A.J.P. Taylor, the greatest twentieth century English historian of modern Europe, was strongly opposed to England entering the European Economic Community, then known in England as the Common Market, now called the European Union. This is from an article he published in the The Sunday Express on July 11 1971, under the headline, The Path to Ruin:
Historians, even the finest, rarely have any insight into the politics of their own time. We see this with Tony Judt, Norman Davies and a hundred others who trot out Guardian-reader platitudes. We see it too with historians on the right, like Andrew Roberts admiring George W. Bush. This is true of AJP Taylor too, with his fear of German unification and his campaigning for unilateral nuclear disarmament. His views on the EEC and all his other journalism are dated (unlike his books which are timeless) but the point he makes here is very interesting. Though the argument he makes would be an argument for the UK leaving NATO too. NATO, not the EEC, was what kept 'the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down', to quote the words of the first NATO Secretary-General, Lord Ismay. NATO not the EEC kept peace in Europe. I do not take isolationism so far as to wish that we had not been in NATO, though had we stayed out of the war with Hitler it is unlikely, though no-one can possibly know, that the Cold War and NATO would have come into being.
We have been most secure when we kept out of Europe. Meddling with European affairs has brought us nothing but toil and suffering. The greatest age of British economic achievement was in the nineteenth century. Then we were truly the workshop of the world. The sole principle of our foreign policy was Splendid Isolation. This was the basis for our prosperity.
Of course we do not want to see new wars in Europe. But if we enter into European alliances or European associations we make war more likely. Already German statesmen are saying that the new European Super Power will be able to challenge Soviet Russia. Is this what British people desire?
During the twentieth-century we were twice involved in great European wars. We were told that this was necessary for our security. On each occasion we came out less secure than when we went in. We were told we could not allow one country to dominate the Continent. And what happened? In 1940 one country did dominate the Continent. Yet we survived thanks solely to our own strength. And we should have been far stronger in the summer of 1940 if we had not previously sent an expeditionary force to France and lost all its equipment at Dunkirk.
The Battle of Britain was the most glorious event in our recent history. We won it without European allies. We won it because we had detached ourselves from Europe. It was the victory of Splendid Isolation. Long ago in the days of sailing ships, there was perhaps a case for saying that we could not allow Antwerp to pass into enemy hands. Even in the days of short-range aircraft and rockets there was a case for saying that we were concerned for the independence of Belgium and Northern France. Now nuclear weapons, if they are ever used, will come from thousands of miles away. The security of western Europe has no special significance for us. In weapons, as in other things, the world has become one.
I loathe Sir Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist leader, who was imprisoned during the Second World War, and think him a bad man and a cynical demagogue, but Mosley was no fool and he was right about one thing. The doctrine of England keeping the balance of power in Europe was a terrible mistake, in the 18th and early 19th centuries and in 1914. Going to war in 1939 was probably also a mistake. This argument could be used to support the idea that we should have kept out of NATO. War with Soviet Russia after the Soviets acquired the bomb would have been an even greater mistake, of course, but I never believed for one moment during the Cold War that a hot war in Europe was a real possibility. NATO, I believe, prevented war, though it was certainly an application of the balance of power theory.
Keeping out of Europe, even if a federal European state were to come into being across the Channel, was surely the right course. There are many strong arguments for the UK not leaving the EU now and many strong arguments for her doing so but it is hard not to conclude that our joining in the first place was a grave mistake.
More and more, it seems to me that Joseph Chamberlain was far sighted in his hopes for an economic union based on what became the British Dominions: Canada, Australia and New Zealand. How South Africa, Kenya, Rhodesia or India would have fitted in, who knows?
Curious that Chamberlain broke with Gladstone and the Liberals over Home Rule for Ireland, yet Gladstone has very clearly been proven right. Home Rule might very probably have kept Southern Ireland in the UK. Both Chamberlain and Gladstone were political giants, both went through conversions (to Home Rule and Tariff Reform) that made the political weather for a generation and both, it seems to me, were far-sighted, even though there opinions were apparently contradictory. An imperial customs union and Home Rule for Ireland were not incompatible but both would have strengthened the British Empire. Keeping out of war in Europe in 1914 and in 1939 would have done so too.