With less than a month until British citizens vote on whether the U.K. should stay in or leave the European Union, Americans could be forgiven for being preoccupied with their own political dramas. Still, President Obama conspicuously weighed in on the British debate in April, writing in The Daily Telegraph “with the candour of a friend” that the vote’s outcome would be “of deep interest to the United States.” Specifically: “The U.S. and the world need your outsized influence to continue—in Europe.”
British voters themselves aren’t so convinced. Polls currently show the “Remain” side in the lead, but the outcome is by no means assured. Advocates of continued U.K. membership in the 28-member political and economic bloc have argued that exiting the organization would severely damage the British economy; diminish the U.K.’s international influence; and destabilize a European continent already wracked by a refugee crisis and economic problems. Those advocating for a so-called Brexit—the “Leave” camp—argue that it would liberate the U.K. from onerous regulations devised and enforced by non-representative foreign bodies based in Brussels. (EU bodies set policy for member states on, among other things, trade, agriculture, and some fiscal matters; member states generally retain control over their own foreign and defense policies. Britain specifically has negotiated the ability to opt out of certain EU-wide policies, particularly on immigration and further political integration.) With its sovereignty thus restored, the U.K. would be better able to handle its own economic, immigration, and other challenges.
Leave campaigners in the U.K., notably former London Mayor Boris Johnson, have criticized the American president’s stance on Britain’s debate. In his own Telegraph op-ed, Johnson accused the U.S. of hypocritically advocating for EU restrictions over the U.K. of a kind that it would never accept for itself.
Alan Sked, also in the Leave camp, sees a deeper flaw in the American view of the entire Britain-EU relationship. Sked, a historian at the London School of Economics, was an early proponent of British independence from the union; he founded the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, in the 1990s with that goal in mind. (He has since disavowed the party, now led by Nigel Farage, as “a vehicle of the far right, obsessed with race and immigration.”) In an article detailing “The Case for Brexit” in The National Interest last fall, he called the European Union an “up-to-date model of a supranational empire,” like the Habsburg, Russian, German, and Ottoman Empires that dominated the continent prior to World War I.
“Americans,” he told me earlier this year, “tend to think of Britain as just one of those [American] colonies in 1776, and all the European states as other colonies”—thus they see a kind of United States of Europe as the desirable result. Sked thinks it’s the reverse: “[T]he real parallel is that Britain should secede from this empire and become an independent state, protecting freedom, as the Americans withdrew from the British Empire.”
I spoke with Sked about what he sees as the stakes for Britain’s referendum, and why Americans have been so involved in the European project to begin with. An edited and condensed transcript of the conversation follows.
Edward Delman: Could you go into a bit more detail about [your] characterization of the EU [as an “up-to-date ... supranational empire”]?
Alan Sked: Empires come in various shapes and forms. Usually at their simplest they're just a territory run by an emperor, and they needn’t be supranational—Japan has an emperor today and Japan is 99 percent Japanese. But most empires are agglomerations of territories around a sort of metropolitan base—a home state—which then expands and takes in other states and territories with different peoples, who are usually conquered and subdued and forced to be made part of an empire. They either accept the situation or they rebel like the Americans. So this idea of Europe as an empire is one in which you get a central bureaucracy making rules for the whole of Europe—this is what the EU would like to do. Instead of having best practice, viewed from one state to another, you have rules and regulations and directives—one size fits all—actually smothering progress in the individual European states.
Delman: So if the EU is an empire, how would you characterize a British exit from the EU? Could that be seen as decolonization, or anti-imperialist?
Sked: It would be seen as undermining empire. It wouldn’t be [anti-colonial] insofar as the Europeans haven’t quite colonized us, but it would certainly be anti-imperialist. It would be a strike for freedom; it would be a strike for self-determination. It would be liberty. It would be progress.
Why should we be different from America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or the world’s major democracies? We should have a government which is in control of its own laws, and we shouldn’t have to accept regulations and laws made by a foreign bureaucrat over whom we’ve got no control.
Delman: Both [the Conservative MP] Michael Gove and [the Conservative MP] Steve Baker have, in some ways, compared a British exit to how the Americans fought for their independence and self-sovereignty in the 18th century. Do you find any sort of truth or resonance in that comparison?
Sked: Yes, this is what Americans don’t understand. Americans tend to think of Britain as just one of those colonies in 1776, and all the European states as other colonies, and I think the parallel in the minds subconsciously of many Americans is that they should all get together and form a United States of Europe, just as the American colonies formed a United States of America, and look how wonderful that turned out. But they don’t seem to realize that instead of these states forming a wonderful future baby brother for America, they’ve formed a nasty empire already, and the real parallel is that Britain should secede from this empire and become an independent state. They think Europe today is like America in 1776, whereas in [actuality], Britain’s like America in 1776.
Delman: The U.S. administration has made it clear that they don’t want the U.K. to leave the EU—
Sked: It’s quite amazing. But that’s because they’re not really interested in protecting British interests; they’re interested in protecting American interests, and they think that American interests would somehow be better protected by keeping Britain as a friend inside the EU. But if Britain were to join a process whereby it should completely lose its national sovereignty and just became a province of an EU super-state, she wouldn’t be able to protect American interests. Her voice would disappear and be subordinate to [those] who believe that the European Union should be a world state, which along with China and Russia would be rivals to the United States. Inside that, Britain would have no separate voice. She would be smothered. So it’s not in the American interest to keep Britain in the EU—far from it. If she wants to keep Britain as a friend and supporter, then she should welcome Britain being able to do that freely outside a bonding which sees itself potentially as a rival to the United States, not a partner.
Delman: I think most Americans are either ambivalent about the referendum coming up in June or probably would rather have Britain remain in the EU. What would you say to an American who is skeptical of the positive consequences of a British exit?
Sked: That it would certainly be in British interests, because we would be a free country again, be able to trade freely with the rest of the world and make our own free-trade pacts—and we’d make a free-trade deal with Europe quite quickly, I think. We could look forward to all sorts of advantages. But America could look forward to having a reliable ally that would still be very influential in Europe, but wouldn’t be outvoted by states that are not necessarily pro-American.
I think if Britain came out, she might want to join NAFTA or something, which would be both an interest of Britain and the United States. NAFTA doesn’t have any political supranationalism in it. Canada and Mexico remain free, sovereign countries; so does America. So why couldn’t we open up world trade by having Britain join America, Canada, and Mexico in NAFTA? And Britain could have free-trade deals with India, China, and all sorts of places. That would bring America and Britain even closer together, and Britain would remain America’s closest NATO ally.
Delman: Do you think that it’s at all hypocritical of the U.S. government to be opposed to a British exit, given that it is in some ways a quest for self-sovereignty and national self-determination?
Sked: It’s hypocritical, but I think it’s a lack of understanding rather than anything else. My understanding is always that the Americans view, as I said, Britain and Europe as part of a process that repeats their process in 1776—all the colonies getting together and forming a federal union. I think this image is embedded in the American diplomatic mentality. You must remember, it was the Americans after [World War II] who were the greatest proponents of European unity. The Marshall Plan was predicated on the belief that, in return for the Marshall funds, Europe would unite and form a United States of Europe. American diplomats were all hand-in-glove with [the French official] Jean Monnet and his action committee for his United States of Europe, and the CIA was pouring millions into the European movement in the late ’40s and ’50s to try and bring about a United States of Europe. John Foster Dulles, who became Eisenhower’s secretary of state, was [secretary] of the American Committee for United Europe.
[Following World War II], the European movement is funded largely by America, and the American policy-making elite and media elite are all behind it, and the people who stop it are the British. The British, they just say, “No, we’ve won the war. We’re independent. What the hell do you want us to get into bed with all these ex-fascists and Nazis and everything, and these people [who] don’t know about parliamentary democracy. We’re not doing it.” And Marshall actually buggers up the whole thing because when he goes to Harvard and makes this speech that starts the Marshall Plan, he says, “If the Europeans get together and tell us what they want, we’ll be happy to oblige.” Instead of imposing conditions, he says the Europeans should do it. So the British then organize the start of the Marshall Plan, but make sure it’s not federalist. They make sure the body is an intergovernmental body in Europe that does all this, and the Americans can’t therefore impose federalism on Europe right from the start in return for American Marshall funds. And the American State Department has continued from there, post-’45, always to be kind of a stepmother to the European Union.
Delman: Don’t you think that if Britain broke away from the EU, that might damage the U.K.-U.S. special relationship in some way?
Sked: I hope the American view is changing. The Americans must be disappointed in many ways with the EU. It hasn’t actually helped them very much. The French and the Germans were all sixes and sevens when it came to the [1990-1991] Gulf War—the Germans kept out [of combat]. When it came to Libya, the Germans kept out. They never agree on anything. And it’s very unclear what European unity has actually brought about except the single market, which makes trading a bit easier, and a single currency. But that would still probably survive a British exit, so there’s no fears there.
The European Union is pacifist. They believe in soft power, which gets you nowhere with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin or in the Middle East. You know, [America] can’t get the Europeans to spend [the NATO target of] 2 percent [of their national budgets] on defense. The only people in NATO that actually count [are] the Americans, the British, and the French—the rest are all duds. The Germans, you know, their helicopters don’t work, their submarines don't work. According to research, most Germans wouldn’t fight to defend Poland or the Baltic states. The contribution of the EU to international affairs hasn’t been peace, because NATO has kept the peace, but pacifism. The Dutch Army recently ran out of bullets for training their troops—they all had to shout, “Bang, bang!” and pretend they had bullets. The Dutch [peacekeepers] in Bosnia wouldn’t use weapons to defend [the town of] Srebrenica [which Serb forces ultimately overran, massacring some 8,000 people there in 1995]. And when Putin makes threats, the Americans might have to do something. Even the British under [Prime Minister David] Cameron have cut down the British armed forces to practically nothing. So what is a united Europe to America? In terms of hard power, it doesn’t provide any. It provides pacifism, and in an increasingly dangerous world, pacifism and soft power don’t get you anywhere.
Delman: Hasn’t Britain in some ways also played the role of the bridge between Europe and the United States? Isn’t that an important role?
Sked: Well it’s claimed that this happens, but it’s difficult to see the hard evidence, because the single market still doesn’t cover all sorts of things, like financial services, professional [services]. And Britain, since 1995, for all its influence, has been outvoted more than anybody else in the [European] Council [the body that sets priorities for the union]. It’s been outvoted 72 times, far more than anybody else. So it’s difficult to say it’s actually displaying much influence or leadership. And the law book of European directives and regulations is now up to [hundreds of thousands of] pages. So it’s not stopping bureaucracy.
Delman: One aspect of a potential exit that you don’t address in your National Interest piece is the question of Scotland, who many expect to hold a new independence referendum in the event of a British exit—
Sked: This is used as a threat by the pro-Europeans—vote for Brexit and the United Kingdom breaks up. Well you must remember: First of all, according to surveys, fewer Scots think of themselves as Europeans than [members of] the rest of the United Kingdom. According to the Scottish and British attitude survey, only 9 percent of Scots see themselves as Europeans, whereas in the United Kingdom generally it’s 16 percent. Secondly, [a significant minority] of the Scottish National Party (SNP) supporters, according to opinion polls, are against remaining in the European Union. Thirdly, the Scottish National Party official stance towards the EU is quite incredible. At the time of the [2014 Scottish independence] referendum, they said they wanted to be an independent Scotland in a federal Europe. Well, that’s a contradiction of terms. You can’t be an independent Scotland in a federal Europe.
There’s a question of whether the European Union would allow [Scotland] in, because places like Spain, who don’t want Catalonia to go independent, or places like Italy, who don’t want the north of Italy to break off, they’ll be saying, “Why are we allowing this break-off state to come in to the European Union and encourage our break-away states?” So we don’t know whether an independent Scotland would be allowed in the European Union. They said they would just stay in, but that’s by no means certain at all. If they were allowed in, Scotland has six members of the European Parliament, which has about 750 members overall, which will hardly protect their interests. She’ll have no European commissioner—she’ll be too small. And in the Council of Ministers, the European Council, she would be overlooked. She’d be on the same level as Slovenia or Albania. Nobody would care what the Scots thought. So an independent Scotland in the EU couldn’t protect its interests politically.
It would be in dire straits economically. During the referendum in 2014, the SNP were predicating their future on huge oil revenues, based on oil costing $130 a barrel. Well it’s now [less than $50] a barrel rather than $130. The North Sea [oil industry] is being wound down. All the money’s come out, they’re taking all the rigs away. It’s a disaster area. There’s huge unemployment now in the Highlands and elsewhere. 60-70,000 jobs lost because of the decline in the oil price. So the great basis of Scottish independence, the oil industry, now doesn’t exist or won’t exist in the future for all intents and purposes. That means there’s going to be a huge economic deficit—national debt and national deficit—which means that Brussels would do to Scotland what Brussels has already done to Greece, should Scotland be in a similar situation to Greece because of her indebtedness. So what you would end up with, having a bankrupt Scotland entering a bankrupt Europe, because Europe’s not doing very well—you’d have massive unemployment.
And in any case, most Scots don’t want a new referendum. It’s quite clear from opinion polling that there’s no support [for it].
Delman: I find that surprising, given how many voted so decisively for the SNP in the last general election.
Sked: But voting for the SNP doesn’t necessarily mean you want an independent Scotland. It doesn’t necessarily mean you want an independent Scotland in Europe. The Labour Party was in such dire straits at the last election and the Tory party is so unpopular in Scotland, you can see that’s why the SNP got majority.