to enter the debate, but I would argue that I do. As a historian both of empire
and the international order I see Britain in a wider context, and that can be helpful. As a Canadian whose ancestors came several generations ago from Scotland and more recently from Wales, I also feel that I am part of the family, if only as a distant cousin. I have also lived long enough to experience the changing views of Britain from abroad.
When I was a child in Canada in the years immediately after the War, Britain was still considered a great power – even though it had been badly battered by the War and its empire was rapidly disappearing. British ideas, institutions and fashions remained a model for many Canadians. The majority of our immigrants still came from the British Isles. We listened to programmes from the BBC on our radios, watched British movies, whether highbrow ones like Olivier’s Henry V, or lowbrow ones like the Carry On series; and still sang God Save the Queen. Our head of state was the Queen and her representative in Canada was the Governor- General. We looked south of the border at American society with a certain amount of suspicion and disdain for its vulgarity and excesses.
Suez gave us a shock and dealt a blow to the idea that the British knew best. Then in the 1970s when Britain did a dramatic turnabout and applied to join the Common Market we, like Australia and New Zealand, did not fail to notice how little the talk of the Commonwealth as a family actually meant, and how quickly the British were prepared to close their markets to us.
Canada was itself changing too. Pierre Trudeau, father of the present prime minister, altered our immigration policies in 1967 so that people from anywhere in the world could apply, and in 1971 he announced that Canada was now a multicultural nation. The old ties with Britain, already attenuating, were going to largely disappear in the succeeding decades.
So what is left for us Canadians today is a picture of Britain which is heavily tinged by a view of history made up of Kings and Queens in gaudy clothes, the occasional rebel like Robin Hood or William Wallace, a defiant Winston Churchill in the Second World War, and the cultural excitements of the 1960s. We admire the royal family or at least some members of it, without feeling any particular attachment. We like British fashions and popular culture. We think the British have a wonderful sense of humour. We do not understand however, why a slim majority voted to leave the European Union. As Canadians look across the Atlantic, we see a Britain which is a part of Europe, indeed which has no choice as a result of geography, trade and history. We don’t see the Channel, as so many people living in Britain do, as a barrier between the British Isles and the Continent. The distance across is no more than across the mouth of the St Lawrence River and much less than that between the mainland of British Columbia and Vancouver Island.
As a Canadian I am sceptical, to put it mildly, of the scenario that often went side by side with talk in the Brexit camp of freeing
Britain from Europe; the one where the former Old Dominions of the British Empire will rush into Britain’s embrace again. I think the Anglosphere is a pleasing dream, no more. The world has moved on and as far as Canada is concerned our economy is firmly intertwined with that of the US. Canada is looking to expand its trade with Asia and it has just done a deal with the EU. While there will always be trade between Canada and Britain that will not be the Canadian government’s priority.
It would be wise of any future government to strengthen the Foreign Office and to encourage Britain’s schools and universities to do more to teach foreign languages, the history and cultures of the other nations the British will have to negotiate with. And if Britain is to remain a strong and viable unit in a turbulent world, it will have to sort out the relationship between the English and the rest.
That will mean also mean the English recognising how much they owe to, and are made up of, a variety of cultures. There is not a single definition of what it is to be British or English; and nor should there be. Just as the English language was shaped by Latin and Norman French, so has the culture of these islands been shaped by waves of immigrants and ideas. Christianity, and the ideas of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment came across the Channel, but they were acclimatised just as plants and trees have been.
Equally, the British Isles have exported much to Europe and the rest of the world – everything from constitutional government to sports. Such interchanges are bound to continue, but let us hope in a friendly and not a grudging or hostile spirit.
Britain’s future place in the world will depend on political forces and developments within Britain; on political leaders and the shapers of opinion; and also, on the British people themselves. And much will depend on what is happening elsewhere.
Emotion is one thing; necessity another. Britain will be obliged to co-operate with other powers and multi-lateral institutions, and will continue to depend on foreign trade and investment for its prosperity. One thing is for sure: the Splendid Isolation of the late 19th Century is simply not possible today.