One of the hot topics this week has been Brexit, Great Britain’s decision (at least England’s) to leave the European Union (EU). I find it interesting and perhaps a bit ironic that it came so close to the USA’s Independence Day, July 4. However, whether or not the decision will stand or be reversed via the Bremain movement is yet to be seen as more and more ramifications of the decision evolve.
This was the perfect time to interview author and historian, Christopher Berg, author/compiler of a book of essays on the British Empire entitled “Small Island, Big History.” I love the cover, which was a real eye-opener regarding Britain’s conquests over the centuries. Truly, British influence is worldwide, something that’s easily forgotten today when Britain’s prominence has retreated since the last century.
Let’s see what an expert on the subject has to say.
MF: As a historian, especially with regard to the UK, did you see “Brexit” coming when the EU began to stumble a few years ago?
CB: No, I did not, though in hindsight, the UK was reluctant to relinquish the British pound for euros as it would have diluted their purchasing power, but, aside from this, the only one who probably saw it was Niall Ferguson.
MF: Do you think it was skepticism toward the EU at its inception that motivated the UK to retain its own currency and not accept the euro?
CB: That might be part of the answer but such matters are rarely so simple or cut-and-dry. In an international context, the sovereignty of a nation must be maintained and to devalue, dilute, or jettison a national currency in favor of a new and untested common currency linked to dozens of other nations of varying economic strength and solvency was problematic for the British.
MF: The British Empire influenced the entire world with its conquests, largely by planting substantial populations imbued with its culture throughout the globe. From South Africa to India, New Zealand and Australia, there is no doubt that the British have enjoyed a worldwide influence. While over the past several decades, independence has been granted to several commonwealths, some peacefully, others not so much, with its extensive history of imperialism, why do you think that the UK joined the EU in the first place?
CB: Self-interest. That is the primary motivation for most first-world nations and, perhaps, many aspiring nations that want to join the ranks. And, it was an evolving economic reality and to keep markets stable and encourage and maintain good trade relationships with her continental neighbors, the British pondered long and hard about their entry into such an economic community.
MF: Do you think there was a single coup de grace that drove England to withdraw from the EU?
CB: The issue with many European banks bordering on the brink of collapse, the considerable economic tensions escalating with such countries as Ireland, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as the issue of a “bail-in” in Cyprus was startling news to many, including Germany. The specific issue or trigger is much more difficult to pinpoint, if there is one. Again, I would defer to Niall Ferguson, the imminent Harvard economic historian.
MF: Britain’s conquests have been anything but friendly, which earned her a lot of opposition based on her reputation for an iron hand and brutal enforcement. Do you think being tromped during WWII took her entirely by surprise? What affect did that have on her subsequent policies toward her commonwealths and the world in general?
CB: WWII caught Britain by surprise in some respects. The fall of Singapore, for example, suggests that they really had little intelligence on the “strength” or “state” of their empire. It was simply the leadership of Winston Churchill that gave the British people the moral resolve to withstand the Nazi threat in 1940-41 and the budding friendship of Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt known as the “special relationship.” Churchill was willing to make many compromises in terms of relinquishing colonies, and, as a former Colonial Secretary, was more even-handed in his approach to the colonies. However, the shock of losing the empire after 1945 and the rise of self-determination brought a tough decision on how to move forward. The British had lost their preeminent position of the Victorian Age and, now with the rise of the United States as the world superpower, a new balance-of-power had been thrust upon Great Britain. Churchill’s prescience and a concern for home and social matters helped to ease the transition of Britain from a recognized world power to that of a secondary role.
MF: The initial response of the financial markets toward England’s withdrawal from the EU was unfavorable for its currency. What do you think the long term effect will be, to strengthen or continue to weaken the pound?
CB: I think that the move to withdraw from the EU was Britain’s response to growing uncertainty, the rise of international unrest, and economic instability in many EU-member countries. In the short term, I think this was a defensive move to maintain the pound’s position. The long term position is much harder to discern as economics is a volatile area that is very difficult to manage, much less be proactive about.
MF: What lessons should remaining members of the EU take from England’s withdrawal? Do you think others will follow?
CB; I do think that others might follow suit and others have expressed interest, such as Germany. The stronger economies will definitely begin to re-think their present position and the international effect is only beginning to be felt, even here in the United States.
MF: What effect will this break for freedom have upon England’s citizenry? Do you think it will restore their pride and increase nationalism in a dramatic way?
CB: So far, it has shown to have a galvanizing effect upon the British people, a sense of renewed solidarity, and, perhaps, even a return to protectionist policies.
You can pick up a copy of “Small Island, Big History” at the following links:
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