We can leave the EU, but not Europe. Isolation is no longer splendid | Simon Jenkins

History cries out for Britain not to abandon free trade. Once this led to colonies – now the European single market is the only option

Give history a vote, I say. In politics the past is always wiser than the present, but no one speaks up for it. Sometimes we need it badly, like now. Britain’s exit from the EU echoes centuries of aversion to continental involvement. At issue is not leaving the EU, which we will do, but how – whether it makes sense to abandon half a century of partnership with Europe for a dream of equally valuable trading deals with the outside world. This dream has no shred of evidential support. It appears to be an atavistic gesture of post-imperial self-harm.

There is a host of precedents for Britain standing aloof from Europe’s imbroglios. When Protestant Huguenots pleaded for support, Elizabeth I offered them refuge but nothing more. In the 17th century parliaments would have no part in the thirty years war, and England was absent from the 1648 peace of Westphalia. Time and again the argument was to guard British trade, not in Europe but overseas. The “second” hundred years war with France, in the 18th century, was a senseless repeat of the first, with Marlborough fighting bloodthirsty battles with Louis XIV to no substantive purpose. But again England benefited from the treaties of Utrecht and Paris, in securing colonies and thus more trade. An early champion of “leave”, William Pitt the Elder regarded European treaties as “dangerous to our liberties and destructive of our trade”. He built a commercial empire instead.

Throughout the 19th century Britain intervened only when its economic interests were directly threatened, by Napoleon at sea and in the colonies. When in 1807 he proposed an early European common market, deliberately to blockade British commerce, the British navy sank the entire enforcing fleet in Copenhagen harbour. At the Congress of Vienna, Lord Castlereagh was under strict cabinet instructions to avoid any territorial commitment. Britain was not interested in Europe. The Whig Lord John Russell even wanted the army disbanded, lest it turn Britain “from a mighty island into a petty continental state”. It might have been Boris Johnson talking.

The 20th century saw Britain’s “leavers” still in full cry, but by now the consequences were mixed. Lord Salisbury had championed “splendid isolation” and did little to calm European tension and German aggression. His interests were imperial preference and tariff reform. After 1918, when Europe most needed Britain’s engagement, David Lloyd George and John Maynard Keynes failed to curb France’s crippling of the German economy, making the rise of Hitler all but certain. Under Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s failure to confront a renewed German threat to Europe’s peace was never more blatant. Britain was duly forced to respond with a “darkest hour” and a mighty commitment.

After 1945, when everything pointed to a more united Europe, Britain again opted for “leave”. It joined America in Nato, but rejected the new Common Market to protect its Commonwealth trade. This was the turning point, when a concentration on trade should have redirected attention from the old empire to the booming markets of the continent. Hence the wisdom of Britain finally applying to join the Common Market in the 1960s.

It was ironic that this was vetoed by Charles de Gaulle, the French president, who saw British membership as a Trojan horse for wider free trade across the Atlantic. When in 1973 Britain did finally join, it was because its interests had changed. This was emphasised in Margaret Thatcher’s signature of the 1986 Single European Act.

At this point history’s voice should have sounded a warning. The 1986 act was explicitly aimed at “ever closer” political and monetary union. Had Thatcher stuck to her instincts, she would have opted to join the “other” Europe of Scandinavia and the countries in the outer Europe free trade area instead. In other words, she would have seen the parting of the ways, between commercial interest and political folly, as she and Britain were led into a union with which its people grew ever more disaffected.

Continental Europe is still a safer, richer economic entity than any other part of the world. It has risked most when its leaders have been drawn into a craving for power. Euro-centralism ends in tears, from the Catholic dogmatism of the Holy Roman Empire to the autocracy of Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin. This has always evoked a reactive nationalism, as now from Britain, Poland, Hungary, Spain and even Germany. Already the EU’s obsession with bureaucratic “harmonisation” is fraying at the edges.

The achievement of postwar Europe was peace through collective prosperity, lowered borders, open trade, welfare states and sovereign currencies. It has been damaged by the pseudo-union of a dysfunctional eurozone and, most dangerously, by the alienation of post-communist Russia. Both have arisen from an EU that is distracted from its origins in open markets and flexible currencies.

History cries out for Britain not to abandon free trade. Where once this trade led to overseas colonies, it now leads to a European single market. Britain does not need a “seat at the Brussels table” to play an active role in Europe’s economy. It will always do that. But it must be open to Europe’s goods and services and to its brightest and best – and even its cheapest.

Other EU governments may be foolish in not doing more to help Britain’s cause at present. But no one is thinking clearly. Britain is the one that voted to leave. The answer to the Brexit question is leave, but within the single market, however defined. That is what gets history’s vote.

• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

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Simon Jenkins

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