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The History Of How Europe Changed Britain, And Vice Versa

The Union Jack flag flies besides the flag of the European Union in front of City Hall on June 14, 2016 in Cardiff, Wales. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
The Union Jack flag flies besides the flag of the European Union in front of City Hall on June 14, 2016 in Cardiff, Wales. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

A week after Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union, politicians and pundits have been quick to speculate on what it means for the country’s future.

But Brexit may also reveal something of Britain’s past. The history of the United Kingdom is long and complicated, and its actions and political philosophies have played a key role in the development of its neighbors.

Robert Saunders, a historian at Queen Mary University of London, speaks with Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson about how Britain’s vote fits into its past.

Hear more of Here & Now‘s Brexit coverage

Interview Highlights: Robert Saunders

On the historical magnitude of Brexit

“I think it’s an absolutely huge deal. Historians love a precedent, and we’ve spent the last week desperately scrambling around trying to think of something on this scale before. And the best people can really do is the collapse of the British empire, in terms of its impact on Britain’s place in the world. The difference is that that happened about over 30 years and reasonably well planned. This happened in 24 hours. In terms of what it means for Britain’s place in the world, and Britain’s strategy, this has overturned the entire course of Britain’s economic policy, its foreign policy and its trade policy in one go.”

On what brought the U.K. into the E.U. in the first place

“Britain came in rather reluctantly. So Britain didn’t join at the start. The EU was founded in the 1950s, and Britain stayed outside. And that’s partly because Britain had a such a different experience of the Second World War. Britain was not occupied. Britain was not defeated, it didn’t have to engage with the questions of resistance or collaboration. And Britain was still a great power at the end of the war. So Britain originally stood apart.

What then changed was that British economic decline, by the 1970s, had reached catastrophic proportions. To the extent where governments of all parties felt that it was necessary for the British economy to be in. So this was never a great idealistic mission for Britain, it was always about the costs and benefits.”

On how joining the E.U. impacted Britain

“I think we’re only really discovering, in the wake of the vote, actually how intertwined Britain has become with the E.U. It’s Britain’s biggest trading partner. It’s its most important trade relationship. So that has to be rebuilt. But it’s also become part of the lore of Britain. Over the last 40 years the British legal system and the European legal system have become intertwined. So we’ve got to not pick that apart. Things like regional policy, development money, support of the arts and culture in higher education. Much of that has come from the E.U. So all of that has to be rebuilt now from the bottom up.”

On Euro-scepticism in Britain

“I think it’s true to say that the British think of themselves as being semi-detached from Europe. We talk about going to Europe on holiday, or joining Europe as if that’s a choice. There’s always been the sense that Britain had a destiny that lay across the waves, it was part of the Anglo-Saxon world, it had its special relationship with the United States, it had its commonwealth and empire. So because of that, in a way joining the European community felt quite provincial. It was a shrinking of Britain’s ambitions in the world.”

On the link between the fall of the British Empire and Brexit

“If you think back to Britain in the early 20th century, Britain was a global superpower it had the biggest empire in the world. It was a manufacturing titan. And after 1945, as the empire disappeared, as Britain lost its place as a global superpower, the question was what did Britain do next? What was the point of Britain? And the answer to that question, for every government since 1961, was that Britain’s joined the European Union and lead in Europe. And so that option has now closed.”

On how he thinks history will remember David Cameron

“Well, a year ago he was the most successful Conservative leader for a quarter of a century. He had been the first since Margaret Thatcher to win a majority. He was the first since 1900s to increase his share of the vote while in office. Whereas I think this is going to mark his reputation forever now. This is the biggest policy failure via British government probably since the 1930s.”


Robert Saunders, lecturer in modern British history at Queen Mary University of London. He tweets @redhistorian.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.