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The Conservatives and Europe: the long view

by Scott Newton

The Prime Minister's long awaited speech on Britain's relationship with the European Union acknowledges the importance of strategic cooperation with our continental neighbours and of the single market to the security and welfare of this country. Yet it implies that within five years the UK will have slid into a position whereby departure from the EU becomes likely, especially if a Conservative government is returned at the next General Election.

Many in the Conservative Party would welcome such a development, seeing membership of a trading Europe, but not a political Europe as a feasible future option for the UK. But the historical record suggests the UK has little chance of achieving this position, which would contradict the direction of British foreign policy since the early twentieth century and, ironically, could result in a strategic denouement that Britain has laboured to avoid for over four hundred years.

Ever since the reign of Elizabeth I, the maintenance of English, and then British, national security has focused on preventing the European continent from falling under the domination of a single power. Control by either Imperial Spain or Catholic France would have endangered the future of both the English Reformation and the country's links with its expanding overseas territories. This religious peril dissipated during the seventeenth century, but the threat to Britain's external colonial and commercial ties was not removed until the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Thereafter the absence of any serious continental threat allowed Britain to concentrate on building a global empire based on trade and investment. This was the era of 'splendid isolation', the heyday of British industrial and financial power, with the City of London acting as the world's banker.

All this changed with the rise of Imperial Germany, which resurrected in a new form the old Spanish and French challenges. Splendid isolation was abandoned. Defence of British global interests and national security propelled the country into the European mainstream from the signature of the Entente Cordiale in 1904 through the First World War and up to 1924, when it seemed as if Germany's reconstruction as a peaceful liberal democracy had been achieved. Thereafter British governments turned back towards the old imperial strategy, focusing on protecting the Raj and commercial links with East Asia from Japanese expansionism, while relying on the appeasement of Nazi Germany to preserve stability in Europe. The complete ruin of this approach became evident in 1940: nine months into the Second World War Britain stood isolated in the face of German control over western Europe. Its eventual emergence on the winning side owed as much to the special relationship with the USA and the extraordinary sacrifices of the USSR in the 'Great Patriotic War' as to the determination, pluck and skill of the British people. By 1945 it was obvious that British security and European stability were co-dependent. This fact, coupled with the collapse of the Grand Alliance with the USSR, led the post-war Labour government to develop a new British relationship with Europe, based on membership of NATO to preserve security.

Yet the turn to Europe was not complete. British governments stayed out of the European Economic Community (EEC) on its establishment in 1958, prioritising instead strategic links with the USA and economic ties with the Commonwealth and what was left of the Empire. This position was undermined by the rapid expansion of the EEC's wealth and power in the 1960s, while the UK experienced relative economic decline and fading international influence. Successive governments since 1959 concluded that only membership of the EEC, finally achieved by Edward Heath in 1973 and confirmed by the 1975 referendum, would arrest this decline. The new British relationship with Europe may not have delivered the levels of growth anticipated by some pro-European evangelists, including Heath himself, but the EU now receives over 50 per cent of Britain's exports. Despite the optimism of some Conservative backbenchers, the chances of the UK negotiating a new relationship in which it retained the economic privileges of EU membership, without any of the obligations, would be slender.

The risks inherent in full withdrawal from the EU would be compounded if, as now seems likely, it develops into a more cohesive political and economic bloc, dominated by Germany, over the next two decades. The scenario first glimpsed in 1940, albeit then in far more malevolent circumstances, will have returned. And who now would be the UK's close political and economic allies in resisting such developments? While the UK's strategic and intelligence links with the USA were very useful to Washington when Britain was still a global power and a fellow ally against the Soviet Union, now it is the Far East, Central Asia, the Middle East and possibly the Maghreb which preoccupy the USA, rather than Europe, and British influence in these regions is limited. Thus, American commitment to the old alliance is likely to decline, leaving the UK isolated in the face of a continent-wide political-economic bloc following policies in trade, finance, security and defence which may not necessarily accord with its own interests. The long view, therefore, suggests that British interests can be best promoted from within the EU, by working and bargaining with other governments to ensure that German influence continues to be Europeanised, rather than Europeanism being Germanised.

January 2013

About the author

Scott Newton is Professor of Modern British and International History at Cardiff University. His books include Modernization Frustrated: the Politics of Industrial Decline in Britain since 1900 (with Dilwyn Porter: London, 1988), Profits of Peace: the political economy of Anglo-German appeasement (Oxford, 1996) and The Global Economy, 1944-2000: the Limits of Ideology (London, 2004). He is currently writing The Reinvention of Britain since 1960: a political and economic history (to be published by Pearson).

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