Domhnall Casey: Britain's long-standing notions of superiority lurk behind EU debate
A big clue as to why the British might want to leave the EU (apart from the fact that it badly needs reform) surely lies in the way they joined in the first place in 1973. According to Luigi Barzini (in his book 'The Europeans'), they did so "disastrously, too late, too expensively, at the wrong moment, and somewhat squeamishly, though politely concealing their feelings, like decayed aristocrats obliged by adverse circumstances to eat in a soup kitchen for the needy. They made it very clear they did it because of force majeure but they were ready to leave at the first opportune time." And indeed, as early as 1975 they held a referendum on whether to stay or leave.
But to understand their place in Europe we should remember that for some reason, from the 19th century until after the First World War, 'continentals' bent over backwards to imitate British virtues - or, more accurately, the manners and practices of the English ruling classes.
Europeans wore black in flattering imitation of the 'milord' and they regarded all Englishmen as being "well educated, well behaved and incredibly richer than almost all continentals".
English manners were studied and copied, English sporting terms were used and English sports played.
What were thought to be British virtues "such as earnestness, parsimony, prudence, diligence, discipline, perseverance, honesty as the best policy, correct accounting, punctuality, selfless patriotism, courage, the acceptance of death in battle, tenacity, self-control, fair play but, at the same time, the survival of the fittest, loyalty, the pursuit of profit, the practise of vigorous and competitive physical exercise" were admired and envied by continentals. But, Barzini adds, these virtues were admired and feared.
Didn't the British have the most powerful empire, navy and army? The most stable government and most enviable social system, which ensured peace and stability in their Sceptered Isle? And weren't all the virtues listed above, and more, the secret to this success?
By copying them, other people could have them - and the military and industrial might that they made possible. Even Hitler didn't wish for "the Crown of the British empire to lose any of its pearls, for that would be a catastrophe for mankind… an Empire which it was never my intention to harm."
The truth of course was that the 'British character' and the idyll that was Britain was largely a con job. "Foreigners knew little of the struggles between parties, and groups within the parties, of the appalling problems, domestic and imperial, and the terrifying social turmoil that troubled British life." And among the talents that enabled their success was "brutal ruthlessness whenever necessary".
And while the British were thought to be superior in most fields, they certainly lagged behind in "abstract philosophy, music, cuisine and love-making."
Barzini asks if the British were supermen and then, with a friend, comes to a surprising conclusion: no, they were not and are not. But his friend, who was half-Italian and half-English, concluded that they have about seven, maybe a few more, basic ideas "embedded in their heads". An Englishman living in the remote lands of the empire always knew exactly what to do when faced with a dangerous situation. And he could be certain that "the prime minister, the foreign secretary, the cabinet, the queen, the archbishop of Canterbury, the ale drinkers in any pub or the editor of 'The Times' would have approved heartily, because they too had the same seven, or whatever, ideas in their heads and would have behaved in the same way."
Fast forward to 1954. An attempt to create a European Defence Community (EDC) had failed. The British were pleased and so were the French for whom, ironically, the EDC had been invented to please. As Barzini points out, "the French wanted a German army strong enough to defeat the Soviet Union but weak enough to be kept in its place by Luxembourg."
Shortly after this, Gaetano Martino, the Italian foreign minister convened talks in Messina, Sicily, which led to talks in Brussels and the Spaak Report and in 1957 to the Treaty of Rome. The British had declined to send a delegate to Messina and rejected the Spaak Report and of course didn't sign up to the Treaty of Rome.
But they did attend the Brussels meetings, in the person of a senior civil servant, Russell Bretherton. This seemed to send a message that the British regarded the meeting as a "dreary, sterile gathering of economists and treasury officials and not a political union of vast significance one way or another." Bretherton had instructions to "co-operate but to avoid all commitments".
Bretherton's attitude was described by a participant: "[He] usually had a cynical and amused smile on his face. He looked at us like naughty children... enjoying themselves, playing the sort of game which had no relevance and no future."
Bretherton objected to concrete proposals, usually for excellent technical reasons, and pointed out that any good idea that was approved by everybody else would not please the British government and would be surely voted down by the House. One day he vanished altogether and was seen no more, writes Barzini.
But Bretherton remarked later: "If we had taken a firm line, that we wanted to come in and be part of this, we could have made that body more or less into whatever we liked."
France and Germany and the other European countries were too weak at the time. The British were "still considered the moral leaders of Europe". But by 1963 the milords' gilt was tarnished and they were rebuffed and humiliated by the French as impoverished supplicants. A far cry from the 'English' all of Europe apparently aspired to be.