Britain In and Out of Europe: Robert Tombs Interview

Now that United Kingdom has departed the European Union, with a deal, it is a good time to reflect on the historical currents driving the 2016 vote, and the ramifications of it. Two historians who voted for Brexit, Saul David and Robert Tombs, discuss the historical background.
Professor Robert Tombs
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I was delighted to be asked to interview Professor Tombs, a distinguished historian of France and the bestselling author of The English and Their History, about his new book, This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe, on the historical context of Brexit because his uncertainty about which way to vote in 2016 mirrors my own experience. I was asked by academics on both sides of the debate to declare myself a supporter and refused on the grounds that I had yet to make up my mind. That was true. But the closer the vote came, the more convinced I became that Britain’s long-term participation in a European project that was self-avowedly determined to achieve full political and economic union – a United States of Europe if you will – was not in Britain’s interest. It was not, for me, chiefly an economic argument (though Tombs makes a strong case for believing that Britain will be no worse off economically out of Europe). I accept that Britain might well lose out in the short-term. But it would (and will) gain politically, I believed, particularly in terms of sovereignty and democratic accountability. Having now read Professor Tombs’ beautifully written, even-handed and compelling new book, and spoken to the man in person, I am in no doubt that Brexit was the right decision.

You’re best known as a historian of the French, and are married to a Frenchwoman (making you, by marriage, a citizen of the Republic). You voted in the 1975 referendum to stay in the EEC (as the EU was then known), yet, after some hesitation, you voted to Leave in 2016. What changed your mind? 

Partly being forced to make a choice (thanks to David Cameron), but also the realisation that the EU was firmly set in a direction that I thought undesirable and unsustainable.

This Sovereign Isle is a history of Britain’s relationship to Europe from the Romans to Brexit. What motivated you to write it, and why take the historical approach? 

If I remember rightly, my publisher suggested it. Without that, I might never have considered a book: I have done a lot of newspaper writing (unprecedented for me) and might well have stuck to that. But having decided on a book, it was necessarily going to take a historical approach: partly because that’s how I think, and partly because, well, the EU and our relationship with it has been formed by certain understandings of the past.

In what way does Britain’s geography make its relationship with mainland Europe fundamentally different to almost all other European countries? 

Obviously, we are peripheral, and this counts: compare Norway and the Scandinavian countries, which also are either outside or semi-detached. Being an island means we have a choice in the way most Continental countries (though Switzerland is an interesting exception that proves the rule) don’t think they do. The other things, of course, is our history of global connection since the 18th century. 

How did the Reformation change Britain’s security strategy with regard to Europe? 

Interestingly, it forced Britain to be more engaged in European politics, but in a different way. No longer seeking territorial gains on the Continent (Henry VIII and Mary Tudor were the last to do so), but being periodically involved in opposing attempts to establish a European hegemony by Catholic states. 

Britain’s focus in the 19th century was on maintaining its Empire. But has it ever been possible for Britain to opt fully out of Europe? Could Britain, for example, have watched either World War from the side-lines?  

That’s an interesting counter-factual, on which some distinguished historians have written. Very broadly, in both cases to allow a potentially hostile state to dominate the Continent seemed too extreme a risk. It was played out dramatically by Sir Edward Grey in 1914, and in the struggle between Lord Halifax and Churchill in 1940. Of course, whether in either case Germany would have been able to maintain dominance of a conquered continent is an unanswerable speculation. One might conclude that running a continent as diverse as Europe is a very difficult job, as the EU is discovering. 

Despite his controversial and, to modern eyes at least, unacceptable views on empire and race, does Winston Churchill still deserve to be remembered as one of our Greatest Britons? 

Without doubt. There are probably few cases of one individual not only changing history, but doing so in a way that prevented an immense human catastrophe, but Churchill in 1940 certainly did that.  Without his determination, an alliance of genocidal fascist states would, at least for a time, have dominated the planet. Compared with that, his other views seem to me negligible. 

Can you discern a pattern in the long and complicated history of Britain’s relations with the Continent? And how has this influenced our sense of national identity?  

In a word, fluid. Always engaged with the Continent, but rarely integrated. And increasingly attached to other parts of the world, culturally, economically and emotionally. Britain is not the only European country with global links, of course, but they are for Britain far more important. 

Why did Britain, in a reversal of earlier policy, first try to join the EEC in the early 1960s, and does that ‘declinist’ argument hold water?  

‘Declinism’ is the word. An elite panic at loss of status and loss of economic potency. Both were hugely exaggerated if not entirely illusory. The loss of empire was no loss at all, except in the minds of politicians and diplomats of that generation. It seems to me that ‘declinism’ is based simultaneously on exaggerating Britain’s power in some Golden Age of Empire and minimising its continuing power and influence after the end of empire. People tend to take countries, like individuals, at their own estimation, and this remains a problem for the UK.

Had anything changed by 1973 when Britain did actually join? 

Essentially the end of the post-war European economic boom, which ironically was a major reason for our joining. 

In what immediate ways did Britain benefit from its membership of the EEC? 

It didn’t. It is hard to identify any economic or political benefit; on the contrary, it did damage. 

Among the many ironies contained in your book, one of the most surprising is that the people who were the ‘least keen’ on Europe in the 1975 Referendum ‘were Scots, Ulstermen and the Left – the mirror image of 2016’. Why was that? 

In both cases, they had their own reasons: I think the change has been within Scottish and Northern Irish politics more than in the UK or EU as a whole. For Scotland, a realization that independence within the EU was feasible; for NI, a feeling that EU citizenship had soothed old wounds. 

You say in the book that one of the key moments in the European Community’s move towards greater economic and political union was the rapid break-up of the Soviet Union and the prospect of German reunification in 1989. Why was that, and how did Margaret Thatcher’s government respond? 

The Thatcher government, like other governments (especially Mitterrand in France) were alarmed at the speed of the move towards German unity. But Mitterrand saw the way the wind was blowing and did a deal with Kohl: support for unification in return for commitment to Economic and Monetary Union and rapid movement towards a single currency – a fateful decision. 

You quote Ed Balls, Tony Blair’s Treasury minister, as saying, ‘the decision not to join the single currency [Euro] has been the most successful economic decision of the last 30 years?’ Was he right? And how has it worked out for those who did join the Euro? 

Yes, he was right. The Euro has – as many predicted – been a dangerous experiment which has impoverished most of its members and presents a continuing and insoluble problem for the EU. 

If a Referendum on the newly-drafted EU Constitution had been held in Britain in 2005, as planned, what do you think the result would have been?

Almost certainly a No, as Blair believed and as polls predicted. But as we know, the Constitution was in its essence adopted by treaty – the biggest example of how the EU turns democracy into diplomacy. 

Given that most Britons are not, and never have been in, favour of economic and monetary union and a European ‘superstate’, was Britain’s departure from the EU inevitable sooner or later? 

In a word, yes – but on condition that departure remained possible. Had we joined the Euro, it would arguably have been impossible. Another counterfactual: if that had happened, the only way out would have been a general breakdown of the EU. 

A narrow majority (51.9%) voted to Leave the EU on 23 June 2016.  You comment: ‘Two things are surprising and require further explanation. That the result caused so much astonishment; and that the majority was so small.’ Can you explain why? 

First, because for many years opinion polls (for example the Eurobarometer polls carried out by the EU) showed the British as the least committed to the EU project; second because support for the EU had been falling sharply all across Europe, and every recent vote (most obviously in Italy and Greece) had been opposed to EU policy. So, as I say in the book, the British in 2016 voted as typical Europeans. 

Were and are Remainers right to fear the economic consequences of leaving the EU? 

There will be consequences, but the apocalyptic prediction made in 2016 and since were never justified. There will be losses and gains in the short term, which are pretty balanced. In the longer term, it depends on what the UK and the EU do. 

Why do you think the intelligentsia voted so overwhelmingly to Remain? 

This for me is a major conundrum, and I don’t think there is a single answer. Partly self-interest, but more importantly a strange identification of the EU with progressive values; more importantly still, the identification of Brexit with unprogressive values. All this has little to do with the political and economic questions of whether or not the UK should be a member of the EU. 

If Britain had been outside the EU, and its people had been asked in 2016 if they wished to join, would the answer have been, as Paul Collier suggests, ‘an overwhelming consensus for “out”’?

Very probably. Advanced democratic countries such as Switzerland and Norway show little desire to join. 

You write of the persistent attempts by Remainers to overturn the result of the Referendum, ‘At times, during 2019, it seemed that the UK was barely a functioning democracy.’ Can you explain what you mean by that? 

For democracy to function, certain rules and conventions have to be obeyed (if you like, you could take the USA under the tail-end of the Trump presidency as an example). For a large part of the electorate, the civil service, the political class and the judiciary to be following a policy aimed to overturn a legal democratic vote, and to be openly breaking constitutional conventions to do so, amounted to a constitutional crisis. 

Has the COVID-19 crisis made Britain’s decision to leave the EU even more fortuitous, given the economic fragility of many member states? 

Let’s say that the crisis has proved a major test for all political and economic systems. It will therefore be the first test of Brexit, and as Angela Merkel has said, an existential test for the EU. 

Is there any truth in the recent assessment by a senior US diplomat that the EU in future years will more closely resemble ‘not 19th-century Britain or Germany, but their palsied polyglot neighbor, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’?

I agree with this. As he wrote, the EU is big, but it is weak. Size is not necessarily an advantage – which is one of the basic assumptions of Brexit. 

Does Brexit mark the beginning of the end of the EU, as some fear? And if it does, will ‘Perfidious Albion’ be to blame?

I think Brexit marks a further stage in a developing crisis of the EU which has been going on now for a good ten years: so not the beginning. It could be that the departure of the UK sets the EU free to push ahead with federalization. I think that is a dangerous and, I suspect, doomed experiment. 

Is Britain likely to move closer, in the future, to the so-called ‘Anglosphere’? And if it does, will this be a good thing?

The rise of China, and its clear assertiveness (not to use a stronger word) is a challenge to all democracies. The economic importance of the Asia-Pacific region means that we shall be more involved probably (Germany and France, interestingly, have said the same). And both these things suggest a greater importance for the Anglosphere, not least because of the end of the period in which the United States seemed not to need allies. This is a dangerous time, and we need a more coherent strategy than we have had for some time.


Professor Robert Tombs is the acclaimed historian and author of The English and their History and That Sweet Enemy: Britain and France, the History of a Love-Hate Relationship.  He is Emeritus Professor of French History at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of St. John’s College.  This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe is his latest book.

Saul David is a historian, broadcaster and novelist. He has written a number of acclaimed histories of the Victorian period and his latest book is Crucible of Hell, an account of the Battle of Okinawa.