Brexit reverses policy of divide and rule

Brexit is a reversal of hundreds of years of British foreign policy. That policy was to ensure that major European powers could never get above themselves. If the French got uppity in the early 19th Century, then Britain got to work with the Prussians to see off Napoleon. In the 20th century, align with France to counter Germany. The European Economic Community – from its incarnation until the UK joined in 1973 – was a very considerable threat to that British policy. The EEC founder members spoke of bringing peace to Europe; Britain, excluded from the club by its most ancient enemy France, only saw that the Germans and French were eventually getting it together. It was only when De Gaulle – who had more reason than most French people to know the British very well – left the stage, that the door into the European club was opened for the UK.

The BBC 1980s political satire Yes Minister (series one, episode five) captures this beautifully.


Sir Humphrey:. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it’s worked so well?

Hacker: That’s all ancient history, surely?

Sir Humphrey: Yes, and current policy. We ‘had’ to break the whole thing [the EEC] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch… The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it’s just like old times.

Hacker: But surely we’re all committed to the European ideal?

Sir Humphrey: [chuckles] Really, Minister.

Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?

Sir Humphrey: Well, for the same reason. It’s just like the United Nations, in fact; the more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes.

Hacker: What appalling cynicism.

Sir Humphrey: Yes… We call it diplomacy, Minister.


Until June 2016, that was ‘so far so good’. Centuries of British Foreign Office thinkers and strategists must be rotating in their graves after the Brexit vote. They would see their worst nightmare unfold – France and Germany uniting against Britain (and in addition having most of the rest of Europe in tow).

If Brexit proceeds (which would be most unwise for all of us), the Brexiteers must hope that someone else breaks up the club. Then they can all get back to the good old days of mutual mistrust, constant threat of violence and smaller (and so more impoverished) markets. Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen can then glare at each other across the English Channel.

The EU gave us a single market without diminishing the extraordinary diversity of Europe’s great cities, townlands, villages and rural life. Those of us who enjoy living in that peaceful, relatively prosperous, glorious kaleidoscope watch in dismay. May sanity and ancient wisdom prevail.

The UK has many friends in Ireland. This is the third letter from such a friend.