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Brexit Briefings: Pro-leave Cambridge professor Robert Tombs on UK identities

Professor Robert Tombs, a historian and supporter of the U.K.'s decision to leave the EU, is seen in Cambridge, England, on June 14, 2019. (Mainichi/Masanori Hattori)

CAMBRIDGE, England -- With a new British prime minister poised to take office from the end of July, the outcome of the country's decision to leave the European Union (EU) following the June 2016 "Brexit" referendum remains unpredictable. Will a cooperative, "soft Brexit" deal with Europe be arranged by the currently agreed deadline of Oct. 31, or will it conclude with a "hard Brexit," which some claim will deal a blow to the British economy.

To find out the thoughts and feelings of those in the background of these talks, the people of the U.K., the Mainichi Shimbun sat down with noted individuals in the country's academic and political fields.

Today's interview, the first in a series, is with professor Robert Tombs, of the University of Cambridge, who specializes in 19th century French political history and culture, as well as its relationship with Britain leading up to the present day. He supports the decision to leave the EU.

When asked about his reservations regarding the U.K.'s membership of the EU, he answered, "I have always been suspicious of the European project because of its clear, undemocratic element."

"Our trade with the EU has been diminishing in importance for 20 years. Our trade with the rest of the world has been growing. The EU, at least its defenders believe, has to become more of a federation.

"We're not in the Euro, of course. No one suggests we should be. There is no support in this country, really, for membership of a European federation. Therefore, I think it's simply logical that we should renegotiate our relationship with Europe.

"I think to find that most members of parliament and most senior civil servants are opposed to carrying out a democratic vote (the decision to leave from the 2016 referendum) is quite a shock.

"I don't think this is a (uniquely) British phenomenon, and some political scientists have written about this as one of the consequences of EU membership, in that politicians and civil servants look outside their own country.

"They look to EU institutions, they look to their colleagues in other countries for policies, for approval, and they find their own citizens and their own voters often rather a nuisance. And therefore it limits political choice. And I think that makes many people more and more impatient, frustrated.

"The historical question is very interesting and I think one could take two rather polarized views.

"One would be to say that this proves that Britain is unique. And indeed both sides of the argument tend to say that. So, some people who are in favor of leave say we have a long tradition of democracy, our legal system is different, etc.

"People on the remain side often say that Britain is nostalgic for empire, it has never recovered from its loss of empire, this kind of thing; and that Brexit is nostalgia, looking toward the past.

"On the other hand you could say, and I would tend to say this as a historian, the differences between Britain and other EU countries are actually not very great.

"I think the most obvious difference is that Britain did not lose the Second World War and therefore, I do not think that most people in Britain regard the EU as somehow the savior of the European civilization."

During the two world wars most of Europe became a battlefield. Following the end of the conflicts, there was a strong drive to create lasting peace in the region. Although a large part of the European continent was occupied by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, the U.K. was not. Along with countries including the U.S. it was a member of the allied nations that ultimately won the conflict.

Professor Tombs spoke about mainland Europe's attitude to countries outside the continent in comparison to those held in the U.K., "If you go to France, which I know well, or other European countries, the rest of the world seems to be a threat and the EU is seen as a kind of protection against the world."

"That's not something you hear very much here (the U.K.). And it's partly because I don't think we think of the rest of the world as being such an alien place.

"After all, when you think a large part of the world or a considerable part of the world is English-speaking and of course English being the global language, I think we probably have a different instinctive relationship with the idea of the non-European world.

"General (Charles) de Gaulle (former French president, founder of France's 5th Republic and leader of the French Resistance in World War II) thought this. When he refused to allow Britain to join the common market (the European Economic Community, EEC, a forerunner organization to the EU) he made a famous speech in which he said England is an island connected by all sorts of links with the rest of the world.

"Therefore, it's not really a European country. I think there's some truth in that. The leave argument has often been made in terms of globalism.

"The remain argument is often made in terms of Europeanism. And it seems to me it's much more Euro-centric than the leave argument."

In 2014, "The English and their History," a book Tombs wrote centered only on the history of England, was published to critical appreciation and attention. In the 2016 referendum, of the four nations comprising the U.K., a majority of voters in England and Wales chose to leave, while in Scotland and Northern Ireland more opted for remain, revealing divisions between the country's members.

On Scotland's position toward the EU and Brexit, Tombs says, "Scotland, of course, has a strong nationalist movement. And for them the EU is the way that they can be an independent state."

"One of the effects of the EU has been to create separatist movements in a number of countries. Because a small country, of course, within the EU system feels that it can be safe, which is in a sense quite true.

"Small country nationalism is often thought to be a good and liberating thing. Big country nationalism is thought to be oppressive and undesirable. And it's true; there are people in England who feel quite strongly that they are not allowed to express their national pride and so on.

"It's said that people who define themselves as English rather than British are more likely to be leave supporters, but why that is (is) quite difficult to say.

"People who describe themselves as English may simply have a stronger sense of attachment to a place. And there's probably a connection between that and leave voting in the sense of a national democracy, national sovereignty."


The EU's system of governance

The EU government is often criticized as "Bureaucracy from Brussels (the location of many of the EU's administrative bodies)." Accusations of bureaucracy are mainly aimed at the European Commission, which drafts and enacts legislation.

At the top of the some 30,000 people working for the commission is the president of the European Commission, who presides over a team of commissioners, functioning similarly to a government Cabinet as the EU's executive branch. It comprises 28 politicians, one from each member state of the EU.

They present EU legislation drafted by the commission to the Council of the European Union, made up of government ministers from member states, and the European Parliament, whose members are appointed by elections held in each EU country.

Following the deliberations, legislation is enacted. Due to its structure, the EU is charged with being undemocratic by parts of its citizenry. Feelings of dissatisfaction are not uncommon, often stemming from a sense that decisions affecting people's lives are being decided by a commission and bureaucrats seen not to have a mandate to reflect the public because they cannot be voted for or against via an electoral process. The many cases of EU law superseding member states' own national laws have also been objects for criticism.

(Japanese original by Masanori Hattori, Europe General Bureau (London))

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