Back to the 50s, the 1550s

What would a standalone Britain look like? We don’t really know because there has never been one. For its entire history, Great Britain has been part of something bigger. By the time King James united England and Scotland under one crown the imperial project was already under way. By the time the two countries were formally united, England had a sizeable empire. Scotland had tried to build a rival empire and its failure forced it into unification with England. Great Britain was a product of empire.

It wasn’t plucky little Britain that stood alone against Hitler in 1940, it was a global superstate called the British Empire. It was a global superstate on its last legs but it was still able to marshal enough resources and manpower to keep the Nazi state at bay until America and Russia joined the war.

Then, almost as soon as that empire was dismantled, Britain joined another larger entity, the EU.

So to find a standalone Britain you have to go back much further. As Fintan O’Toole says, you have to go back to that period after the kings of England had lost their territories in France and before the union of crowns in 1603; in other words to Tudor England. A post-Brexit Britain is very likely to resemble the Tudor realm territorially. If Scotland quits the union, we are left with England, Wales and a sliver of Ireland, not that different from the England of Henry VIII. Instead of going back to the 1950s, it will be back to the 1550s.

We tend to think of Tudor England as a golden age when the country was on the rise. It is true that, towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, England enjoyed some military successes. For most of the period, though, England was weak, walking a diplomatic line between France and the Hapsburg domains. But Tudor England was a weak country growing stronger whereas post-Brexit Britain will be a strong(ish) country growing weaker. It is true, as the Leave campaigners say, that a post-Brexit Britain will still be a large economy with significant military and political clout but it will still be much diminished. For historians, this will give Britain’s history a pleasing symmetry. As it saunters off the world stage, the country will assume a similar shape to that which it had when it burst onto the world stage 400 years earlier.


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7 Responses to Back to the 50s, the 1550s

  1. P Hearn says:

    Who’s talking about a “standalone Britain”? Those of us who’d like to leave the EU want to be part of a bigger, global picture, and to return the UK to its position at the world’s top table.

    Sitting in a fetid, sclerotic 1950s customs union, which directly impoverishes many developing nations, is not the way to achieve that aim, economically or morally. The EU has to be careful that it doesn’t itself become irrelevant, as it clings to the notion that tariff barriers will allow the French to keep their inefficient agriculture sector going, whilst the Germans need to watch that the Euro, whilst good for exports, doesn’t lead to social collapse in the southern states like Greece. They need to move to complete political union at full speed, and with us out of the way, that could proceed more quickly. I suspect some other countries might join us (Sweden, Denmark, Finland) in a trade-only deal with the new United States of Europe.

    The false choice between the EU and oblivion has been one of the more irritating aspects of the Remain campaign. I suppose if you’re going to tell a lie, make it a big one. Seen that on both sides over the last four months.

    There is life beyond the 8% of the global population that lives in the EU. I hope Britain will be brave enough to take the opportunity to become part of it again.

  2. Jim says:

    “The false choice between the EU and oblivion has been one of the more irritating aspects of the Remain campaign. ”

    Its a direct copy of the ‘Anyone who wishes to reform the NHS will inevitably usher in a 100% privatised US style healthcare system’ argument. Completely ignoring the fact there are many examples of medical systems all across the world (in fact most of them) that are neither the NHS nor the US system.

    And as such its a bogus argument.

  3. The chief reason for the growth of British power over the course of the 16th century was the discovery of the Americas. Basically, we got lucky with geography, both by virtue of proximity and the need for a large merchant marine due to being an island. While some Brexiteers have tried to suggest that there’s “a whole new world” to discover post-EU, the reality is that the structural advantages of the Tudor era are no longer available. The irony of Boris Johnson invoking “Independence Day” is that we could do with evidence of extraterrestrial life.

  4. Richard Exell says:

    “not that different from the England of Henry VIII” – though one thing that will be different is that Calais won’t elect two members of the English Parliament, as it did after Thomas Cromwell’s reforms.

  5. Patricia Leighton says:

    The chance of avoiding ‘alone’ depends on other people and countries. Who are the allies? US? Australia? China? As a result of this nasty campaign by Brexit we have even fewer potential allies than we had before. It’s time to get real and recognise the paucity of our options outside the EU

  6. Patricia Leighton says:

    Why was England in a weak position in the 1550s?

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