Brexit: A Parlour (End) Game & Historical Uncertainties

As Brexit arrives, Professor Keith McLay, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Education at the University of Derby, invites you to examine how the state of our relationship with Europe has been encapsulated by the words of British prime ministers at key moments in our nation’s history.

As ‘Brexit Day’ is very nearly upon us, here’s a parlour game (admittedly, perhaps, a niche one) to provide hours of endless fun.

Which British Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary said the following, and when, to mark a significant change in Great Britain’s relationship with Europe?

  1. ‘We shall be found in our Place when actual danger menaces the System; but this Country cannot and will not act upon abstract and speculative Principles of Precaution.’
  2. ‘It is going to be a gradual development and obviously things are not going to happen overnight.’
  3. ‘Bung a bob for a Big Ben bong.’

Well, how did you do?  Full marks to anyone who guessed in order: (1) Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh when Britain committed to the Concert of Europe in 1815, (2) Prime Minister Edward Heath on Britain’s accession to the EEC in January 1973 and (3) Prime Minister, Boris Johnson in mid-January 2020 in the run up to Britain’s departure from the EU at the end of January 2020.

The style of each pronouncement varies as might be expected. Castlereagh was speaking in the aftermath of nearly 25 years of warfare from the French Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s through to the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815 when principally Britain, Austria and Russia were seeking to agree a balance of power (and thus peace) through a congress system of European powers. His language and tone is all nobility and valour: Britain will do her duty, maintain her commitment to collective peace as and when it is genuinely threatened but the ‘red line’ (apologies, Castlereagh would never have used such a hackneyed phrase) was an unwillingness to act without direct evidence of a threat to the stability of Europe; not for Castlereagh the interventionist agenda of Russia and Austria whose Congress representatives, the Tsar Alexander I and the Austria Foreign Minister Prince Metternich, argued for collective ‘European’ action when they simply perceived there to be a threat to the ruling order.

Prime Minister Heath’s statement is circumspect. Speaking on his return from Canada where he’d been attending the funeral of the former Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson, Heath sought to manage expectations of the entry into the EEC, recognising that the benefits argued by those in favour of membership would take some time to become apparent; as the Guardian’s front page headline for 1 January 1973 spake: ‘We’re in – but without the fireworks’.

Finally, the country’s current Brexiteer Prime Minister aimed to infuse a celebratory optimistic note to Britain’s departure from the EU by commending (albeit briefly) a crowdfunding campaign to ensure the peel of the nation’s most famous bell (currently silent due to renovations) at 11 pm on 31 January 2020.     

The differences in style, however, do not belie the historical continuity between Castlereagh and Heath, and the discontinuity between them and Johnson. Although Castlereagh sat on principle and Heath sought to manage expectations, both their statements anticipated uncertainty and turbulence in Britain’s then new relationship with Europe. For Castlereagh, the Concert of Europe’s ‘congress system’ achieved some successes in resolving the competing Russo-Austrian claims to Poland and Saxony and navigating the early stages of the Greek War of Independence, 1821-1830. However, even on the latter Castlereagh stood apart, unwilling to commit Britain to the Concert’s Troppau Protocol which permitted European intervention to supress revolutionary movements in the interests of peace. By 1822, the Concert of Europe was at a standstill, bound up in the internal contradictions between members as to what action, and when, was permissible to preserve European peace. 

For Prime Minister Heath, the uncertainty experienced by Britain’s entry into the EEC in 1973, on which he purposefully sought to manage expectations, has in large part persisted through the warp and weft of Britain’s membership over the past 43 years up to and including the fractious, divisive Referendum campaign of 2016; not for nothing is it oft remarked that successive British Prime Ministers, and particularly Conservative occupants of the office, have been destroyed by the European question.

It is in heralding the next new change in Britain’s relationship with Europe – Brexit – in such a breezy, celebratory manner seeking the bongs of Big Ben to ring out, that Mr Johnson departs from his predecessors. Castlereagh and Heath marked the change in relationship cautiously and, ultimately, more presciently. It remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Johnson’s optimism is borne out or whether, as for his predecessors, a substantive change in Britain’s relationship with Europe proves tricky, uncertain and full of historical pitfalls.    

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