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The UK between Isolationism and Global Britain by Professor Robert Tombs

Isolationism and Global Britain
Written by Robert Tombs

In his recent lecture for the Académie Royale de Belgique, Professor Robert Tombs argues that Brexit is in no sense an isolationist endeavour. Isolationism has been foreign to British politics and culture for centuries and the vision of the UK’s future beyond the EU is one of global engagement.

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If there is anything that can be stated with some confidence – even among the many uncertainties of Brexit – it is that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is not a move towards isolationism.

I say this not merely because the arguments for Brexit are overwhelmingly globalist, but because isolationism, whether political or economic, is a very weak element of our political culture.  Indeed, I would say it is scarcely present at all.  Let me explain.

One of the principal arguments for Brexit, heard throughout the referendum campaign and since, is that it will permit closer economic relations with the non-European and developing world.  Free trade agreements with everyone, and faster and better than the EU: that has been the constant refrain.  It is not a new theme.  Gordon Brown, when he was still Tony Blair’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, pointed out that 80 percent of future trade growth for Britain would be outside the EU.[i]  There has been no strong opposing argument, whether from Left or Right, whatever their private thoughts.  For example, it is logical that Jeremy Corbyn and his followers would not wish to enter into free trade agreements that would limit their ability to intervene in the economy, for instance by state aids to industry.  Elements of the Conservative Party would wish to protect agriculture against global competition.  But neither has felt it politically possible to make a clear isolationist or protectionist case.

I suggest that it is a peculiarity of British history that the idea of ‘free trade’ has long seemed a natural and desirable condition of commerce.  This dates back to the campaign of the Anti-Corn Law League in the 1840s, which was still politically powerful in the early twentieth century.[ii]  No other country was so willing to practice free trade, including unilateral free trade, for so long.  While the United States, Germany and France all practiced protectionism, Britain removed tariffs and quotas for its home market and also for its empire.  This was seen by progressives as a moral cause, promoting peace, international harmony, political freedom and prosperity.  Only in the 1930s, under the impact of the Great Depression and a universal move towards high levels of protectionism, did Britain adopt imperial preference – a free trading system within the empire.  This, you may say, is history.  But it continues to have an influence.  For example, no feature of the EU system has been so much criticised in Britain as the Common Agricultural Policy, irrespective of whether Britain itself was a beneficiary: President Chirac once called it the British idée fixe.  Agricultural protectionism has since the 1970s been criticised both on economic and moral grounds in Britain by both Right and Left, as damaging both to British consumers and to producers outside the EU, especially in developing countries.  No one in the present debate is suggesting establishing a post-Brexit version of the CAP for Britain – which it could quite easily do by continuing to be a member of the Customs Union or by voluntarily continuing the high tariff on agricultural products.  Brexiteers welcome cheap food imports from outside the EU, protecting domestic farming where necessary by giving financial aid in return for environmental improvement.

This is partly a matter of sentiment and as I have suggested of ‘political culture’, but it also reflects an economic reality.  Britain has long been a global trader.  Indeed, it has had no choice but to be one since the early 19th century, because of the growth in its population.  It is now one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, but its dependence on imports of food and raw materials goes back to the time of Napoleon.  Consequently, it has had to export globally.  As the reforming Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel put it in the 1840s, one ‘might on moral and social grounds prefer cornfields to cotton factories [but] our lot is cast, and we cannot recede.’[iii]  The cotton factories have mainly gone, and many of our exports are now services.  But that is nothing new either.  Britain has had a regular deficit in visible trade (trade in goods) since the 1830s, and has balanced its payments by global exports of services, centred of course on the City of London.  The EU has proved of little benefit in this vital British interest.  The Single Market only to a very limited extent covers services, and consequently Britain does less of its trade with the rest of the EU than any other EU member state.  Moreover, the share of total British trade going to the rest of the EU has fallen by a quarter in two decades, and conversely its trade with the rest of the world has been increasing twice as fast.[iv]  Britain also invests twice as much outside as inside the EU.  Brexit both responds to these facts, and is certain to accentuate them.

I use economic policies as one test of whether Brexit means isolationism or globalism.  But ‘global Britain’ is not only an economic concept.  I would suggest that the single thing that most clearly differentiates Britain from most (or perhaps all) other EU countries is the range of its global connections.  This is what prompted General de Gaulle to veto Britain’s first application to join the Common Market in January 1963 – though ironically, the only other European country that has a comparable global stance is France.  The fact that English is the world language is both a consequence and a cause of these long established global ramifications.  The links exist at all levels of culture.  They also exist at a human level: huge numbers of British families have friends and relatives in other Anglophone countries (and one of these Anglophone countries, it should not be forgotten, is India).

If we think of history – including popular historical ideas and myths – isolationism is not a feature of our history over the last two or three hundred years.  Even the period of so-called ‘Splendid Isolation’ of the late 19th century was not really such: it was a period during which Britain did not sign treaties, but it remained active in global and European affairs.  Perhaps our greatest popular historical saga (sometimes I think it is the only bit of history that many people know) is the Second World War: but only very briefly, during late 1940 and early 1941, could that in any way be seen as Britain in isolation.  For one thing, the whole empire was involved in the war.  But our memory of the war (as indeed that of the First World War) is of Britain as part of a broad alliance.  This memory is the basis of the idea (which is partly but not wholly imaginary) of a ‘special relationship’ with the USA.  Britain since 1945 has been almost continuously engaged in world politics, as a leading and staunch member of NATO, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and as a major participant (for better or worse) in recent military action in the Balkans, Africa, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.  Brexit will not alter this: perhaps it will even accentuate it.  Apart from a political and popular reluctance to get involved in more Middle Eastern quagmires, there is little or no sign of a move towards isolationism, such as one sees in much of the EU.

This kind of cultural and political globalism is often attacked by opponents of Brexit as ‘nostalgia for empire’ – a significant theme in anti-Brexit propaganda.  This seems to me mere polemic, and it is hard to know how seriously to take it.  If there is any truth in it, it could only be that the empire was one aspect of that 18th and 19th century globalism that has, as I suggested earlier, had such an impact on British society and culture.  But I see no sign of ‘nostalgia’, whether that word implies a desire to return to an imperial past (clearly absurd) or whether it implies something that is illusory and unreal.  But clearly Britain’s global engagement is neither illusory nor unreal.  Let me give two examples.  The 2018 ‘Soft Power 30’ index, published by Portland Communications and the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, placed Britain first in terms of global soft power.[v]  Similarly, a recent report placed Britain no 2 in the world (after the United States) in terms of ‘geopolitical capability’, based on a combination of soft power, economic development, technology, and political and military effectiveness.[vi]  Such analyses do not suggest a turn towards isolationism.  Perhaps de Gaulle was right when he doubted that Britain would be willing to ‘shut itself up’ in Europe at the cost of its wider interests.[vii]

Many people would raise one particular objection to these arguments: the accusation that Brexit is a xenophobic, anti-immigrant reaction, and hence by definition isolationist.  It is certainly true that control of immigration is an important issue – though the number of people who believe that immigration has been excessive in recent years is far larger than the number voting for Brexit.[viii]  But it would be a very dubious argument to equate a wish to control immigration flows with xenophobia: or else one would have to consider most of the population of Europe as xenophobic.  As for Britain, opinion polls suggest a higher level of acceptance of existing immigrants and of ethnic diversity than in France, Germany or Belgium, for example.[ix]  One should be very sceptical of propaganda on this issue, which has been endlessly repeated by extreme opponents of Brexit and echoed in the European media.  Let me give you two precise examples, which made headlines in Britain and beyond.  One was the killing of a Polish man in Harlow in August 2016, which was immediately reported by the BBC as ‘post-Brexit rage’; Jean-Claude Juncker went so far as to say that ‘We Europeans can never accept Polish workers being harassed, beaten up and even murdered on the streets of Harlow.’  Almost simultaneously, it was reported that a Polish cultural centre in London had the words ‘Fuck You OMP’ painted across its front doors.  This was similarly reported as a racially motivate hate crime triggered by Brexit.  In the case of the Polish man who died, it later emerged that he had previous police convictions, and had started a fight late at night when drunk, allegedly making racist remarks, and he died after being punched by a 15-year-old boy and falling over and hitting his head – a tragic accident.  As for the cultural centre, the ‘OMP’ that was insulted was a Eurosceptic Polish think-tank that had issued a statement supporting Brexit.[x]  There are plenty of other cases that have been used unscrupulously to accuse those who voted Brexit of racism, and this has been a significant element of anti-Brexit emotion.

Opponents of Brexit find it very difficult to admit that the central issue is the EU.  They prefer to ascribe the Leave vote to anger with the system, ignorance, xenophobia, and so on.  But one can only understand Brexit by looking at the history of British relations with Europe, and with the history of European integration itself.  It begins during the interwar period, when certain individuals and small groups – small, but not uninfluential – began to aspire to various schemes for supranational federations, whether based on empires, on the League of Nations, or on various ideas of a United States of Europe.  These were essentially consequences of the First World War.  The Second World War and then the Cold War gave them a new importance.  But Britain only became seriously interested after decolonization: its elite was sensitive to what it saw as a loss of power and status that could be regained by joining the European Communities.  This was essentially a Conservative initiative; the British Left was strongly opposed to what it saw as an undemocratic capitalist organization.  If ‘nostalgia for empire’ does play a part in our relationship with Europe it is here: for Britain’s rulers ‘Europe’ was a substitute for lost empire, a way of not declining into merely ‘a greater Sweden’, as the chief British negotiator put it.[xi]  Britain joined at a time when its leaders felt weak and humiliated.  But very few British politicians, and even fewer British people, were committed to a great European vision; their experience of the twentieth century was far less traumatic than that of the Continent.  Their motives were less lofty: to put it bluntly, vanity and economic advantage.  As I pointed out earlier, the economic advantages were not great: indeed, it is not clear that there have been any at all – British economic growth did not increase after it joined the EEC, and during the 1980s British economic performance overtook the EU average.  The British people were in various ways aware of this.  In the last ten years they have become increasingly aware of Eurozone problems affecting Southern and Eastern Europe.

The general lack of public enthusiasm (and here I am cutting a long story short) meant that despite Tony Blair’s willingness, the country had not joined the Euro.  This was crucial.  Whatever historical and cultural divergence there may have been between Britain and most of the EU (as Eurobarometer polls showed year after year), had we been in the Eurozone, it is arguable that we would not have voted to leave in 2016.*  The EU was as unpopular in several Continental EU countries as it was in Britain – or even more so, Greece being the most extreme example.  But being in the Eurozone meant that their electorates felt that it was too dangerous to try to leave.  Hence, Britain’s Leave vote in 2016 was a consequence of both long-term and short-term circumstances.

The 2016 vote has caused, or perhaps aggravated, divisions in Britain that I think few if any people expected, at least in their intensity.  This is something that future historians will no doubt study.  The division between ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ has regional, socio-economic, cultural and generational elements; but it does not closely follow the traditional political parameters of Left and Right, Labour and Tory.  Our present turbulence is comparable with the conflict over the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846 and with that over Irish Home Rule in 1886, both of which split existing parties and reshaped the political landscape.  One of the most original and influential insights into the general cultural phenomenon is David Goodhart’s description of ‘Somewhere’ people and ‘Anywhere’ people – those who feel part of a local or national community and those who feel unattached, which explains much of the Leave/Remain division.[xii]  Ben Copley has pointed out that the anti-Brexit ideology is closely linked to a Left-wing politics of ‘identity’, which in this case creates a negative image of Brexit as associated with ‘unfavoured identities’ – including male, white, and ethnic English, particularly the ethnically English working class.[xiii]  It is striking that this Remainer ideology has very little to do with the EU and its institutions, and seems unconcerned with the actual state of Europe.  It is a largely inward-looking mentality – a paradox considering its self-image of cosmopolitanism.

But however interesting it is to deconstruct the Remainer ideology, one should not over estimate its electoral importance.  Ideological Remainers probably amount to around 5 percent of the population.[xiv]  On the day of the Referendum, only 9 percent of Remain voters (and hence around 4 percent of the total who voted) said that their prime motivation was ‘a strong attachment to the EU and its shared history, culture and traditions.’[xv]  More important and influential are those I would term ‘Professional Remainers’, drawn from business, the professions, politics and the civil service.  They are committed to membership of the EU by their careers and hence by personal interest.  For such people, familiarity with EU systems and contacts in Brussels give a major career advantage; conversely, Brexit poses a risk.  Of course, Professional Remainers might also be Ideological Remainers, but they are not necessarily so.

Most numerous of all are what I call ‘Worried Remainers’.  Most who voted Remain said they did so primarily because they were worried about the possible economic consequences.[xvi]  Yet before the referendum was called, only 15 percent of the electorate thought the EU economy was doing well: here we can surely see the effects of the so-called ‘Operation Fear’, a barrage of official propaganda aimed at creating negative support for the EU based not on confidence that it was succeeding, but on the fear that leaving it would be even worse.  Similar fears have been promoted in other EU countries, notably Greece, Italy and France, and have the effect of stifling anti-EU sentiment even in the countries most damaged by membership.  This ‘Worried’ group is probably around a third of the total electorate, and hence two-thirds of the Remain vote.  Claims have since been made by both sides in the debate as to how this group is reacting: whether it now wants to government to ‘get on with it’ and conclude Brexit, or whether it is growing in size at the expense of the Leaver majority.  But the evidence is slight.

How disruptive in the long term this division in the country will be depends on how Brexit is managed.  If pessimistic forecasts prove unfounded, the country will probably recover fairly quickly.  The Brexit vote, after all, was one in favour of national institutions – the feature that most clearly distinguishes it from some ‘populist’ movements elsewhere.  But if Brexit is either blocked or proves a disaster, we can expect continuing political upheavals that will affect Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours and its global role.

If one assumes that some great disaster will not happen, then we are more able to make cautious forecasts about whether Britain is turning towards isolation or global activity.  Economically, the present trajectory is towards greater global connection, and a continuing diminution of the importance of trade with the EU.  One independent economic study found that this was little affected by whether Britain was inside or outside the EU: on present trends by 2030 our trade with the EU would have fallen back to the level it was at in the 1960s before we joined the EEC.[xvii]

Far less easy to speculate about is Britain’s future strategic and political role.  This depends very much on the inner circles of politics and foreign policy, which largely support Remain.  Their hope has been to diverge as little as possible from the EU and to attach Britain after Brexit to EU structures.[xviii]  However, the announcement at the time of writing that Britain is seriously considering a rival satellite system to the EU’s Galileo may be a sign that this is not going to happen.[xix]  No doubt Britain will seek to rebuild its relationship with the USA (especially post-Trump) and the ‘Five Eyes’ Commonwealth security partners.  There is a strong lobby within the Conservative party for an increase in defence spending to consolidate the UK’s traditional position as NATO’s number 2.  It will be important to see whether a new generation of post-Brexit politicians and diplomats can create an independent British role, or simply fall back on the USA.

But all this – and indeed nearly everything I have said – could be changed unpredictably by something I have not yet mentioned: a Labour election victory bringing Jeremy Corbyn to Downing Street.  If that happened (which I do not really believe) our relations with both the EU and the Anglosphere would be in the balance.  That is the only circumstance in which Britain might in the short term move in the direction of isolation.

*  Of course, had Britain been in the Eurozone at the time of the 2007-8 financial crisis, it is impossible to guess what condition the country would have been in by 2016.

[i]             Mansion House speech, 22 June 2005

[ii]            Frank Trentmann, Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain (Oxford UP, 2008)

[iii]           Quoted in Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2006) p 557

[iv]           Over 60% of UK goods exports went to the EU in the late 1990s but this has fallen to around 45%. See e.g. Adam Slater ‘Will Brexit speed a seismic shift in UK trade patterns?’, Economic Outlook, Volume 40, Issue 4, October 2016; and G. Gudgin et al., ‘The role of gravity models in estimating the economic impact of Brexit’, Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge, Working Paper No. 490 (June 2017)


[vi]           James Rogers, ‘An Audit of Geopolitical Capability: A Comparison of Eight Major Powers’ (London, Henry Jackson Society, September 2017)

[vii]           For his views, see Charles de Gaulle, Mémoires d’espoir (Pair, Plon, 1970) pp. 203, 236 and Alain Peyrefitte, C’était de Gaulle (Paris, Fayard, 1994) vol. 1, p. 63

[viii]          ‘UK Public Opinion toward Immigration: Overall Attitudes and Level of Concern’, Migration Observatory, University of Oxford (7 June 2018)

[ix]           Ibid.

[x]            Ben Cobley, The Tribe: The Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity (Exeter, Imprint Academic, 2018) pp 18-19

[xi]           Britain’s Entry into the European Community: Report by Sir Con O’Neill on the Negotiations of 1970-1972, ed. David Hannay (London, Frank Cass, 2000) p. 355; and see his 1964 dispatch, in Helen Parr, British Policy towards the European Community: Harold Wilson and Britain’s World Role, 1964-67 (London, Routledge, 2005)

[xii]          David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (London, Hurst, 2017)

[xiii]          Cobley, The Tribe, pp 5, 16

[xiv]          This is the percentage who wanted more power given to the EU and who considered themselves primarily ‘European’.  See e.g. Standard Eurobarometer 79 Spring 2013

[xv]          Lord Ashcroft exit poll ‘How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and why’ (Friday, 24 June, 2016)

[xvi]          For Remain voters, the most important reason for their decision was that ‘the risks of voting to leave the EU looked too great when it came to things like the economy, jobs and prices’ (43%).  Ashcroft Poll.

[xvii]         Adam Slater ‘Will Brexit speed a seismic shift in UK trade patterns?’, Economic Outlook, Volume 40, Issue 4, October 2016

[xviii]        See Gwythian Prins, ‘A Very English coup d’etat’,

[xix]          ‘May orders space race with EU after Brexit’, Sunday Telegraph (26 August 2018)

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About the author

Robert Tombs