Article 50 has now been triggered and there is no doubt that it will go down as a defining moment in British, and European History, no matter what happens next. I agree with what Guy Verhofstadt had to say; the relations between the UK and the rest of Europe can indeed by described as an unhappy marriage. The key question that was always in my mind both long before and after the referendum was why. Why did the UK have such an unhappy membership of the EU and why did it vote to leave on June 23rd, 2016? Why the UK, and not any other country?
At first, when I asked this question to the rest of my family, back when Cameron was negotiating reforms and Nigel Farage was sounding off against them, the answer seemed obvious. Britain was an island, not part of Continental Europe, and therefore felt less European. After a while, I started to scratch my head a bit more, as it became more and more obvious that the UK was, in fact, not on the 'edge' of Europe at all, in fact, it was very close to the center. Think about it: if you consider the 'true' center of Europe in particular to be where Brussels and Strasbourg are, or to be more exact, that entire region of Western Europe including the Netherlands, Belgium, Western Germany, Luxembourg and North East France (which are arguably the economic beating heart of Europe) then we are very close to it; Much closer, in fact, than Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean or Ireland. Not only that, the very parts of the UK that were furthest from the Continent, namely Northern Ireland and Scotland, voted to remain. Clearly, our physical detachment by the English Channel had little or nothing to do with our unease in being part of the organisation.
But that is not to mention that in many ways, Britain is the center of Europe. For example, the financial capital of the EU, at least for now, is London. In addition, Europe is known for being a wealthy and industrialized continent and was the first continent to undergo industrialization. But where in Europe industrialized first? Great Britain. Europe is also known for being a continent of parliamentary democracies. Britain is the land of the Magna Carta and the 1688 Bill of Rights, with its parliament in Westminster being the icon of parliamentary democracy. Europe is also known for its past colonization of other continents. Which country built up the largest colonial empire? Great Britain. Europe is also a continent in which the English language is the leading lingua-franca. Where in Europe does English come from? England.
It is precisely because of all this, ironically, that Britain, or rather England in particular, voted to leave the EU. As my seminar tutor said (in a seminar on Welsh history) just over an hour ago, Brexit can be described as an English/ Anglo-British nationalist move in which the prevailing thought can be described as something like 'We invented parliamentary democracy, started the industrial revolution, built the largest Empire the world has ever seen and the world speaks our language, so why do we need to be equal partners with other European countries within this organisation?' I couldn't have phrased it better myself, and indeed the rest of the seminar group, all Welsh students (and one English guy, me), also agreed. Yes Wales, as a whole voted to leave the EU, but I would argue that if Wales had been less connected to England, then it would have voted to remain, like Scotland, and in fact, Gwynedd, the only local authority area in Wales where a majority of school children still speak Welsh at home, voted to remain. In the lead up to the referendum, Boris Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph that 'We are the European, if not World, Leaders...', and referred to what Britain had given to the world, and to the British Empire to argue that Britain could jolly well survive outside the EU; he did not say that we weren't European. Daniel Hannan, when debating alongside Nigel Farage on Britain's membership of the EU, closed his opening speech by saying 'That which we are, we are' and went on to refer to Britain's linguistic, military and economic power and influence. Even David Cameron, who backed the remain side, argued that because of Britain's history and achievements, British membership of the EU should not be the same as other countries' membership.
Thus I would argue that if England had not been the land of the Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights, had not started the industrial revolution, had not built the largest colonial Empire the world has ever known and if the English language was not the Lingua Franca of Europe and the world, then ironically Britain would be a proud signed up nation of the European Union like any other, and the English channel would be not much less of a division than the straits of Øresund. In addition, if the UK's 20th century had been different, say if we had been under either foreign subjugation for a portion of it, been a dictatorship or indeed had a civil war, then we would also be a much keener member of the EU. A country like Spain, for example, which had experienced the latter two, saw the EU as a 'cool club' of economically developed democracies where as we in Britain, with our history, felt that we were already 'cool' and in 1973 didn't join up for quite the same reasons.
With the great pride in our history and democratic traditions comes the accompanying view that the EU is an affront to all that; namely that the European Commission is akin to a continental despotism threatening Anglo-Saxon democracy in Britain. It is the view that Continental Europe, having produced a long line of despots from Philip II of Spain to Louis XIV of France to Napoleon to Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler, has produced the EU as an heir to this tradition. Don't take my view for it, take Boris Johnson's own words; he himself compared the EU to the Nazi dictator. It is interesting to note that when talking to Brexiters on Youtube/facebook or indeed face to face, I was just as likely, if not more likely, to find people who argued that the EU was a dictatorship than to find people sounding off about immigration.
The key question is, how could we have moderated the prevailing world view among the majority of us English, and how should we, in the future, in order to allow us to be prouder European and Global citizens? Both the Press and the Education system of course have a large influence. We need an education system that teaches us the fact that other nations also invented constitutional government; that Sweden also had parliamentary democracy during the eighteenth century, in what is known as the Age of Liberty, and that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had a limited monarchy and strong legislature while we in England and Wales were living under the despotism and semi-despotism of the Tudors and Stuarts. We need to teach ourselves that the Kikuyu, in Kenya, for example, also had a proto-democratic system of clan governance, that is, before we British conquered them. And of course, we need to teach ourselves that the European Commission is not a dictatorship, that in fact, the European Parliament has legislative power and that the European parliament approves the President of the Commission, as proposed by the European Council. Until we have an education system and press which teaches us that, I am afraid that Brexit will truly mean Brexit and all that that implies.