Tuesday, February 11, 2020

History matters

If there is one post that is essential reading, it's this from the historian Robert Saunders, the author of a comprehensive study of the 1975 referendum on membership of the then EEC, Yes to Europe!  In it, he describes the structural reasons why the UK decided to seek membership, eventually succeeding in 1973.
Membership provided an answer to three fundamental questions about Britain’s role in the world, which reached a crisis in the years after 1945. First, how could Britain maintain its prosperity, as a declining industrial power that had lost its colonial markets? Second, how could it project power in the world, once it had lost its empire and its global military reach? Third, how could Britain preserve its sovereignty, in an increasingly globalised world? Put differently, how could Britain ‘take back control’, at a time when it seemed to be leaking sovereignty to the currency markets, to the International Monetary Fund, and to big trading blocs that were setting the rules of world trade? 
From 1961 to 2016, every government (whether Conservative or Labour) started from three basic assumptions: that the best way to rebuild Britain’s economic strength was as the entry-point to an integrated, European market; that the surest route to influence in Washington or the Commonwealth was through a leadership role in Europe; and that the best way to maximise British sovereignty was to have a seat at the table where its destiny would be decided.
Those existential problems still exist. To leave the EU means that we have to once again to find solutions to the problems that membership had effectively addressed; prosperity, power, and sovereignty. The pre-73 past was not some sort of golden age. It was a period of British decline and global weakness. So, what are we going to do? We are leaving an economic superpower and intending to erect trading barriers with it. We are abandoning our European leadership role as one of 'the big three' decision makers. We have removed ourselves from the decision making structures that will inevitably shape much of our economic life. How are they to be replaced?

The answer given in Johnson's bizarre and rambling Greenwich speech appears to be little more than an atavistic assertion of British greatness, rooted in some abstract idea of a national character. The specifics are much harder to see, probably because they don't exist. The Brexiter case would have more merit if it had addressed these issues in terms other than those that guarantee failure - wishful thinking combined with over-confidence.

Intentionally damaging our economy and sitting outside regional power structures in a globalised economy and interdependent world, is not wise. This is why we will be drawn back into some sort of association with the EU, and probably try and regain our membership. It remains the best available answer to our permanent existential dilemmas. They will not go away, and neither will the EU.

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