The way forward for Europe’s great outsider

The UK’s relationship with the Continent has always been fraught. But history shows there is no neat answer to where Britain belongs

R. W. Johnson

When, on August 12, 1941, Churchill and Roosevelt met at sea and issued the Atlantic Charter in which they championed national self-determination through the freely expressed wishes of all nations, Hitler and his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, realised they must counter this with an alternative vision. Germany had subdued all Europe and was now racing towards Moscow, apparently irresistible on every front. Until then Hitler had simply assumed that Germany would dominate everywhere and that the labour of 400 million Europeans would be made available to build the Thousand Year Reich. But now something better was needed.

Hence Ribbentrop’s idea of a United States of Europe under German and Italian auspices. Four allies (Italy, Finland, Romania and Hungary) had already joined Germany’s war on Russia, and volunteer units to assist the Wehrmacht had been sent from Croatia, Denmark and Slovakia (later to be joined by units from France, Norway, Albania, Ukraine, Spain, Belgium and Holland). Various neutrals (the Vatican, Ireland, Portugal, Turkey and Bulgaria) had let it be known that they would be pleased to see the USSR defeated. Sweden was not only supplying Germany with iron ore, but even allowed German troops passage through Sweden to fight in the East. It was, Ribbentrop decided, a united European crusade against communism. Hitler was receptive: he had dismissed Himmler’s idea that they should simply “Germanise” all European countries, for he was enough of a realist to see that separate “independent” states must be permitted. On October 25, Hitler explained his idea further to the Italian foreign minister, Count Ciano:

Noteworthy in the fighting in the East was the fact that for the first time a feeling of European solidarity had developed. This was of great importance especially for the future. A later generation would have to cope with the problem of Europe-America. It would no longer be a matter of . . . antagonistic systems, but of the common interests of Pan-Europe within the European economic area with its African supplements. The feeling of European solidarity . . . would gradually have to change . . . into a great recognition of the European community . . . even America could do nothing against a Europe thus unified.

“European solidarity”, Ciano reported to Mussolini, was “Hitler’s new pet slogan”. Hitler then added another key consideration:

. . . most people in Europe are already fully agreed on one thing: Britain must be kept out of Europe once and for all. Too long have the British made mischief on the continent, playing off one power against another . . . we now have the uplifting experience of seeing one European nation after another . . . turn away from Britain and towards us, offering their sons to fight the common Bolshevik enemy.

Britain had, in any case, shown how completely it did not belong with Europe, Hitler said. Not only had it turned instead towards America, but, above all, it had sided with Stalin against Europe’s united forces.

Stalingrad traumatised Hitler’s allies. Romania had lost five per cent of its men. Hungary had seen its modern army wiped out. The Italians saved themselves by running away from the Don and now had to endure German accusations of cowardice. Doriot’s fascist French of the Charlemagne division were  wiped out at Borodino. They all turned to Ribbentrop, demanding a peace with the USSR and retreat into a European confederation. Ribbentrop was enthusiastic — he sketched out a confederation which allowed all states internal autonomy, though German dominance was assumed. And, of course, the confederation would have a common currency: the Reichsmark. But Hitler wanted all such plans put aside until Stalin was beaten. Ribbentrop persevered. The confederation would include Germany, Italy, France, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Spain. He even went so far as to draft a treaty of accession to this European bloc. But there it ended.

There is much in these plans that foreshadows the European Union, but really this is all part of a far larger canvas. As Niall Ferguson has argued, if  Germany had won the First World War this would  have produced a united Europe under German dominance that excluded Britain. Since this is what we have ended up with today, it follows — so the argument goes — that Britain was foolish to have got involved in  the First World War. In effect, there was a long-run historical tendency — an ineluctable progression — towards a unified Europe excluding Britain, in which Germany would be the political and economic leader.

To understand that progression, one has to go back to the struggle for German unification. A fundamental role was played by the Zollverein (customs union) which bound together the German states into a single economy from 1834 on. Austria was excluded so as to maximise Prussia’s influence, but otherwise it spread far and wide. The Netherlands and Luxembourg were members, and from 1865 the Zollverein also had a customs treaty with Sweden-Norway, binding those economies in. After the Franco-Prussian war, Alsace-Lorraine joined in 1871.

As the Zollverein developed it had common weights and measures, a common currency, a co-ordinated census, and provision for revenue-sharing — clearly the features of a national economy and a national state. Inevitably, a sense of German national consciousness grew, though there were always ideas of a “restricted Germany” (Kleindeutschland) and a “wider Germany” (Grossdeutschland). When Bismarck finally created a unified German state in 1871, it was a Kleinsdeutschland. But this still left hanging in the air dreams of a Grossdeutschland. Bismarck was keenly aware that any move towards that would be highly provocative. He also knew that integrating what Germany had already swallowed was quite enough for then. Bavarians were quite strange enough to his Prussian taste and he had no appetite to include Austria. “A Bavarian,” he said, “is a cross between an Austrian and a real human being.”

But the dreams of a Grossdeutschland were instinctively picked up by the Nazis. Hitler wanted not only to incorporate Austria and get back Alsace-Lorraine, taken by France in 1919, but also the German minorities in Eastern Europe. You may have wondered why certain key states were missing from Ribbentrop’s plan of 1943 — for example, the Czechs and Austrians. Both, of course, had been incorporated into the Reich already and were no longer separate states. But the same was also true of the Netherlands and Luxembourg. There were to be no Quisling or Vichy regimes there: they were simply declared part of Germany because they had belonged to the Zollverein. If you add all these missing states to Ribbentrop’s list, the similarity with today’s EU becomes a lot clearer.

This left Hitler with several problem cases. He had no doubt that Switzerland also belonged inside the Reich, but he knew the Swiss were very jealous of their independence and would fight like tigers to protect it. He didn’t need such a distraction while he was still dealing with Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. So it was decided that only when Germany had won the war would the Swiss be incorporated. Hitler also wondered about incorporating Belgium and Norway. The Flemings and the Norse were clearly Aryans but, he decided, their incorporation might lead to trouble. And anyway their admixture might weaken the German bloodline (all those Walloons). The Nazi defeat put an end to dreams of a Grossdeutschland for a while, but anyone who still harboured them would feel a degree of satisfaction with today’s EU. The German minorities in the East all fled back to Germany as refugees after 1945, Germany itself is reunited, and the Czech, Benelux, Austrian and Swiss economies are all satellites revolving around Germany’s sun.

The interesting thing about the EU is that although many of its original enthusiasts were not Germans, the model adopted was clearly that of the Zollverein. Perhaps it was simply the only one available. The European states would start off by being united in a single trade bloc, but gradually a process of harmonisation and standardisation in every sphere — including a single currency, a single European passport, elections to a single European Parliament, European courts and perhaps even a single army — would bind the continent together into a United States of Europe.

Thus, in effect, immanent historical forces have been pushing for more than a century to unite Europe together under German leadership. It could have happened in 1918 or 1942-3, but in any case it has happened now. In either 1918 or 1942-3 Britain would have been excluded. This was entirely accepted by Britain. When, during the war, Churchill called for the constitution of a democratically organised United States of Europe, he made it clear that Britain would not be party to it. And when moves towards European unification began in the 1940s and ’50s both Labour and Conservative governments in Britain wanted nothing to do with it. The only British political leader to advocate that Britain should join a united Europe was Oswald Mosley, whose fascist party had as its slogan “Europe A Nation”.

After the Second World War, however, the leadership in setting up the European Economic Community came from all the constituent countries, but particularly from France in the persons of Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman. This French leadership was essential. If such an association were to get off the ground, the French had to overcome their long, historic enmity towards Germany. The leadership could hardly come from the small Benelux countries or from either of the two former Axis powers. Indeed, had West Germany led this process — which, as the EEC’s largest economy, it was bound to dominate — it is unlikely that the British and Americans would have accepted it. The sight of the Germans, for the third time in 40 years, coming up with a plan to unite Europe under their leadership would have been too much for Anglo-American public opinion.

French leadership remained the norm for several decades. In the 1960s, it was de Gaulle who repeatedly vetoed Britain’s application to join. And when this application was finally accepted, it was President Pompidou who had the final word. West Germany’s growing economic weight — registered by recurrent devaluations of the French franc against the deutschmark — meant that its Chancellors, especially Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, were of growing international importance within the Western alliance. However, when 1989 suddenly brought German reunification into view it was, once again, Paris that took the lead. As East Germany collapsed, Kohl had spoken of how there were still lands that belonged to Germany beyond the Oder-Neisse line, to the east of East Germany. This was a major red light throughout a Europe shaken by the thought of a reconstituted and over-mighty Germany. President François Mitterrand of France met with Kohl and then made a speech of historic importance.

“The Entente Cordiale”, by John Bernard Partridge, 1904

In the year when France was celebrating 200 years of the French Revolution, Mitterrand said, it was impossible for Frenchmen to deny the principle of national self-determination. It was clear that Germans as a whole wished to be reunited, so that must be fully accepted. On the other hand, the Germans must accept that “there was such a thing as the Second World War”, and this had three implications. First, there must be no more talk of changing Germany’s eastern borders. Second, Germany must never have nuclear weapons (but France would). Third, there must be a common European currency, the euro, which would bind the French and German economies so closely together that a future war between those two countries would remain forever unimaginable. Kohl implicitly accepted all three conditions. They were Mitterrand’s way of reassuring an anxious French opinion at this crucial juncture. For Kohl the key was simply that France, and thus the rest of Europe, would accept German reunification.

This turned out to be the last hurrah of the French. Once Germany was reunited, it was decisively more populous and economically stronger than any other European power. Kohl quickly became the leading European statesman, as did Gerhard Schroder, who followed him in 1998-2005, and after that, Angela Merkel. The French presidents of that period — Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande — tried their best to act the part of leading men, but it was an increasingly shallow charade. For the euro turned out to be a boon to German industry and exports while for the French, with their decisively higher rate of wage inflation, it turned into a curse, leaving their economy stagnant with an apparently permanent rate of 10 per cent unemployment.

And so German dominance grew proportionately. Despite the fact that Germany had had to absorb the far poorer DDR and pay enormous sums to modernise its infrastructure, by 2018, on a purchasing power parity basis German GDP per capita was $52,896 against France’s $45,474 — which meant that the average German was 16 per cent richer than the average Frenchman — and there were far more Germans. Germany was now exporting one third of its output and by 2016 was running a trade surplus of $310 billion a year, while France ran a trade deficit of $52 billion. France may have led the way into a united Europe, but in the end it had resulted in a German-dominated Europe, just like the united Europe envisaged in 1918 and 1942-3.

It will be seen that the main joker in the pack was Britain’s changing attitude. From firm refusal of any interest in joining the EEC in the postwar period, it suddenly applied to join in 1961, repeated its request in 1966 only to be turned down again, and finally entered the EEC on its third attempt in 1973. Now it is leaving after what one European leader has described as “a divorce following an unhappy marriage of 45 years”. Given that Britain was resolutely against joining a united Europe throughout the century until 1961 and that a popular majority voted to leave the EU in 2016, the real question has to be why British political leaders changed their views in the 1960s and ’70s.

The then Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, had a privileged view of that process. When Harold Macmillan opened negotiations to join the EEC (“the Common Market”) in July 1961 Gaitskell thought that “the arguments of principle were fairly evenly balanced for and against” — this despite the fact that, on a Gaitskell visit to Washington, President Kennedy, whom he much admired, “had mobilised half the Cabinet to tell (Gaitskell) that Britain must plunge into Europe”. In Gaitskell’s view, everything depended on the terms and conditions of entry. Britain had to preserve its Commonwealth ties; he did not like the Common Agricultural Policy, which would mean dearer food and large British payments to subsidise French farmers; and he was sure that Britain could not enter a federation of any kind, for British opinion would not accept such a loss of sovereignty. Which is to say that for Gaitskell, as for British opinion in general, joining the Common Market was all about trade — and only about trade.

The application to negotiate with the EEC came as Macmillan’s position had begun to slip. From summer 1961 on, Gaitskell raced ahead of him as the public’s choice for prime minister and Labour also led the Tories in the polls. There was a general malaise. The EEC countries were all growing much faster than Britain, which was afflicted by chronic trade deficits and stop-go policies. Britain was also still dogged by the problems of decolonisation in East and Central Africa, while its dependence on the US in defence matters was now undisguisable. There seemed no solid ground anywhere. When Macmillan sacked one third of his cabinet early in 1962, insiders claimed he had lost his nerve and was in a state of panic.

In Gaitskell’s eyes, Macmillan’s EEC application was his supposed lifebelt: the only way he could win a fourth victory for the Tories in 1964 would be on a manufactured wave of pro-EEC feeling. Gaitskell, for his part, was resolutely open-minded. He had no patience with European enthusiasts like Monnet who spoke in emotional terms, not in practicalities. But he also disliked the right-wing Little Englanders and the Marxist Left who dominated the anti-EEC camp. He also had no patience with the Liberals who “would have us join right away — like that, without conditions and apparently (without) negotiations. They do not care at all what is to happen to the interests of the Commonwealth . . . or to British agriculture.” The point he insistently made to all-comers was that if Britain were to enter the EEC on the wrong terms, it would only find itself backing out of it later, which would truly be the worst of both worlds. Above all, that had to be avoided.

Nonetheless, by spring 1962 Gaitskell assumed that Britain would enter the EEC, that he would be supporting it and he would have to beat back the anti-EEC Left within his party. But in August, to his amazement, Macmillan simply collapsed and accepted all the EEC’s terms, CAP and all. “I never expected the government to have the gall to propose to go in on such bad terms, which we were bound to oppose,” Gaitskell wrote. He explained in a letter to Kennedy how the decision had left him “bitterly disappointed and, indeed, astonished”. He noted, too, that even many of the European socialist parties favouring the EEC were frankly federalist and “there is no question of Britain entering into a federal Europe now”. The British commitment to national sovereignty was simply too strong. Perhaps future generations might feel differently, but as things stood, British opinion would not agree to surrender their sovereignty to some supranational bureaucracy in Brussels.

In Gaitskell’s view, Macmillan’s collapse betrayed complete desperation. He had agreed to get rid of all of Britain’s existing trading arrangements with the Commonwealth and received only vague assurances in return. Moreover, Britain seemed to be signing up to a frankly federal future: “It means the end of Britain as an independent nation: we become no more than ‘Texas’ or ‘California’ in a United States of Europe. It means the end of a thousand years of history; it means the end of the Commonwealth . . . to become just a province of Europe.”
Gaitskell’s stance was denounced by the Government and even more by most of the quality press as mere populism. The people did not understand the issues, it was argued, so it was only right and proper that they be settled by Government before any election. This elicited a furious response from Gaitskell: “We are now being told that the British people are not capable of judging this issue — the Government knows best, the top people are the only people who can understand it; it is too difficult for the rest . . . what an odious piece of hypocritical, supercilious, arrogant rubbish is this ?”

Gaitskell remained widely popular with the public and everything suggested he would win the 1964 election. At this juncture, however, Gaitskell died and de Gaulle vetoed British entry. The issues of national sovereignty and popular sovereignty have continued to be central to the EU debate.

De Gaulle’s vetoes kept the issue off the agenda until the 1970s, when Edward Heath took Britain into the EEC on much the same terms as had been agreed in 1962. He dodged the issue of popular sovereignty by insisting that his promise to subject the decision to “the full-hearted consent” of the electorate had been fulfilled by the previous election. The issue of national sovereignty was also dodged. It was agreed there might be some small loss of sovereignty but this would be amply compensated for by economic gains. This was not good enough for opponents of EEC entry, particularly Enoch Powell, for whom the national sovereignty issue was paramount. In effect, Powell asserted that he had a privileged insight into the English national character and therefore “knew” that the British (and, even more, the English) would never agree to submerge their identity within a supranational body. Heath and other proponents of EEC entry insisted that the European federalists need not be listened to. Britain was agreeing to a new set of trading relationships, little more.

It is not clear whether the Tory leadership sincerely believed this. There were, after all, many keen European federalists already making it abundantly clear that they wished to create a true supranational state. Heath and his supporters elected to ignore this. Perhaps they did so cynically, simply because they knew they could not persuade the British electorate to surrender national sovereignty. More likely, they persuaded themselves that once Britain had joined the EEC they would be able to halt or minimise the movement towards European federalism. Or perhaps they took the view that British opinion would come round to federalism in time. What was clear was that for many of the really committed pro-Europeans — such as Heath or Roy Jenkins — no matter how far Europe moved in a federalist direction, there would never be a point at which their enthusiasm lessened.

This ambiguity lay at the heart of all the problems to come: some thought they had bought a ticket for a strictly limited ride, whereas others thought they were boarding a bus from which they would never dismount. Certainly, there was a typically British overestimation of their own ability to control the ride. This was never really likely. When Britain joined the EEC it was only one of nine members, and in any case a Franco-German partnership was already well established in the driving seat. In practice, it was impossible to displace it, split it or join it.

British public opinion (as measured by the polls) about “the Common Market” was fairly volatile, but it was hostile for much, perhaps even most, of the time. Inevitably this led the anti-EEC faction to demand a referendum, an idea which the pro-EEC faction strongly resisted. Indeed, when the Labour Party decided to back the referendum idea in April 1972, Roy Jenkins resigned in protest as the party’s deputy leader. Several other pro-EEC frontbenchers resigned in sympathy. This passionate opposition to a referendum by Labour’s pro-Europeans was rooted in the fact that the opinion polls showed a steady majority believing that Britain had been wrong to join the EEC.

The referendum was finally set for June 1975. By January 1974 there was a 2:1 majority wishing to leave the EEC and even by February 1975 there was a 41-33 plurality wishing to leave. However, with all three major party leaders campaigning for a Yes, together with business and almost all the press, and with the Yes campaign outspending the No campaign by nearly ten to one, public opinion was massaged into delivering a 68-32 Yes vote. The irony of this triumph for the pro-Europeans who had so bitterly resisted the idea of a referendum was matched by the speed with which the anti-EEC group, having secured the referendum they demanded, continued to advocate leaving the EEC, in defiance of the referendum result.

Once the referendum campaign was left behind, public opinion returned to its usual anti-EEC stance. By March 1979 MORI found 60 per cent saying it had been a mistake to join, against only 32 per cent who took the opposite view. A year later this had hardened further to a 65-26 per cent majority.

Meanwhile the EEC was changing, admitting Spain, Greece and Portugal, and steadily moving in a more federal direction — creating a European Parliament, transferring many new powers to the European Commission, transforming the EEC into the European Union, and then establishing the euro. All these changes were welcomed by Britain’s pro-Europeans, whose allegiance to their cause was by now unconditional. Thus the Liberal Party and Tony Blair enthusiastically campaigned for Britain to join the euro. Public opinion was adamantly against — in the entire period 1991-2007 MORI never once found more people in favour of the euro than the number against.

By this stage, indeed, British opinion had so clearly begun to change that their politicians began to limit Britain’s commitment to the EU: Britain would not join the euro, or be part of the Schengen zone, and nor would it accept the goal of “ever closer union”. The emergence of UKIP as a major force was accompanied by a growing anti-EU faction within the Conservative Party which effectively looked back to Enoch Powell and accepted his arguments for national sovereignty.

This gradually built up to the referendum of 2016. This time, the demand for a referendum came primarily from the Right whereas in 1975 it had come from the Left. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, was bitterly criticised by the defeated Remain camp for ever having held a referendum at all — though the very same people then demanded a yet further referendum, “a People’s Vote”.

As one looks back, it is difficult not to feel that Britain’s initial decision to apply for EEC membership was taken in a mood of panic. Britain had lost most of its empire, and Suez had shown that the alliance with the US was no longer solid. With American support withdrawn, a disastrous run on the pound had developed and Britain had had to make a humiliating climbdown. Khruschev had rattled his rockets at Britain over Suez and, without American support, the country was completely vulnerable. It had been a horrible revelation of just how weak and unsupported the UK now was. Its economy had still not fully recovered from the terrible damage inflicted by the war and its neighbours within the EEC were all growing much faster and, one by one, they were overtaking Britain. The country seemed stuck amidst its usual social stand-offs and trapped in perpetual stop-go oscillation.

Above all, there is no disguising the fact that Britain’s ruling class made a disastrous mess of its relations with Europe. Its initial refusal to be involved in negotiations for an EEC meant it missed the opportunity to shape the Treaty of Rome more to its liking. Only a few years later, it made a 180-degree turn in a fit of panic. It then entered the EEC on unfavourable terms and deliberately deceived itself about the seriousness of the commitment to “ever closer union”. It thus committed the blunder which Gaitskell had expressly warned against, going in on the wrong terms and thus ultimately having to withdraw again, getting the worst of both worlds. It is difficult to think of other matters of comparable importance which Britain has handled with such incompetence.

Moreover, Britain finally entered the EEC in 1973 just as the party was ending. Within months, a major world recession struck, bringing a halt to “les trente glorieuses” — the golden period of European growth between 1945 and 1973. The European countries were never to recapture their growth rates of that period. Britain’s own economic performance continued to be sub-standard. It limped along with low growth, stagflation and an IMF bail-out. In the end the bracing shock which it had been hoped EEC entry would deliver was administered by Margaret Thatcher, not by the EEC.

For hundreds of years Britain’s foreign policy was motivated by a determination not to allow Europe to be dominated by a single great power — whether Louis XIV, Napoleon, the Kaiser or Hitler. In that sense, the Europe which has emerged since 1989 with a dominant and reunited Germany, is a historic defeat for Britain. Indeed, that was apparent right away in 1989, when Mrs Thatcher was forced to drop her initial opposition to German reunification. By voting to leave the EU, Britain has in effect accepted it is unable to reverse that situation — and therefore seeks a new solution.

During the protracted euro crisis of the last decade, it became apparent that in reality Europe was divided between a weaker southern zone, including Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Greece, who desperately need to devalue against the strong euro, and a northern tier of states which prosper with a strong euro — most particularly Germany but also the surrounding economies which are, to a lesser or larger degree, Germany’s economic satellites — Benelux, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden. In effect, President Emmanuel Macron leads the desperate but unavailing attempts of the southern bloc to get the northern tier to indulge in revenue-sharing schemes to bail out their struggling southern neighbours.

In practice, and for the foreseeable future, the EU will be dominated by that northern tier. Indeed, the logic is for a break-up into a strong euro (northern) currency bloc and a weaker (devalued) euro bloc in the south. That may or may not happen, but there is no doubt that Germany sits at the heart of the dominant northern tier. Which is to say that if Britain were to remain part of an increasingly federal Europe, it would find itself taking its directions more and more from Berlin. Given the history of the 20th century, it was always predictable that British public opinion would find that unpalatable.

There is, however, also a strong view that in today’s globalised world the question of which power is dominant in Europe is only of local importance. Indeed, this had been evident back in 1962 in the open and bitter argument between Gaitskell and the Belgian leader Paul-Henri Spaak. As Gaitskell’s biographer Philip Williams points out, “Spaak rightly sensed a deep psychological gulf between the Continentals, for whom their historic reconciliation was the world’s most important political development, and Gaitskell, for whom it was ‘parochial’. (Gaitskell) had no emotional sense of belonging to Europe and told one old friend that on the contrary, ‘I . . . probably feel that I have more in common with North Americans than with Europeans’.”

Many Brexiteers think of a future Britain as wholly untied to any regional bloc, an independent entrepôt state. Geography alone suggests that this is unlikely. Norway and Switzerland may not be EU members but they are, indissolubly, part of a European regional bloc, the European Economic Area, and so will Britain be. To that extent it will be unable to escape from the influence of the dominant northern tier, with Berlin at its centre. But Gaitskell was right when he spoke of European parochialism. Once the country that dominated Europe was, inevitably, the world’s greatest power. Now such a state will come behind the US, China, Japan and, perhaps, Russia and India too.

Gaitskell’s comment that he found he had more in common with North Americans than with Europeans, though it might be shared by most Britons, provides no basis either for a nation’s trading relations or its security partners. Geography ensures that Europe is likely to provide at least the former and quite possibly the latter as well. When de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s entry to the EEC, he incurred the undying enmity of Edward Heath and many other Britons as well. This rather precluded any fair-minded consideration of the reasons for de Gaulle’s decision, but there is much to be said for them.

De Gaulle believed that Britain was irresistibly drawn towards the huge Anglophone world across the Atlantic and would therefore never be willing to make a wholehearted commitment to Europe. For de Gaulle, the most important political fact in the modern world was that “America speaks English”. As one watches the easy way that British and American popular culture washes into each other’s country, one realises there is much truth in this. But it is also the case that Britain is America’s biggest foreign investor and America is Britain’s biggest foreign investor — a degree of economic interpenetration unmatched elsewhere in Europe. Perhaps most important of all, when the going has been really hard, when the chips were right down — in 1917 and 1940 — Britain looked to America for help.

It is a deeply-held belief in Britain that when the going gets tough it is impossible to feel confident that its European allies will stand by it. Even in minor engagements far away such as the Falklands War, the Americans provided essential help while the French sold weapons and spares to the Argentines. The Germans are now so pacifist that no one would wish to rely on their military assistance. A European army remains a chimera and nobody at all believes in a European nuclear deterrent.

The contrast with America is sharp. In both wars, some Americans volunteered to fight for Britain even before the US joined the war. Roosevelt strained American neutrality as far as he could in an effort to help Britain in 1940, ultimately saving the day with Lend Lease — “the most unsordid act in the history of any nation”, as Churchill called it. After the war Marshall Aid confirmed this impression of America’s willingness to help.

“America speaks English”: US Secretary of State Alexander Haig in Downing Street for talks on the Falklands crisis, April 1982 ( © PA/PA Archive/PA Images)

However, British dreams of relying on “the special relationship” are just that — dreams. As a world power, the US will inevitably give priority to its relations with the strongest European state, which is Germany. Britain may be more important in military terms, but the US can access that through Nato. Most striking is the UK-USA intelligence-sharing agreement, now encompassing Canada, Australia and New Zealand in a network known as Five Eyes. But this brings in perhaps the more important factor of the Anglosphere — the fact that all these English-speaking countries have close political ties and exist as a cultural bloc. The Anglosphere is the world in which Britain most truly belongs. It is, moreover, of increasing importance — the fast growth rates of Canada and Australia have made them the world’s tenth- and 13th-largest economies. Some 30 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion people speak English (and all business and governance there is conducted in English), which means that India has quietly overtaken the US as the largest English-speaking country. It is also the world’s sixth-largest economy.

Indeed, the Anglosphere is expanding all the time. Ironically, the presence of Britain and Ireland in the EU made English one of its three official languages and it is clear that it will remain so after Britain has left. Around 700 million Africans speak English, a number which is set to double over the course of the next generation. A maximal strategy for Britain would be to invest as heavily as possible in the sectors which feed that Anglosphere — the knowledge industries, education, publishing, film and TV, radio, entertainment, internet content and  high-level research in the sciences and social sciences. Everything, in other words, which amplifies Britain’s voice and position within the Anglosphere, which is enormously larger than any other sphere in which Britain is involved.

But the Anglosphere is not even an association, let alone an alliance or trading bloc — and nor is it ever likely to be. It is, though, the strongest single example of soft power in the world. That power does not belong to any one nation, though Britain inevitably plays a key role within it. There is no tidy answer as to where Britain belongs — it is partly Atlantic, partly European, partly Commonwealth. If the Anglosphere is where it feels it most belongs, it is because that unites the Atlantic and Commonwealth associations and then adds a large slice of the global English as a Second Language world. There is no point in trying to answer Dean Acheson’s famous quip by determining on a tidy definition of Britain’s role in the world. That role, like the Anglosphere, is diffuse and likely to remain so.

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