Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Mark Milke (D DELAMONT)
Mark Milke (D DELAMONT)

Theresa May is right: Let the British be British Add to ...

Mark Milke is an author, columnist and president of the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Calgary.

With the snap, surprise election called by British Prime Minister Theresa May to seek a firmer mandate to negotiate her country’s exit from the European Union, expect more lectures on why Ms. May and British voters should reverse course on “Little England” impulses.

Such caterwauling started with last June’s Brexit vote. That was the referendum that began the British breakaway from the ever-tighter political and economic union coalescing on the continent.

The Economist, always opposed to Brexit, is an example. It regularly “hand-bagged” voters before the vote and has done the same to the May government ever since. In this country, editorial boards, including The Globe and Mail’s, similarly decry the original Brexit decision. The critics are wrong and for reasons anchored in three realities: British history and institutions; EU dysfunction; and the sensible need to control one’s borders – especially given the first two factors.

Great Britain deserves its adjective for any number of reasons. For anyone concerned with traditional and laudable freedoms and institutions – Western civilization, ponder what Britain represents: the land that gave property owners rights in the Magna Carta in 1215; solidified parliamentary democracy with the Glorious Revolution in 1688-89; abolished slavery at home, in its empire and then abroad in the 19th century; and in the 20th century helped save Europe from itself in two world wars. This is not a country that should permanently subsume itself into a bureaucratic pastiche in Brussels, no matter how well-intended.

Had Brexit failed, what Britain represents – and still is – would have been permanently altered. The country would have been sacrificed to a continent where selected countries are apparently not cemented in the notion that Western norms – the rights of the individual, the rule of law, separation of powers, among others – are preferable to yet another experiment in autocracy. A useful example is Hungary. In Budapest, the government is reviving inglorious past repression and allying itself with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The folly of permanent attachment to the EU, given the continent’s more shallow liberal democratic roots, is one reason why a plurality of British voters were right to demand an exit. It is why Ms. May is now correct in seeking a firm parliamentary mandate to reinforce the same.

Another reason is EU economic dysfunction. Recall Greece in 2010, with German (and British) reaction to how successive Greek politicians and the public even balked at ensuring the Greeks retired near to the same age as their own citizens, and not years earlier. Or recall ignored EU budget directives, how EU member states suffered no consequences for continually ignoring EU rules on deficits. The ensuing sea of red ink and fraud among some member states led to unsustainable borrowing. Lest we forget, that almost caused the collapse of other European economies when the borrowing bills came due.

The European project is not without its virtues. Winston Churchill favoured a more integrated Europe after the Second World War. He also favoured a Britain more economically involved with the continent. However, as Churchill historians William Manchester and Paul Reid have written, he spoke in “broad and imprecise terms” on that matter. It seems unlikely Mr. Churchill would have favoured the de facto abolishment of the nation-state for which he fought.

Canadians should understand British sensitivities. In the lead-up to the 1988 federal election in Canada, the opposition Liberals and New Democrats and their hysterical allies warned that a Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement would end an independent Canada. It was nonsense because free trade does the opposite: it allows the smaller power the advantage of a rules-based trading system. That (mostly) shields it from protectionist political urges in the economically more powerful country.

However, imagine the outcry, which would have been justifiable, had the United States pushed Canada to give up its currency. In Britain, that was in play in the 1990s until Margaret Thatcher stopped it. Or ponder Canadian reaction now if our immigration policy and judicial rulings were ultimately trumped by agencies and rulings in Washington. That is the position in which Britain remains until Brexit takes effect.

A more integrated Europe always made sense, as has some British participation. But the European project should have always focused more on free trade, not on melding multiple and diverse countries into one political project.

Ms. May is right to seek an election that will likely affirm the sensible right of the British to be British.

Report Typo/Error

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeDebate

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular