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The Brexit Debate Is a Battle over Churchillian Ideals

As the United Kingdom’s departure date from the European Union on March 29, 2019 looms, British politicians remain intensely divided on what Brexit should entail. Look no further than the proliferating, jargon-filled Brexit lexicon: the latest addition is Boris Johnson’s plan for a “Super Canada” trade arrangement. But this confusing lack of unity over the future UK-EU relationship ultimately reflects the key ambiguity within a deeply entrenched British vision of foreign policy.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, © Between 1939 and 1945.

Visions are a prerequisite for all coherent decision-making in foreign policy. They are conditioned by both interpretations of the past and expectations and hopes for the future. Napoleon’s vision for a common infrastructure and legal code throughout Europe shaped his foreign policy and military conquests. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points laid out a vision for a peaceful future that would be mediated by a League of Nations. Yet, just as these visions can serve as sources of creative policy, they can also be a hindrance to novel ways of thinking about foreign affairs.
Winston Churchill laid out his influential vision of British foreign policy in his speech as Leader of the Opposition at the 1948 Conservative conference. He argued that the UK was the only country that stood at the center of three spheres of world influence: the Commonwealth, that is, the British Empire; the English-speaking world, or Anglosphere (including, above all, the Anglo-American Special Relationship); and what Churchill called a “United Europe.” Bringing these three spheres closer together would bring a safe and happy future to humanity, but also bestow Britain with an exceptional degree of world influence. In turn, Churchill hoped that this would shape a distinctive post-war profile for Britain. Without necessarily indicating Churchill’s specific preferences, these three spheres remain the accepted prism through which British foreign relations are thought about, regardless of partisanship.
The first two spheres have rarely provided grounds for controversy in British politics. As the state at the helm of the Commonwealth, pre- and post-decolonization, the UK’s relative influence has rarely wavered, though some now question the relevance of the institution itself. The Anglosphere is more a romantic idea than an institution, although it does find institutional expression through the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. Fertile ground for contestation emerges, instead, in the UK’s relationship with the European sphere. It is telling that ideas about the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere surface frequently in Eurosceptic thought, as a way of marginalizing Europe. In the lead-up to the Brexit referendum, for instance, Michael Gove offered the US as an example of how the UK “can shape an optimistic, forward looking and genuinely internationalist alternative to the path the EU is going down.” This ground for disagreement was there from the start: Churchill was especially ambiguous about his position on a United Europe, extolling its virtues while also advocating the preservation of British freedom and maneuverability. The UK ought to be “linked but not compromised” in its relations with Europe.
The problem, of course, is how to define “compromised.” As a result of this ambiguity, proponents of one Brexit vision or another can claim Churchill, and his rhetorically useful prestige as a wartime leader, as their own. For many in favor of a “soft” Brexit, or even its reversal by remaining in the European Union, the two alternative spheres of the Commonwealth and Anglosphere offer little that might bolster British influence in the world relative to EU membership. Others—“hard” Brexiters—see the history of British integration into Europe as a betrayal of commitment to the Commonwealth and Anglosphere. They will accept nothing less than departing from the EU’s single market and customs union, its principle economic regulations and authority. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Chequers plan—which can be seen as a middle way, a “soft” variation of “hard” Brexit—has garnered little enthusiastic support in this fundamental clash.
When the contours of both bilateral relationships and global order are uncertain, defining a consensual foreign-policy identity is a difficult task. Protracted political debate, immersed in ambiguous references to history, complicates it further. But recalling Churchill’s framework does clarify just what balance of policy is in dispute and the logic behind rival visions for the UK’s future.
The “hard” Brexit position projects unwavering confidence in the UK’s ability to forge its own path in the world, to draw on a powerful history that privileges its continuing and evolving relationship with the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere. The fear is that European integration promises to swallow the UK and its other relationships into irrelevance—or worse, non-existence. The “soft” Brexiters make the opposite calculation. Dismissing the present-day potential of the Commonwealth and Anglosphere as grounds for economic and political influence, they seek instead to preserve forms of partnership with the European Union. Europe is less a threat than a commitment to shared values requiring institutional ties.
The ultimate winners of this momentous debate will not be those who come up with the most novel and immediate policy solution. Instead, it will be those who best mesh their policy into Churchill’s existing framework, setting out a renewed interpretation of the UK’s place among the three spheres. Indeed, it may be a considerable amount of time—well after the departure agreement deadline—before these winners are recognized as such.


Conor Hannigan

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