This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe

Robert Tombs, Allen Lane, 224 pages, £11.22

KEN BELL praises an exceptionally historically-informed Brexit explainer

The small numbers who read the Guardian will no doubt disagree, but the argument over Brexit is now as much a part of history as the Free Trade debate that dominated life in the 19th century. As such, Robert Tombs in This Sovereign Isle has written the first of the many volumes that will dominate the reading lists for student historians. Luckily for the public at large, the book is also eminently accessible to the general reader as well, so I predict that this volume will go through many editions in the years to come.

Although Tombs never falls into the trap of arguing that Brexit was inevitable, he does make the point that for the British, membership of the EU was always a transactional issue and not an emotional one. Thus, when the downside of membership began to tell, there was no emotional appeal that could be made by the other side to try and even the balance. The Remainers lacked an Abraham Lincoln who could deliver a Gettysburg Address, because their side of the debate was just as transactional as that of the Brexiteers. Thus they were forced to rely on an increasingly hysterical version of the ‘Project Fear’ that had helped win the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The problem in 2016 was that people just didn’t believe the howls, which allowed Boris Johnson to ask mockingly which catastrophe would come first, the world war or the economic collapse.

For the British, membership of the EU was always a transactional issue and not an emotional one

To be fair, as Tombs argues, Brexit was certainly helped over the line by the fact that the UK had managed to stay out of the Euro. Had we joined that common currency, the UK would have been in a similar position to the Scotland of 2014 and it is quite likely that Remain would have won. As it was, the result was close enough to argue that ‘Project Fear’ had a considerable effect on the final tallies.

On the other side of the English Channel, the Euro certainly helps keep difficult countries in line, as the EU demonstrated against the Greeks when it looked as if they were about to strike out for freedom. The mafia type threat: Nice economy you have here – be a shame if something happened to it, may very well be the one issue that keeps such countries voting the right way. Or to carry on voting until they get to the right way according to Brussels. That threat could not be used against the UK, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Gordon Brown for keeping us out of the Euro’s clutches.

Staying in Europe for a moment, Tombs makes the point that most of those countries were desperate to draw a line under their immediate pasts. The original six had the memories of defeat in the Second World War and political systems that had become illegitimate in the eyes of the populations. Later on, the post-Cold War entrants wanted to forget all about their Soviet experiences and similarly had discredited systems that needed to be put out of their misery. The EU for all those countries was in large part a stab at legitimacy and an exercise in forgetting the recent past.

The UK by way of contrast emerged from the two World Wars on the victorious side, with a legitimate political system intact. Thus roughly half the Brexiteers who were asked to give a single reason for their vote, answered that they wanted Britain to govern itself. They were able to say that because they had confidence in the British parliamentary system. It really was as simple as that.

The Remainers never seemed to understand that desire and so they discounted it as a factor. To them the Brexiteers were a caricature that they had created in their own minds and then decided that it represented the reality of their opponents. We were uneducated, old and we hankered after the British Empire, when actually, as Tombs shows, we just wanted to govern ourselves. Nevertheless, that mistake, which came about because Remainers tended to be concentrated in particular parts of the country where they did not come into day to day contact with Brexiteers, led them to overestimate their own numbers, and underestimate the need to get their vote out. As Sasha, Lady Swire, noted in her Diary of an MP’s Wife ( when her daughter called her as the results came in and complained that “white van man” had stolen her future, the result might have been different had the darling girl got her friends out of bed and chivvied them along to the polling stations.

One area that the author really should have been expanded upon was the 2017-2019 period that I think history will call the Rogue Parliament. If there is any truth to the argument of British exceptionalism, then this period provides a plethora of evidence for it. Many countries would have unpacked the rifles long before the period ended, but the British bided their time, seethed with rage at the antics that went on and waited for an election when they could exact their revenge against the guilty men who were responsible for it all.

The constitutional position, as Tombs makes clear, is that when a government has lost the support of the Commons, it should be voted down by a motion of no-confidence. Once carried, the rascals are thrown out and a new set of rascals elected in their place.

That did not happen during that roguish time, as an alliance of neo-Jacobin MPs, a compliant Speaker who clearly sympathised with them, coupled with a judiciary that seemed willing to flout established precedent all came together to try and force the government to act as they wished. The Fixed Term Parliament Act prevented the government from calling an election, and it looked for many long months as if the situation would continue to resemble the 17th century crisis that led to civil war, only this time as Tombs says, with “tragedy repeated as farce.”

Yet it ended, sooner than many of us expected, when the opposition folded and an election was called. Boris Johnson was given an 80 seat majority on the promise to get Brexit done and the Neo-Jacobins were packed off to a lifetime of obscurity. Readers of the Guardian will continue to whine and the rest of us will just get on with our lives, having rid ourselves on an undemocratic layer of government based in Brussels, which is all we ever wanted to do.

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