Matthew Omolesky: An Island Adrift ... Britain and the Future of Euroskepticism

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. 

Drawn in pale brown pink on two skins of soft vellum, the Gough Map, kept in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, presents a haunting image of a Britain half-formed in the consciousness of a mid-14th-century cartographer. While a russet-robed William Langland sat nestled in the Malvern Hills, gazing eastwards and dreaming of a tower, a dungeon, and the “fair feld ful of folk” between, the Gough Map’s anonymous scribe set about delineating the bustlingsettlements, blessed plots, ancient highways, and riverine byways of the Scepter’d Isle. The scattered icons of the fading map still recall the social panorama included in Langland’s Piers Plowman, that great “assemblee” of Britain, with “alle manere of men, the meene and the riche, werchynge and wandrynge as the world asketh.” In the Gough Map, one can still make out the various facets of Langland’s country, from the fecund pastures to the teeming emporia, indeed all the hallmarks of a self-sufficient but outward-looking nation.

One can also make out, suspended overhead like a canopy, or perhaps like Damocles’ sword, a thin strip of land vaguely representative of the coasts of Flanders and Normandy. Studded with inviting ports populated by obliging burghers, and with forbidding castles garrisoned by mortal dynastic enemies, Europe appears as both bane and boon to those across the narrow channel. Already being advanced in this, the first accurate map of the British Isles, was a semi-detached view of Albion’s relationship with Europe. It was a view that would hold sway in the centuries to come, necessitating an uneasy accommodation between insular exceptionalism and the lucrative, yet dangerous, call of the continent.

From time immemorial, the English have flattered themselves with the Shakespearean formulation that theirs is a “little world,” a “precious stone set in the silver sea,” separated from “less happier lands” by a fortuitous moat, one wider in practice than the seven leagues from Dover to Calais. “This realm of England is an empire,” declared the Henrician Act in Restraint of Appeals to Rome (1533), with a “body politic” admittedly comprised of “all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of spiritualty and temporalty,” but one absolutely independent of “any foreign princes or potentates of the world.” That Britannia was comprised of “all sorts” was certainly no exaggeration. Daniel Defoe, in The True-Born Englishman (1700), archly described his countrymen as an “amphibious ill-born mob,” a palimpsest of invaders and settlers whose “relics are so lasting and so strong” as to leave a “shibboleth upon our tongue / By which with easy search you may distinguish / Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English.” By factoring in the “Dutch, Walloons, Flemings, Irishmen, and Scots / Vaudois, and Valtolins, and Huguenots” who likewise made their often desperate way to Britain’s shores, Defoe could conclude that his homeland was “Europe’s sink,” rather than the doughty “fortress built by Nature for herself” of Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt.

Even if the “true-born Englishman” was in fact a curiously “het’rogeneous thing,” as Defoe demonstrated and the passage of time has further confirmed, one exceptional aspect of his island empire’s character could at least be considered sui generis: its free constitution. From the slow accretion of the common law to the dramatic recognition of the Magna Carta, and from the development of the writ of habeas corpus to the passage of the 1689 Bill of Rights, the British state would come to feature an array of what William Blackstone termed “the absolute rights of every Englishman.” The English writer John Brown, in his 1757 Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times, spoke for his countrymen as he boasted that whereas Liberty “hath been ingrafted by the Arts of Policy in other Countries, it shoots up here as from its natural Climate, Stock, and Soil,” with the result that “this great Spirit hath produced more full and compleat Effects in our own Country, than in any known Nation that ever was upon Earth.” Liberal philosophes across the Channel were in full agreement, with Montesquieu positing that it was in England that “liberty will appear in its highest perfection,” and with Voltaire praising the English for being “jealous not only of their own liberty, but even of that of other nations.” The government of England, the sage of Ferney continued, had for its laudable object “not the brilliant folly of making conquests, but to prevent its neighbors from making them.”

Poised in the balance of the swaying scales of European geopolitics, Britain could hold itself out as the safeguard of both continental stability and sovereign rights. It was a dual role perfectly suited to the conflicted identity of an exceptional island drawn inexorably toward the mainland. As such, Britain would find itself in an unending series of continental interventions, many renowned, and many more now but half-remembered in the public’s consciousness. The British historian Brendan Simms has recently made a compelling case that “the Bank of England, the national debt, the stock market, the Royal Navy and the standing army”—all of which make up the modern “apparatus of the ‘fiscal-military state’”—were each “primarily designed to sustain Britain’s international role in Europe.” Imperial holdings would grow in importance, and a “blue water” policy would become increasingly fashionable in strategic circles, but the European commitment was destined to remain a British preoccupation...

comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list