Looking around his Cambridge common room, Robert Tombs found himself surrounded by disdainful Remainers. The only arguments for Leave they ever heard came from their gardeners or their cleaners. Professor Tombs himself had voted Remain in 1975 and was thinking of voting the same way 40 years later. He changed his mind only when one friend told him that there might not be a second chance to get out, and another, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow, reassured him that leaving the EU would not be an economic disaster.
These might seem slender foundations on which to take a decision that might alter the role and direction of the UK for decades to come. The very existence of the union no longer seems guaranteed, imperilled in part by the forces unleashed by the Brexit referendum.
Yet Tombs not only vowed there and then to vote Leave, but quickly became a passionate campaigner for the cause, founding a tiny band of Brexit-inclined dons. He abandoned his plan to write a history of monotheism (which I would love to read, for Tombs is a historian of rare elegance and puckish wit), and instead spent his lockdown on this little history of Brexit. In its own way, it is a short history of another monotheism, written by a true, if late convert.
This Sovereign Isle is a light and spritzig essay, never less than readable, not least because it never dwells too long on any knotty problem. Tombs describes the book as “a history: not neutral, but I trust rational and I hope fair”. Rational, yes. But fair? I’m not so sure. As he gathers momentum, the scales lurch alarmingly to one side. All the Leavers seem to be salt-of-the-earth democrats who believe in Magna Carta — “decent populists” in David Goodhart’s phrase — while the Remainers are either hysterical elitists or snotty business types who no longer understand the meaning of patriotism.
The least tendentious part is the opening chapter, “Set in a Silver Sea”, which sketches Britain’s relations with the continent since Julius Caesar, mostly a matter of interminable wars and attempted (or successful) invasions. Tombs tells us that “it is tempting to say that the pattern is an absence of patte
rn”, but he does not succumb to this temptation, rather concluding — in a formulation familiar from our schoolbooks — that Britain’s prime concern has always been to preserve the balance of power on the continent, and that “the islanders have never, since the 1550s, pursued or accepted a permanent organic Continental link”.
There is little sense here of any historical development in relations between nations. Hugo Grotius and the invention of international law pass unsung. Castlereagh is name-checked as “perhaps our greatest foreign secretary”, but the post-Napoleonic Concert of Europe, which he engineered and which kept the peace for decades after his death, slides by. The League of Nations and the UN are dismissed as of interest only to idealists. The nation state remains the only game in town, as absolute in its claims today as on the day the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years’ War.
And when Britain finally tiptoes into Europe, it is derided as a desperate tactic, born of weakness and lack of national self-confidence. De Gaulle was quite right to dismiss us as essentially an ocean-going nation. In any case, Tombs tells us, we went in on a false premise. We were never the sick man of Europe: “Since 1944 (to the present day, in fact) British per capita GDP growth rates have kept in step with those of America.”
But isn’t this statistic something of an own goal? All through the latter two-thirds of that period we were members of the EEC/EU, so we can’t have done too badly out of being “at the heart of Europe”. The only graph in the book (which is light on figures) shows Britain’s real gross domestic product forging ahead of France, Germany and the eurozone generally between 1998 and 2021. If the EU is a failure, as Tombs keeps repeating, the same, on his own evidence, can scarcely be said of the UK’s membership. Can we really dismiss as illusory the benefits of free trade and foreign investment flooding into Britain because of its access to the EU? The author mocks Nissan’s threat to withdraw from Britain, yet does not pause to consider why the Japanese carmaker came to Sunderland in the first place.
Like other writers on Brexit, Tombs devotes a few sentences to the issue of sovereignty, which he sees as the heart of the question. He notes, quite rightly, that certain powers “may be delegated for a time to others, but sovereignty, the ultimate right to decide, can exist only within a political community: it can be given up, but not shared.” When the sovereign chooses to delegate or share any of its powers, it is exercising, not diluting sovereignty, just as it is exercising, not reclaiming sovereignty, if it chooses to take back those powers. It is much the same with all human engagements: getting married, joining a regiment, church, or corporation. On entering of your own free will, you agree to abide by the rules which you may, or more usually may not, have had a hand in devising; if you choose to disengage, you are again exercising your sovereignty, not reclaiming it.
The case of the EU is no different. The UK has exercised its sovereignty by deploying Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty; and we are out. The right to disengage was implicit even before Lisbon, which is why making it explicit was a relatively simple matter. Yet, in a breathtaking assertion, Tombs goes on to claim that some EU member states where popular votes have been ignored “have given up their sovereignty. Perhaps, indeed, they all have.”
Like many of his allies, Tombs appears to think that the EU is both fatally glued together and perilously fragile. Yet, in practice he has to admit that Brexit “has sharply increased acceptance of membership among its citizens”.
How does this strange confusion arise? One key, I think, is the persistent tendency on both sides to exaggerate the scope of the EU’s activities. The fact remains that for years the EU budget has stuck at no more than one per cent of its members’ net national income, or two per cent of their public expenditure. Vast areas of social and economic policy are closed to Brussels — health, education, social security, criminal justice, family and sexual law, taxation (except for a nibble on VAT rates), budgetary policy (for those outside the eurozone), and so on. The wildest ambitions of the fédérastes and the worst fears of the Europhobes have never taken account of the political reality: that no government is going to yield power over the things that really shift votes. The notion that democracy has been extinguished, or is about to be extinguished, in the patries of the EU is frankly baloney.
I agree with Tombs that we seem to be heading back towards something like the European Free Trade Association, which is where we came in 60 years ago. Who knows, by 2030 we might have reached the condition of Norway, still conforming, as an entirely independent country, to the vast corpus of EU law and practice. It’s a matter of taste whether you choose to call this a state of informal vassalage.
In our present dazed state, all this may seem rather counter-intuitive. It’s natural to think that, in as fierce a fight as this, there can be only one winner. But as the smoke clears, both sides may have their consolations. No UK government in the foreseeable future will try to rejoin a formal legal European union or accept the authority of the European Court of Justice. On the other hand, no foreseeable British government is likely to risk moving out of a free-trade area with all its attendant obligations, an enduring structure in which the worst frictions of economic rivalry can be managed. The warnings of “Project Fear” may, after all, have hit home. Is the whole game, after all, going to turn out looking more like a score draw which leaves both sides dissatisfied?
This Sovereign Isle has an attractively blithe tone, and one of the things it is blithest about is the condition of the nation. Tombs leaves us with the impression that there is nothing much wrong with the UK that getting out of the EU won’t liberate us to put right.
What a different picture we get on turning to Gavin Esler’s How Britain Ends. The two books might be describing two different countries. Esler is a Scot, descended from German Protestant refugees from the Thirty Years’ War, but he has strong ties with Northern Ireland — a dozen members of his family signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912. A former BBC journalist, he has travelled round the UK as intensively as anyone, and he is deeply worried about what he sees as the collapse of the British idea and the emergence of English nationalism. As Esler sees it, the unruly, destructive force of English nationalism now threatens to break the United Kingdom, heralding, as his subtitle has it, the “rebirth of four nations”.
One of his starting points is the notorious Lord Ashcroft poll of 2019, which found that more than three-quarters of Conservative Leavers put Brexit before the survival of the Union, even if it meant a united Ireland. Increasingly, you find Tory-inclined writers grumbling that Northern Ireland has been a millstone round our neck for years, or that we would really be better off without the Scots. Voters in surveys and censuses increasingly describe themselves as English rather than British.
Meanwhile, the belief in the exceptionalism of our island history is preserved through ignorance of everyone else’s. Esler’s ripest example is the threat by Priti Patel, UK home secretary, in 2019 to use food supplies as a weapon to bring Ireland to heel during the Brexit negotiations.
English exceptionalism assumes a blessing of Providence denied to lesser breeds. The acerbic David Frost, Britain’s chief negotiator in the final stages of the tussle, remarked in a speech in Brussels, much admired by Brexiters, that “it was always going to feel a bit unnatural to a lot of people to be governed by an organisation whose institutions seemed created by design more than by evolution”.
Here Esler explodes. All the great events in our history — the Union of Crowns, the Union of Parliaments, the Revolution Settlement, the 1832 Reform Act, the partition of Ireland — did not “just evolve”. “They were the product of crises, in some cases of riots and bloodshed, or an attempt to forestall crises, riots and bloodshed,” he writes. Every one of these massive changes “was ‘created by design’ by humans working together to build or maintain some kind of union based on shared values”.
This is not a new critique. Mary Wollstonecraft exploded in similar fashion when Edmund Burke claimed that the constitution of our Church and state was formed “under the auspices and is confirmed by the sanctions of religion and piety”. Nonsense, she said. The constitution “owes its sightly appearance to bold rebellion and insidious innovation”. And much of this was driven by “the pressing needs” of a monarch desperate to finance wars and ambitious projects. It was a struggle and often a violent one to achieve our present liberties.
Esler’s remedy is not new either. He wants a revival of “Home Rule All Round” — first approved by the House of Commons as far back as 1895. Instead of the present federalism by stealth, he would like to see a written constitution that would revive representative institutions in England-outside-London — a return, if you like, of the Anglo-Saxon “Heptarchy” of petty kingdoms, a vision once fancied by Winston Churchill among others.
Esler says that we can no longer rely on what Peter Hennessy calls “the good chap” theory of government, in which we depend on the decency and discretion of politicians and civil servants rather than hard-and-fast rules. With that informal system gone, we need a constitutional convention to give us a fresh start.
Any such fresh start seems unlikely to form part of Johnson’s “levelling-up” agenda, which so far has been a top-down exercise, designed to develop rather than restrain the prime minister’s powers of patronage, accompanied by menacing attacks on the judges and judicial review, on the BBC and the Electoral Commission. Johnson has always been a clencher. As he sees it, power is best concentrated in his own fist.
The present government has no zest for genuine reinvention, because it refuses to recognise that there is anything much to worry about. And as Esler insists, recognition is the necessary first step to reform. Here again he presents a picture of a fretful, divided and resentful nation, totally at odds with Tombs’s rather sunny sketch.
In particular, Tombs shrugs off any idea that the Brexit project is infected by any hankering for empire. On the contrary, he gives air time to the view of Richard Tuck, a fellow Cambridge historian, that “it was the EU that was underpinned by ‘imperial nostalgia’, as an ‘alternative stage upon which these old imperial ruling classes could regain something of the role they had lost.’ ”
We got rid of our empire with little bloodshed or recrimination, so the story goes. We were not demoralised or torn apart like Spain and France after their colonial disasters. In fact, we are led to believe that the experience of empire left scarcely a mark upon our souls.
This is not a nonchalance that can survive a reading of Empireland, the scorching polemic on the afterburn of empire by Sathnam Sanghera, the Times columnist and novelist. As a Punjabi Sikh from Wolverhampton, Sanghera is incapable of forgetting the British empire. He was brought up in the backwash of Enoch Powell’s 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech. When he goes back to the subcontinent with his mother, they visit the Golden Temple at Amritsar and picnic in the Jallianwala Bagh where Brigadier Dyer massacred hundreds of people in 1919. (Sanghera omits to mention that although disgraced by the official inquiry, Dyer remained a hero among the more conservative, pro-imperialist elements of British society and eventually received a hero’s funeral in London.)
For Sanghera, the traces of empire are visible everywhere: in the loot (a Hindi word, of course) piled up in our museums, precious relics of other cultures; in the country houses built on plantation money (or more bluntly, on slavery); in the continued prominence of the City of London deriving from its role as the banker of empire; above all, in the presence in the UK of millions of immigrants and descendants of immigrants from the former colonies: “we are here because you were there”. These intertwinings remain at the heart of Britain’s past and present: thousands of Sikhs fought for Britain in the Great Mutiny and in both world wars, often with scant recognition. Today we cannot help seeing how much our hospitals (and other public services) owe to their Bame staff, when we look at their terrible death rates from Covid-19. Yet, as Sanghera points out, imperial history is scarcely taught in schools, and when institutions such as the National Trust do some research, there are groans of “woke” from those who prefer to go on sleeping.
What about the railways? Well, there’s no danger of forgetting them, since they are just about the only vestiges of empire that ever make it on to TV, usually omitting the fact that a prime purpose in building them was to ferry troops quicker to suppress disturbances and to carry British goods to the backwoods at the expense of native industry. Sanghera certainly does not underplay the genuine achievements of empire. Personally, he is grateful for everything that Britain has given him. But he cannot abide the vainglorious, barely qualified praise of empire from rightwing politicians and historians, nor their bleaching of our “Island Story”.
In his closing pages, Tombs himself offers a future which has more than a tinge of imperial pink. We should turn towards “a very obvious alternative, the so-called ‘Anglosphere’”. He applauds Johnson’s decisions to deploy frigates and minesweepers East of Suez and to dispatch the new aircraft carrier to the Far East. He welcomes the weaponising of foreign aid for the projection of British power. And he ends with a little paean to the “soft power” of Queen and Commonwealth. If these are not imperial hankerings, I don’t know what is.
Nor am I much more reassured by Prof Tombs’s predictions for the longer term in British politics: “One plausible future would see a hegemonic one-nation Conservative Party appealing to national identity and espousing more interventionist economics.” As in Hungary perhaps, or Turkey, or Brazil? These days we describe this kind of hegemony as “a strongman regime”. In the 1930s, we gave it a darker name. Whatever you call it, I can’t say I like the sound of it.
This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe, by Robert Tombs, Allen Lane, RRP£16.99, 224 pages
How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations, by Gavin Esler, Head of Zeus, RRP£14.99, 374 pages
Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, by Sathnam Sanghera, Viking, RRP£18.99, 320 pages
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café
Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen