Both recent and longer-term history throw fight on British distinctiveness within the European Community. It is apparent that enthusiasm for the EC, let alone a federal Europe, is limited in Britain, and that much of the history of political convergence over the last 40 years is to be sought in the calculations of particular politicians and political groups, rather than in any moves reflecting a popular groundswell. Like other modern “democratic” societies, Britain has a political system and culture that is only partially democratized, and more heed is paid to popular anxieties and xenophobia by the oft-derided popular press than by supposedly democratic politicians. This was true of the Heath ministry that negotiated British entry into the EC, and it has been true of “Euroenthusiasts” ever since. Thus, the full implications of the potential federalism to which Britain was committed were not explained to the electorate; instead, there was a pragmatic stress on the apparent advantages of membership.
Yet, these were always less for Britain than for other states. The real source of British alienation from the EC is the fact that the British did not share the interests of other states in joining a multinational body of that type. The EEC was generated by particular interpretations of national interest on the Continent. France wanted the European Coal and Steel Community and the EEC to control Germany; she wished to control German independence so much that it was worth some loss of sovereignty to achieve this vital national aim, an aim which the British did not share to the same extent. Germany and Italy wanted the EEC to safeguard their democracies, again a need Britain did not share. In a Europe suffering from devastation, political dislocation, and international divisions stemming from the traumatic events of 1940, the EEC offered a means to create space for development. Britain only sought to join when the EEC became a threat to her, and the same might be argued of the ERM.
In this light, British alienation is unsurprising and has become stronger as the EC has developed in more ambitious directions. Furthermore, as Britain only joined after the EEC system had been developed to suit interests other than her own, it is scarcely surprising that transition to membership was not easy. Institutions and policies in the framing of which Britain had played no part had to be accepted. As a state seeking membership, Britain negotiated from weakness. A previously cheap-food importing country had to accept the Common Agricultural Policy, with its high prices to the consumer and heavy burdens on the taxpayer. Once a member, successive British governments had only limited success in modifying community policies, a situation that does not augur well for the future and that has not made the EC popular.
It is particularly clear in the British case that the EC has failed to replace the nation-states of Western Europe as a focus for popular identity and thus loyalty. If this is a measure of its failure, it is also a cause of it. The central political problem in any community is the eliciting of consent. This is not simply a question of defining acceptable policies and selecting leaders who will be judged competent, but also reflects the nature of identification between people and government, which is a question of history, symbolism, and a sense of place and purpose. These in turn combine to produce an ideology that is more potent than the more intellectual and abstract creeds usually designated by that term. Despite all the talk of the failure and redundancy of the nation-state and its need for replacement by power-sharing, supranational bodies, and “Euro-regions,” it is the nation-state that is most effective at eliciting and securing consent. It is no accident that Euro-federalism is endorsed most strongly in Belgium and Italy, where the nation-states are recent and weak.
Analysts of the British state who detect, indeed sometimes welcome, signs of weakness are most prone to argue the need for a different political framework. This thesis is most relevant to those who feel frustrated and thwarted by the British state, most obviously nationalist movements in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This process has been accentuated recently by the congruence of these developments: first, the longevity of Conservative government, which has led some opponents to become disenchanted with the current political situation; secondly, the deepening of the recession of the late 1980’s and early 90’s; and thirdly, particular problems affecting the monarchy and the Church of England. However, despite growth in the 1970’s and 80’s, the Scottish and, in particular, Welsh National Parties both remain minority bodies. In the most populous regions—South Wales and Strathclyde—Labour is a more successful representative of popular consciousness and sense of identity and interest. Thus, in Britain, a highly self-aware cultural nationalism and a strong sense of identity on the part of the Welsh and the Scots coexists with transnational political stability. Despite repeated sightings of the demise of the British nationstate. Great Britain has proved a stable transnational political community, which has subsumed other national identities.
Although some opponents of the Maastricht treaty may be self-confessed “Little Englanders,” others can quite legitimately claim that they are in no way “anti-European,” but simply want to see “Europe” developing along different lines from the ones envisaged by Delors and the “Euro-federalists.” This was certainly the position of Mrs. Thatcher, who prided herself on the role that Western firmness played in freeing Eastern Europe from Soviet hegemony and communism; her vision of Europe was far from restricted to the EC.
Nevertheless, the misleading identification of Europe with the EC has had much impact: British politicians talked in the 1960’s and 70’s of “entering Europe,” and in the 1980’s Mrs. Thatcher’s views on the EC led to her being presented as “anti-European.” This view in which the quintessential definition of Europeanness is membership in the EC, and everything else is falling away, is intellectually dishonest.
Focusing on the difficulties confronting the attempt to create a plausible European public myth helps to explain some of the problems that any attempt to displace the nation-state from its position in popular loyalties faces. A sense of place and continuity is crucial to the harmony of individuals and societies. It is challenged by the continued process of change, a process that entails the alteration, invention, and reinvention of traditions. Except in periods when there is a stress on the value of a break with the past, change is in large part acceptable to much of the population only if it does not disrupt their sense of continuity too seriously. The impact of disrupting this, by minor changes, such as altering coins and telephone kiosks, or by more sweeping social changes, such as the collapse of traditional shopping patterns and practices, or the enforced movement of people from condemned housing into modern projects that lack much of a sense of community, can cause much anxiety and irritation, and a more insidious loss of a sense of identity and community.
At this crucial level, the notion of European community is valuable if its institutional pretensions and prerogatives do not range too widely and are restricted by the preservation of a major role for the nation-state. Telling people and their elected representatives that, as they are Europeans, they must act, indeed think, in a certain fashion is unacceptable in a democratic society. In defending the configuration and continuity of British practices, politicians are not fighting for selfish national interests but for the sense of the living past that is such a vital component of a people’s understanding, acceptance, and appreciation of their own society and identity.