Home »  Magazine »  International  »  Brexit Was An Accident Waiting To Happen...

Brexit Was An Accident Waiting To Happen...

Britain walking out of EU last year is only the climax of a jinxed sequence that began for the country in 1967

Brexit Was An Accident Waiting To Happen...
Pro-EU Demo
Protest in June 2016 against Britain leaving the European Union
Photograph by AP
Brexit Was An Accident Waiting To Happen...

Fine Print

  • Hundred years ago, the Pulitzer Prize was established by provisions in the will of Joseph Pulitzer, who had made his fortune as a newspaper publisher. Administered by Columbia University, it is an award for achievements in journalism, literature and musical composition in the US.


Fifty years ago, Britain seemed finally to have settled on a European future. In May 1967, the House of Commons endorsed, by an overwhelming majority, the Harold Wilson government’s decision to apply once more for a membership in the European Economic Community (EEC). The hesitation and partisan division that had characterised Harold Macmillan’s conditional application five years earlier when he was the PM had seemingly vanished. But the moment was illusory. Half a century on, both the divisiveness and the uncertai­nty are once more all too evident, as Britain’s political class seeks to respond to the unexpected outcome of the 2016 referendum. Can a rapid overview of the intervening 50 years help make sense of both the continuities and change in the UK’s position?

Britain’s decision to leave the EU can be linked to the country’s troubled experience of European Community/Union membership. The marriage, after all, had always been a stormy one, with rows aplenty. The British came late to the integration process. Once the British government changed its mind in the early 1960s and sought to join, the country’s path to membership was twice blocked by the French President, Charles de Gaulle—a humiliating and traumatic experience. Britain’s belated entry in 1973 was a full decade later than it might have been, and wretchedly timed, since it coincided with the moment when the long post-war economic boom ended. For the UK, therefore, there was no long honeymoon, as enjoyed by the Germans, French or Dutch. Instead, the 1970s were a decade of economic crisis. Public perceptions on either side of the Channel diverged accordingly.

This helps explain why the UK never seemed fully reconciled with its European choice. In the 1970s, it sought to renegotiate its terms of membership and held an unprecedented referendum on the question.  The fact that the 1975 poll was decisively in favour of staying within the EEC should not conceal the fact that no other EC/EU membership has held an in/out referendum, whereas the British have now done so twice.  During the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s enthusiasm for the establishment of the Single Market was sandwiched between her strident campaign to reduce Britain’s budgetary contribution and her equally forceful opposition to the idea of a European single currency.

Key Persons

UK’s PM Harold Wilson and French General Charles de Gaulle in Paris, 1962

Photograph by Getty Images

In the 1990s, ‘Europe’ became the most divisive topic in British politics, almost wrecking the premiership of John Major. Only Tony Blair really succeeded in anaesthetising the issue—and even then his major decision was a negative one, with the UK opting to reject the Euro in 1999. And David Cameron’s government was polarised on the issue of how closely Britain should be involved, the fateful decision to hold the referendum being taken as a means of solving the civil war under way within the governing party.  Britain has, in other words, never found it easy to be a good European.

Alongside a string of tensions, Britain not only became more European since 1973, it did also play the Brussels game well and effectively.

It would be a little too easy though to conclude from this list of problems that Britain’s European membership was doomed from the outset. For, alongside the indisputable tensions, there are also a series of important ways in which Britain has not only become more European since 1973 but has also played the Brussels game effectively and well. The UK’s political involvement in the EC has not just been a succession of disasters; on the contrary, many British ministers have proved highly effective operators within EC/EU negotiations, while multiple British civil servants have become important players on the EC/EU stage. British policy priorities have thus decisively marked the Commu­nity/Union’s evolution.  The Single Market is perhaps the most obvious case of this, but UK preferences have also prevailed over enlargement towards Eastern Europe, the prevention of too centrally controlled a foreign policy, and even the spread of a management culture within European institutions. None of these decisions is solely attributable to the British; but the UK voice has been an important one in setting the direction of travel. The way in which many French grumble about how Anglo-­­Saxon Brussels has become is an eloquent reminder of this success.

Nor have the British paid a vast economic price for being European. Despite the rocky start to its membership, the UK has been amongst fastest growing Western European economies of the last three decades. Clearly, much of this was unconnected to EU membership. But largely unimpeded access to the huge market at its doorstep has generally been positive for British industry, finance and services—as these sectors’ anxieties about the consequence of a ‘hard Brexit’ now underlines.


David Cameron and his predecessor Margaret Thatcher at 10, Downing Street, London, 2010

Photograph by Getty Images

It is even the case, furthermore, that many in Britain have become culturally more European. Analysing this is complicated, not least because Europeanisation cannot be disentangled from the simultaneous processes of Americanisation and globalisation. But what the British eat and drink, where we take our holidays, how we greet one another, how our teams play football, and even what we watch on TV have been significantly influenced by close ties to the rest of  Europe. Indeed one of the reasons why the referendum result has been so divisive is precisely that many of the 48 per cent who voted ‘Remain’ view Brexit as a serious challenge to a way of life, travel and cultural interchange to which they had become deeply attached.

How then can the 2016 outcome be explained? If Britain’s experience of EC/EU membership has been far more nuan­ced than the initial list of rows and disagreements would suggest, why did the vote end the way that it did? I would pinpoint three main strands of argument.

The first centres on the transformation of the Conservative Party from ‘the party of Europe’ whose leaders, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, had led Britain’s turn towards Europe, into a political force that is now deeply Eurosceptic. This change has its roots in the 1980s, if not earlier. But the real pivot occurred in the 1990s and the early years of this century. One vital factor was the role of the European issue in Thatcher’s fall. For much of the party’s grassroots, the way in which their leader had been sacrificed for being too intransigent towards the EC was an unforgivable crime. The initial pro-European ethos of Major’s government was thus out of sync with what was happening within the broader party.

Swan Song

UK’s David Davis and EU’s Michel Barnier at a press meet at the end of Brexit talks in Brussels

Photograph by Getty Images

Second, the always tenuous links between the Conservatives and most continental European right-wing parties faded during the later 1990s and early 2000s, replaced by an ever greater fascination with the US Republican Party. This too pulled the Conservatives away from mainstream European expectations and goals. Third, many Tories came to see ‘Europe’ as a brake on what they wanted to do domestically, impeding the radical economic liberalism that some favoured, and standing in the way of the tougher line they wanted to adopt on issues of crime and punishment, immigration etc. Rather than something that boosted British prosperity, power and influence—which is how Macmillan and Heath had perceived the EC—the EU was increasingly seen as an obstacle to the policies many Conservatives wanted to imp­lement. Getting out thus became a dream of liberation. A fourth point: many Tory MPs felt anxious about the electoral threat posed by the UK Independence Party.

The vehemence of such beliefs amongst many party activists and an important strand of the Conservative Party made life ever more difficult for figures like Cameron who himself harked back to an earlier Tory tradition of pragmatism towards Europe. Cameron was no Europhile. But he did largely accept that Britain needed to remain inv­olved, politically and economically. His disastrous decision to hold the referendum was thus not an attempt to give the Eurosceptics what they wanted, but instead to shut them up temporarily, thereby giving himself room to pursue a more moderate approach. He also may well have hoped that the continuation of the coalition government with the pro-Eur­opean Liberal Democrats would save him from ever having to implement the poll he had promised. Such hopes were dashed however by his surprise victory in the 2015 general election and the end of the cooperation with the Lib Dems.

The second vital trend is the collapse of the pro-Eur­opean voice within Britain. Part of this reflects the failure of pro-Europeans ever to find a central new narrative once the original justification—Europe as cure to Britain’s post-war decline—was made less relevant by the resumption of strong growth from the 1980s onwards. More recent and just as important is the growing disillusionment of the British Left with the EU, largely as a result of the Eurozone crisis. For while the Tories’ swing against Europe was initially counterbalanced by Labour’s swing in the opposite direction, the period since 2008 has seen a large portion of the Left fall out of love with an EU that seemed, from the perspective of a Guardian reader at least, to be all about Germany and others imposing brutal austerity programmes on the Greeks. The Lib Dems too, traditiona­lly the most ardently pro-European voice in British politics, were crippled after their 2015 election disaster. All of this meant that, when the referendum was fought, there was an almost complete void where the pro-European voice should have been. Instead, it was Cameron and George Osborne who, despite their own lukewarm enthusiasm, had to become the main cheerleaders of the ‘Remain’ campaign. That they failed to convince should not come as a surprise.

The third and final trend is the way in which the first decades of this century saw the merging to two potent strands of opinion that had hitherto been kept apart, namely Euroscepticism and hostility towards immigration. Both have long pedigrees within UK politics. But prior to 2004,  immigration was seldom linked to Europe, since the main migratory flows into the UK were from South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, not Europe. The sudden influx of Eastern Europeans during the last decade transformed this picture, allowing the UKIP and many Conservatives to push immigration front and centre of the debate about Europe. Immigration furthermore made tangible what had previously been a rather abstract fear about ‘loss of sovereignty’, an issue so complex that only a minority could feel worried about it. The fact that Britain within the EU could not reject Polish or Romanian migrants, combined with the paltry res­ults of Cameron’s attempt to ‘renegotiate’ EU rules on the issue, perfectly encapsulated the loss of sovereignty. The appeal of ‘taking back control’ grew sharply as a result.

Britain’s experience of EC/EU membership has not been an easy one. But despite the repeated rows and a certain underlying mistrust, it was not necessarily a marriage that was always doomed to fail. Instead,  Britain’s EC/EU membership was actually much more successful politically, economically and even culturally than many realised. To explain the 2016 outcome, one thus needed the coincidence of the three much shorter-term trends described above.   How the country responds remains entirely unclear; the Brexit vote, after all, was a vote against EU membership but not one in favour of anything else. That certainty of national course which emerged after the May 1967 parliament­ary debates has seldom looked further away than it does in 2017.

N. Piers Ludlow is professor of International History at the London School of Economics

Subscribe to Outlook’s Newsletter

Next Story : When Voter Participation Surged And Party Competition Sharpened
Download the Outlook ​Magazines App. Six magazines, wherever you go! Play Store and App Store
Online Casino Betway Banner