My Lords, many noble Lords will recall the story of when Queen Victoria was on the Throne and a storm cut the radio link between Europe and the British Isles. The next day, a Times headline reported the breakdown: it read “Continent Isolated”. That sense of superiority, once referred to as “All foreigners start at Calais”, is long gone. Now it seems to some that Brexit has turned that all on its head, that it is the British Isles which are about to be isolated from Europe.
But is it right to equate Europe with the European Union? Yes, there are many ways in which the flag of the EU flies for all within continental Europe. It is a convenient and pragmatic way of conducting political, cultural and economic business and activities, but that bypasses the much longer and lasting relationships built, not over the past few decades, but over the past many centuries between the British Isles and their continental neighbours.
In days gone by, this country sought to make alliances to help balance power in Europe, whether against Napoleon 200 years ago or Germany in the past century, so as to protect our own interests and future security. It is not inconceivable that one day other EU members will decide to follow the UK in exiting the Union. Collaboration with them thereafter would be to retread our historic path of securing our best national interests by seeking out strategic balances within the continent of Europe.
That security self-interest persists today, of course. It persists within NATO and other bilateral agreements on defence issues and more widely through the historic recognition and value of our contribution to culture, the arts, the English language, sciences and the law. In today’s lexicon, that is a galaxy of very considerable soft power. This rich heritage has worldwide application, not just in continental Europe, to our great benefit and renown. It is a proactive form of soft power that reaches across national boundaries and continents. Modern communication makes it that much easier and faster to reach out with this compact of influence.
We have all these tools and blessings, but we need voices to embrace and extoll them, to focus our own people on this positive, exciting vision for the future. So I share the feelings of regret and disillusionment about the fables of doom and despair which have so characterised the past year or 18 months. Surely there should be greater encouragement and belief in ourselves and in what drawing on our heritage and contemporary skills can provide.
I was glad to note that some recent journalistic coverage is beginning to address the positive, rather than the negative, aspects of where we are now and where we shall go after
Traditionally, and long before the EU, these have involved individuals and groups working bilaterally or multilaterally with other individuals and nations. Will this not long continue, even after this particular European Union passes into history? Why should these types of links not persist? The freedom to make such relationships, to seek them out, to foster them and to benefit from them is a blessing of our free society. Let that search be the new year resolution for this country, regardless of the decision reached in the other place. Whatever it is, it will not be true to say that the British Isles are now isolated.