Oh, it’s a snug little island
A right little, tight little island
Search the globe, none can be found
So happy as this little island
Charles Diblin 1745-1814
Observers who expressed shock and dismay when the English voted for Brexit, that is, to exit the European Union and go it alone, did not take account of the English obstinate streak, particularly when they felt that they were being put upon. The English, for example, promoted free trade when other emerging industrial powers sought protection for their industries. England’s poor associated free trade with cheap food.
Despite several attempts, England has not been invaded successfully since 1066. As Daniel Hannan has pointed out, England has not run a trade surplus since 1822, yet it remains one of the world’s largest exporters of manufactured goods. Those who say England “can’t manufacture” are probably overlooking a little thing called the Industrial Revolution, when, as Benjamin Disraeli said, England was “the workshop of the world”.
To put things in perspective, the most profound legislative change in English political economy was the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846. Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the home market in grain had been protected by tariffs. This increased the price of food for the poor, meaning that the poor were subsidising landed interests.
Due to a worldwide shortage of grain during the Hungry Forties, which included the Great Irish Famine (1845–1849), the Corn Laws did not have an immediate effect on the English market or agricultural interests. As the world market in grain recovered, England began to import large quantities of grain, including from Australia. This drove down the price of bread. With the invention of refrigerated shipping, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina began shipping meat to England in bulk, enriching the diet of the English people.
More recently, English farmers benefited from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) when the United Kingdom joined the European Union (EU).
The foregoing is intended to show that England does not “need” the EU.
The current difficulties with Brexit and the negotiations for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to exit the EU revolve around the fact that the plebiscite on Brexit from the EU came down decisively in favour of exit, and most decisively in the Labour heartland of the Midlands and Northern England. The Opposition Labour Party is led by Jeremy Corbyn, a democratic socialist who advocates, among other things, unilateral nuclear disarmament.
The history of England has a number of recurring themes, as outlined in The English and Their History by Robert Tombs (Penguin, 2015). Tombs is Professor of History at Cambridge University and is a leading scholar in Anglo-French relations. England could not, by itself, dominate Europe, so it was impelled to form coalitions. War, for England, was horrendously expensive and it was decisive governance and dynamic public financing that allowed England to wage war effectively.
The Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815) cost England more than a trillion dollars in today’s money, more than either World War I or World War II. The Royal Navy dominated the world’s sea-lanes and
enforced Admiralty Law. The professional Army, which lacked the prestige of the Navy, was mainly deployed overseas. The Territorials, or Volunteers, were a voluntary part-time force. They were tasked with protecting the home islands. It has been a characteristic of English defence policy to allow the armed forces to run down when there is no apparent immediate threat.
If there is one thing that England, a small, foggy, not very fertile island off the north-western coast of Europe, has given the world, it is rule-governed behaviour. The English created, or codified, most sports – with the exception of golf, the Scots would say – in the latter half of the 19th century.
Sport is one thing that outlasted the British Empire. Rudyard Kipling described the Indian mania for cricket during the colonial era, a game at which the apprentice has overcome the master. Football, including Association football or “soccer”, was formalised as a sport by English public schools in the mid-19th century. Each public school has its own variety of “football”. The game of Rugby was derived from the game played at Rugby School. Rugby was a game for gentlemen and gentlemen did not play for money, but for the love of the game.
The river of death has brimmed his banks
And England’s far and Honour’s a name
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks
“Play up! play up! and play the game!
Vitae Lampada, Sir Henry Newbolt (1862–1938)
The Duke of Wellington probably did not say that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton but, as Tombs says, it was British pluck and steadiness that defeated the élan and dash of the French at Waterloo. Of course, many of the Iron Duke’s troops were Scottish and Irish, and the Prussians arrived in the nick of time, but after this battle the English ruled the world from 1815 to 1914 in a manner unparalleled since the time of Imperial Rome.
The Mother of Parliaments has had a few false pregnancies, but the English system of governance provided a working model for newly formed independent nations around the world. Probably England’s most important political gift to the political world was the notion of “Her Majesty’s loyal opposition”.
England is once more bedevilled by John Bull’s Other Island, as George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) called his birthplace. The Ulster Unionists, who desperately want Northern Ireland to remain connected to Britain, are keeping Theresa May’s Conservatives on a leash.
“We seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind,” wrote Sir John Seeley in The Expansion of England (1883). This work was a call to arms. England had a duty to its empire. Brexit will mean that England is once more an independent actor on the world stage. And that’s the way the English want it.