In public policy, what starts as the unthinkable can first become simply the impossible, then the undesirable, then the possible, then the inevitable – and, finally, the right choice all along. Forty years ago, permanent British membership of the EEC – as it then was – appeared all but inevitable. Now it’s Britain’s exit that is well into the ‘possible’ stage, with ‘inevitable’ in sight.
The US played a significant role in pushing Britain into the EEC. As an American, I’d like to apologise for this foolish policy. I’m equally sorry that the Obama administration has stuck to this antique script and continues to cheerlead for the EU. Again, I apologise.
But on the way to the coming British exit, the Commonwealth is receiving more than a few longing, sideward glances as an alternative home for Britain. And I don’t believe that it is. That’s not said out of any dislike of the Commonwealth, or any lingering American resentment of the British Empire. Except perhaps in a few Boston bars, Americans don’t care about the Empire any more.
The Commonwealth does have strengths. As Daniel Hannan MEP has pointed out, its GDP is now larger than that of the Eurozone, and growing about three times as fast. And Britain now does more of its trade outside the EU than in it. The share of the British economy that depends on Europe has declined, is declining, and will continue to decline.
Indeed, if I had to make a single bet about the future, it would be that the European share of world GDP will continue to decline. Unless the rest of the world, in a fit of insanity, adopts European-style policies – and nothing would please Brussels more than worldwide tax harmonisation – Europe is not going to grow fast enough to keep even level pegging.
But the problem with the Commonwealth’s strengths is that they’re not the Commonwealth’s. They’re the sum of the disparate achievements of its members. One of the weaknesses of the Commonwealth – even going back to imperial days – was its tremendous diversity. Today, we like to flap vaguely about diversity being a strength, but geopolitically, that’s just not true.
An organisation that contains prosperous Canada, enormous but stop-and-start developing India, and tiny bankrupt Nauru will never be a cohesive whole. Moreover, it’s never been a cohesive whole in the past. It’s true that when civilisation’s back was against the wall in 1939, almost all the (then much smaller) Commonwealth stood with Britain, and God bless them for it.
But as Winston Churchill realised to his regret, you don’t get to fight the Second World War every day. And in normal times, the history of British-Commonwealth relations is littered with disputes about fundamentally important issues, from rugby and cricket, to immigration and emigration, to citizenship, to race relations, to trade and tariffs, to defence burden sharing. There is almost nothing about which the Commonwealth has not quarrelled. Indeed, it was the endless wrangles about trade after 1945 within the Commonwealth that helped convince former imperial true-believers like future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that Europe was a better bet.
The only reason the quarrels ended is because Britain stopped caring about the Commonwealth, and stopped trying to make much out of it. It’s one thing to believe that Britain should have close relations with India and should sell more into that vast market. That’s common sense. But it’s a huge jump to the conclusion that the Commonwealth is an alternative to the EU. After all, the problem with the EU is that it is so all-encompassing. It has all but usurped the role of Parliament. It controls Britain’s trade policy, much of its immigration policy, and would like nothing more than to ruin – I mean run – the City and HM Revenue and Customs. Anything that is going to take the EU’s place is going to be very big and intrusive indeed.
In other words, a real alternative to the EU would be the big, bad EU all over again. It’s often argued – by deluded Europhiles – that Britain doesn’t like Brussels because it doesn’t know about all the good the EU does. This claim would better be made of the Commonwealth: a 2009 survey found that only one Briton in five could name any of its activities.
Moreover, as an American, a real Commonwealth Britain would leave me more than a bit cold. Many of the ways that Britain matters most to the US – from defence and intelligence, to direct investment and the City, to travel and tourism – have no connection to the Commonwealth. A Britain that really focused on the Commonwealth would be one that let a lot of other things slide.
And, uncomfortably, enthusiasm for the Empire/Commonwealth in Britain tends to correlate –imperfectly – with suspicion of the USA. For every well-wisher of America who also believed in the Empire, like Churchill, there was at least one more, like Neville Chamberlain or Lord Beaverbook, who felt somewhat differently about the States.
All that is in the past, of course. But one thing is not. The idea that Britain needs an alternative to the EU is itself an undesirable legacy of history. For a while, the Empire, and later the Commonwealth, were Britain’s alternatives in a world that looked like it would be entirely dominated by a few big powers. Then Macmillan hoped that Europe could play this role.
Today, Britain doesn’t need a single alternative. It can pick and choose. Close relations in many realms with the US are no bar to more trade with India, just as leaving the EU doesn’t mean that Britain will be exiled from European markets.
Britain doesn’t need to be part of any one dominant bloc. What Britain needs above all is the national flexibility and determination to make good policies on its own, and that’s exactly what the EU denies it.
Looking around for a new home is a much less useful activity than checking out of the European emergency ward.
- Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in Anglo-American Relations, based at The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Originally appeared in the Yorkshire Post