Pop quiz. Who proclaimed, “all Europe is my home”? Andrew Adonis? Nick Clegg? Terry Christian? It was Oswald Mosley. The British electorate rejected Mosley, as it did the European Union. And, unlike parts of our political establishment, civil service, and media, the majority of voters believed in the principles of democracy. Despite strident or invidious opposition, a fair portion of the electorate thought that the referendum result should be upheld.
Robert Tombs first whisks us through British history, arguing that our island story has been connected to but different from the story of the continent. The author then focuses in our joining the European Union. Tombs rightly challenges the declinist narrative of Britain in the second half of the 20th century. Whether we were lions or not, it seems that, at times, we were led by asses. The European Union may have been the answer to a question that we did not need to ask.
A large portion of the book concerns itself with politics, as opposed to history. Yet the author, a judicious and engaging historian, also proves himself a judicious and engaging political commentator. He makes the argument that it was unsurprising that we voted to leave the EU (should other countries be given a similar vote then polling suggests that some might leave also – especially should they be unencumbered by the Euro). What surprised the author was how close the result was. Tombs is at his most insightful – and coruscating – when dissecting the Remainer argument (and more so the behaviour by some to frustrate or annul the referendum). This book may make uncomfortable reading, for not just Heidi Allen or John Bercow, but I would urge both Leavers and Remainers to read This Sovereign Isle. Before we can cure certain ills, we must first diagnose them correctly.
I would also urge participants in the EU project to take in this book. Not only might they be better able to understand and appreciate Britain’s decision to leave, but the book may serve as a mirror to reflect the flaws and democratic deficit inherent in the project. Jean-Claude Juncker once posited that, “We decree something… If no clamour occurs… because most people do not grasp what had been decided, we continue, step by step, until the point of no return is reached.” Whether one is mindful of our history or not, it is understandable that Britain wanted a new settlement – to remain connected to but separate from such an authoritarian institution. If one includes the two general elections, as well as the 2016 referendum, then the electorate was asked three times whether it wanted to remain in the European Union. On those three occasions the answer was, to quote Margaret Thatcher, “No, no, no.”
Should someone ask you whether you would like to read This Sovereign Isle, however, I would recommend you answer “Yes”.