Ninety years ago, Lord Curzon--an intellectual grandee and holder of high offices, including viceroy of India and foreign secretary--opined that, without its empire,
England from having been the arbiter will sink at best into the inglorious playground of the world. Our antiquities, our natural beauties, our mansion houses and parks will attract a crowd of wandering pilgrims. People will come to see us just as they climbed the Acropolis at Athens or ascend the waters of the Nile. England will become a sort of glorified Belgium.
This, it has turned out, was unduly pessimistic. While the Empire is all but gone, Britain remains one of the eight or so countries, grouped in the second rank behind the United States, that retain some world role. The United Kingdom's status in the world owes less to its nuclear weapons and permanent seat at the UN Security Council than to its prosperity on the edge of Europe, and its central historical and cultural position in the English-speaking world which it founded. In an international political universe of some 180 countries, Britain's status is not an unenviable one, and from this platform of deserved respect it is possible to envision several alternative courses for Britain's future.
At any rate, it should be possible. But the discussion of the British future today evidences almost no hint of open horizons. Instead, the British national imagination is staggering in a sludge of inevitability about a progressively tighter European Union. While there is virtually no enthusiasm in Britain for plunging deeper into such a Union--all the polls show a profound disenchantment with the Brussels bureaucracy, a deep reticence about monetary union, and growing skepticism about the economic implications of a British future in Europe--the general sense is that it will happen anyway.
The Blair government is both a microcosm of this state of affairs and a contributor to it. It has kept Britain away from the euro for the time being, yet its body language suggests grudging accession in a few years--unless, of course, catastrophe overtakes the experiment in the meantime. It is not entirely clear whether the Blair government's
reluctance to embrace the Union reflects real doubts about its viability and logic, or about whether entry would best serve Britain's interests, or, again, whether it is merely that political expediency has suggested a slow approach to an accepted end. Whatever the motives, the resulting uncertainty is demoralizing.
Advocates of immediate entry into the European Monetary Union certainly exist in Britain. But while a grandiose vision of a united Europe is the chief argument for Eurofederalism bandied about in continental Europe, in Britain the federalists, apart from a few people in transactional financial businesses, are reduced to a fatalistic advocacy that Britain should be part of a tight European union--one culminating in federation--if only because staying out may be more harmful than going in. The truth is that many in Britain fear isolation, and, with it, marginalization. Without an empire, there is a widespread view that the country must associate with some larger group, and Europe appears to most to be the only such group at hand.
What seems to have been forgotten at least until recently is that, unlike any other European country, the United Kingdom has both an Atlantic and European vocation. Europe and North America are both plausible associations for the British, the latter much superior to the former in many ways. Unfortunately, Britain's North American alternative is underdeveloped in public discourse. It is the main purpose of this essay to unfurl its logic, which, it turns out, is a wholesome one not only for Great Britain, but also for the United States and Canada.
The Ambivalence of Britain
Britain coped with the loss of empire with more dignity than other great imperial powers. But the country is still afflicted by an existential loneliness, dating at least from the Suez fiasco of 1956, and the history of Britain's ambivalent association with the European project reflects that loneliness.
Less than a year after the Suez crisis, the Treaty of Rome was signed. The final loss of what had become the imperial illusion thus dovetailed almost perfectly with the rise of the European integration project. The four decades that followed were marked by British uncertainty and inconsistency toward Europe. Harold Macmillan, prime minister from 1957 to 1963, tried to combine a special closeness to the United States (affecting to play the sage Greek to Kennedy's Roman) with membership in the Common Market--only to be harshly rejected by de Gaulle, who found such a combination unacceptable and vetoed Britain's Common Market application in 1962. Harold Wilson was initially Euroskeptical (1964-70), then cautiously pro-European in his second term (1974-76), but always ambiguous and evasive. There was nothing ambiguous about the nearly pathologically anti-American Edward Heath (1970-74), who did his best to deconstruct almost any relationship with the United States. One of nature's corporatists, while advocating a modest common market he strove to promote practically unlimited European supra-nationalism--but he could bring neither his party nor his countrymen along with him to any appreciable degree.Essay Types: Essay