Nation states have been grappling with the forces of globalisation for thousands of years, and the United Kingdom is no exception. Ever since the Romans landed on our shores we have been an integral part of the international community, buffeted by the winds of commerce, military conflict and geo-politics.
With the passing of the centuries we gradually came to master the mutually reinforcing arts of warfare and empire-building, a process that ultimately gave rise to a period of global hegemony.
But the defining feature of the UK’s role in the world since 1945 has been our evolution from imperial power to global partner. And we should celebrate this transformation because it has without doubt been morally, politically and economically the right path to have taken.
This journey has certainly been underpinned by a sense of guilt – the terrible legacies of the slave trade, the scramble for Africa and the carving up of the Middle East have provided successive governments since 1945 with a moral compass that helped them to navigate their way through to the modern era.
But this journey has also been powered by political and economic realism. Exponential increases in the movement of goods, services, capital and people across national borders have given rise to a world in which the lines between the domestic and the foreign have blurred to the point of being meaningless. The British people finally came to embrace this reality when they voted emphatically in favour of joining the European Economic Community, a decision which must rank alongside the creation of the Commonwealth as the most significant milestone in our hitherto incremental transformation from imperial power to global partner.
The 1974 referendum was the moment that the UK’s role in the world shifted on its axis. It was the moment that we grew up. It was the moment that we acknowledged the fact that Europe was increasingly based on pooled sovereignties, economic integration and shared institutions, and that joining the club was, quite simply, the right thing to do.
Fast forward 42 years, and we see how right we were. From the steel crisis to the Panama papers, to the refugee crisis, to tackling the Kremlin, the vital role of the EU as a clearing house for the most pressing issues of our time is beyond doubt. The EU might not always be the elegant, well-oiled machine that we would like it to be, but if it didn’t exist we would have to invent it.
The Brexiteers argue that the UK could stay on good terms with its neighbours, and even that we could secure a soft Brexit. A cursory glance at article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and a barely educated guess at the toxic political dynamics that would frame any Brexit negotiations will rapidly lead you to the conclusion that they are deluded if that is what they truly believe.
But in a sense this misses the more fundamental point. The UK’s post-colonial role in the world has evolved in an almost entirely progressive manner. Of course there have been retrograde steps along the way, such as Suez and Iraq, but overall the direction of travel has been towards ever-greater co-operation, enlightenment and engagement. Seen against this backdrop, it is clear that Brexit would reverse and destroy the decades of slow but steady progress that have made the UK the country that it is today. It would shatter our perception of ourselves, and it would cause the rest of the world to fundamentally re-assess its view of our role.
To paraphrase Martin Luther King, ‘The arc if history is long, but it curves towards progress’. I think that most people believe this to be true. I certainly do. Let us hope that on 24 June we will be able to say the same about the nature and destiny of the United Kingdom.