The Perse School

Britain and Europe, past and future

A Brexit Revolution

How History can shape our future

Professor Harold James (OP 1974) delivered the first of the School’s Community Lecture series to a packed audience at the Upper on 16 November 2016.

Professor Harold James’s lecture on Britain and Europe: past and future was, in the words of Head Ed Elliott, a tour de force, encompassing centuries of European and world history, the seismic political events of recent weeks and months, and Shakespeare, including Cymbeline, which Professor James had directed as a member of the Lower Sixth at The Perse in the 1970s. This lesser-known Shakespeare play has been staged in London three times this year, perhaps unsurprisingly given its focus on British resistance to a European regime when King Cymbeline refuses to pay tribute to the Roman Empire, although this revolution ultimately ends with Britain submitting once again to the foreign power. Professor James’s lecture laid out the theme that the EU referendum on 23 June was a revolution, and explored the origins of Britain’s turbulent relationship with Europe, as well as the possible consequences as the UK redefines its position in the world.

This revolution can be described as a “diverse and fragile coalition against the old order”, the ‘old order’ being the political elite’s “semi-attached commitment to the European integration project”. At this point, Professor James made another link with Shakespeare, Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film version of Hamlet, in which Olivier describes the play as “the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind”. Professor James argued that Brexit may be the tragedy of a country that could not make up its mind. On the one hand, those who voted to leave the EU had hugely varied motivations for their decision, ranging from a left-wing mistrust of international trade negotiations that could result in restrictions on renationalisation, to economically liberal opposition to EU intervention, to concerns about national sovereignty and the desire to restrict migration, which Professor James suggested was the dominant issue for the electorate. On the other hand, political leaders have been struggling to make up their minds about how to react to the mixed motivations of Brexit voters. Professor James drew our attention to Boris Johnson’s famous opinion article for The Telegraph, in which he waited until the last moment before deciding whether to submit a pro- or anti-Brexit piece, as well as to Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn’s current struggles to define their positions and decide what Brexit should mean in reality.

James then took a step further back in history to interrogate why Britain’s relationship with Europe was “semi-attached” even before voters went to the polls on 23 June. The first argument he put forward was the “political science explanation” that the institution that would eventually become the EU was created in the 1950s to do something very specific for countries with a particular problem, that was to help countries with large numbers of farmers deal with the pressures of globalisation in the early 20th century and the legacy of the Great Depression. This was not such a problem for the UK, which did not rely so heavily on farming, and therefore we did not join the European Economic Community until later and were never so committed to the project. The second argument emphasises the political psychology of why such a political project was needed. This view suggests that the EEC was set up as a mechanism to prevent failures of the political class like those seen in Germany and Italy in the 1930s and in the defeat of France in 1940, in which fascism was able to rise and democracy destroyed itself. Charles De Gaulle in particular believed that France could not heal itself on its own, but needed the country that had injured it, Germany, as part of the healing process. This failure of the political elite did not occur in the UK in the 1930s, so it was able to look outside this world when forging its political future.

James described the third argument as looking into the “deep past” and even as “slightly mystical”. This view is encapsulated by the various prepositions Britain uses to describe its relationship with Europe – is it ‘in’ Europe, ‘of’ Europe, ‘with’ Europe? This tension has long roots. Boris Johnson borrowed from Churchill in his famous Telegraph article when he set forth his vision for Europe: Britain should be “interested, associated, but not absorbed; with Europe – but not comprised”. Professor James then identified Churchill’s use of the word ‘with’ here as having its origins in two texts that form the cornerstone of modern English usage: Shakespeare and the King James Bible, demonstrating Churchill’s “deep understanding of our national culture” as our “greatest 20th century politician”. At this point, Professor James revisited Cymbeline, quoting Imogen’s words in Act 3, Scene 4 that “I’ the world’s volume / Our Britain seems as of it, but not in ‘t; / In a great pool a swan’s nest”, revealing how Britain’s geographical position creates ambiguity in how we define ourselves in relation to the outside world. Professor James also sees the importance of the prepositions ‘in’ and ‘of’ as relating back to the King James translation of St John’s Gospel, in which Christ says that his disciples are “in the world” but “not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (St John, Chapter 17). The ‘semi-attachment’ suggested by our tentative use of these prepositions has at times been a source of strength; we had no eternal allies, and therefore no perpetual enemies. This continued into recent times, when we have played a “balance of power game” with France and Germany in Europe, as a natural ally of Germany’s economic liberalism but, like France, wanting to counterbalance Berlin’s increased power, a dynamic that is likely to continue as we struggle to achieve the ‘best deal’ post-Brexit.

However, Professor James argued that our future position may not be so advantageous, as political systems and parties in the UK and across the world struggle to adapt to the challenges of globalisation. It is possible that the EU might be stronger without the “irritation” of British uncertainty. It will be free to pursue greater fiscal unity and there may be an increased political will for European co-operation, further galvanised by a protectionist Trump regime in Washington and the threat of Putin’s Russia. In any case, Britain will need to find its place in this shifting political landscape. James suggested that much of the argument before the vote on 23 June was based on the need to establish our position in the world and the belief that the EU was not best placed to negotiate this. The reality after the referendum is a search for rules in post-Brexit world, leading to increased uncertainty. Professor James proposed that “the problem of how to address globalisation is destroying all political parties”, with the Labour Party already deeply divided and, in his view, the Conservative Party on the brink of tearing itself apart over the Brexit negotiations.

Questions from the audience largely expanded upon the idea of Britain’s search for a place in a globalised world. When asked about the impact of restrictions on immigration, Professor James suggested that people’s fears about globalisation are largely fuelled by mass migration resulting from political turmoil and poverty driving people out of places like Libya, Syria and parts of Africa. Rather than isolationism, the only way to create the global stability needed to stem this crisis is through a “big reconstruction project”, which requires widespread international co-operation, which for all their faults often happens through institutions like the EU. In answer to a question about whether Britain should focus on “soft power”, such as academic research, the arts and culture, rather than military power, Professor James argued that Theresa May’s stance since becoming Prime Minister had made it more difficult for Britain to have this kind of global “soft” influence. May’s comments at the Conservative Party conference that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” had been hugely damaging and had already reduced the number of EU students applying Cambridge. The direction that this “revolution to redefine Britishness” was taking would make it harder for Britain to exert “soft power” in a globalised world.

At the end of his lecture Professor James admitted that it is difficult to predict the outcome of the Brexit revolution. Once again, he looked to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, leaving us with a powerful image of just how much is at stake in these politically turbulent times. Recalling the numerous deaths in the final scene of the play, James predicted that we will see “a stage strewn with political corpses” as world leaders “struggle to find an adequate political vehicle to cope with the struggles of global life in the early 21st century”.

This lecture forms part of our Community lecture series. Information about upcoming lectures can be found here.

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