Britain and Europe: a case study
Britain joined the EEC fifteen years after it began its operations, twenty years after the
Six had pioneered the path to unity. Whereas other late entrants seem to have made the
adjustments in attitude required to make a success of membership, this has not been
the case for many British people and some of their elected representatives. They have
found it hard to adapt, hence their reputation on the continent as ‘reluctant Europeans’.
Perhaps this reflects a national difficulty in coming to terms with Britain’s reduced
circumstances in the world. Since 1945, Britain’s relatively declining industrial and
military strength has meant that it has not been able to sustain the position it once held.
Managing national decline is not a glorious role for politicians, for it arouses little popular
In this chapter, we trace political attitudes to developments on the continent and note
some of the facts that have made Britain seem like an ‘awkward partner’.
In 1945, Britain was regarded as a major power, having just emerged victorious from the Second World War. Not surprisingly, the country which ‘won the war’ felt that with such a worldwide importance it could win the peace. In the following years, it did not need to tie itself in to any commitments with the countries which it had defeated or which had been overrun in the hostilities. Britons felt that they could afford to remain aloof from Europe. For a long while, their governments were not ready to recognise or admit the country’s increasing weakness.
Hugo Young1 has written perceptively about popular attitudes at the time:
The island people were not only different but, mercifully separate, housed behind
their moat … They were also inestimably superior, as was shown by history both
ancient and modern: by the resonance of the Empire on which the sun never set,
but equally by the immediate circumstances out of which the new Europe was
born, the war itself. Her sense of national independence, enhanced by her unique
empire, absorbed by all creeds and classes and spoken for by virtually very analyst,
could not be fractured.
For years, Britain still attempted to preserve its global role. Churchill2 expressed his view of the competing claims on British foreign policy when he spoke of relations with other Western European countries: ‘we are with them, but not of them. We have our own Commonwealth and Empire’. In similar vein, Sir Anthony Eden spoke for many of his countrymen when he gave his reasons for not signing up for membership of the EDC. Speaking with the authority of a foreign secretary, he observed: ‘Britain’s story and her interests lie far beyond the continent of Europe. Our thoughts move across the seas to the many communities in which our people play their part, in every corner of the world … that is our life’.3