General Editor's Preface
Years, decades, centuries, millennia come and go but Britain's relationship with its European neighbours remains consistently complicated and, on occasion, acutely divisive. It forms the stuff of contemporary political arguments both in ‘Britain’ and in ‘Europe’, debate which is sometimes strident and ill-informed.
The heat may perhaps be excused on the grounds that there are issues of personal, national and continental identity at stake about which people have strong feelings. The ignorance, however, is not excusable. Whatever views may be taken about contemporary issues and options, here is a relationship which can only properly be understood if it is examined in the longue durée. That is what this series aims to do.
It becomes evident, however, that in regard to both ‘Britain’ and ‘Europe’ we are not dealing with fixed entities standing over against each other through two millennia. What may be held do constitute ‘Britain’ and what ‘Europe’ changes through time. The present is no exception. In a context of political devolution how Britain and Britishness is defined becomes increasingly problematic as new patterns of relationship across ‘the Isles’ emerge. And what are perceived to be new patterns turn out on examination to be reassertions and redefinitions of old identities or structures. So is it also with ‘Europe’. The issue of ‘enlargement’ of the current European Union brings up old problems in a new form. Where does ‘Europe’ begin and end? At long last, to take but one example, the Turkish Republic has been accepted as a candidate for membership but in earlier centuries, for some, Europe stopped where the Ottoman Empire began, an outlook which can still linger, with violent consequences, in the Balkans. In effect, therefore, the series probes and charts the shifting of boundaries – and boundaries in the mind as boundaries on a map. Where Britain ‘belongs’, in any era, depends upon a multiplicity of factors, themselves varying in importance from century to century: upon ethnicity, language, law, government, religion, trade, warfare, to name only some. Whether, in particular periods, the islanders were, indeed, ‘isolated’ depends in turn not only on what they themselves thought or wanted to believe but upon the patterns prevailing in ‘Europe’ and what might be thought to constitute the ‘mainstream’ of its development. The historians in this series are well aware that they are not dealing with a simple one-to-one relationship. They are not committed to a common didactic agenda or rigid formula. Different periods require different assessments of the appropriate balance to be struck in tackling the ingredients of insularity on the one hand and continental commonality on the other. Propinquity has itself necessarily brought the communities of Britain into closer contact, in peace and war, with some continental countries than with others and to have established (fluctuating) affinities and enmities, but the connection is not confined to immediate neighbours. Beneath the inter-state level, different sections of society have had different sorts of relationship across the continent. There is, therefore, in reality no single ‘British’ relationship with something called ‘Europe’ but rather multilateral relationships, sometimes in conflict and sometimes in co-operation, across Europe both at the state and non-state levels which have varied in content and intensity over time. And what has been happening in the wider world has in turn affected and sometimes determined how both ‘Britain’ and the countries of ‘Europe’ have perceived and conducted themselves.
The study of a relationship (just like the living of one) is one of the most difficult but also the most rewarding of tasks. There is, however, no single title for this series which really does justice to what is being attempted. To speak of ‘Britain and Europe’ does indeed risk carrying the imputation that Britain is not ‘part of’ Europe. To speak of ‘Europe in British perspective’ would mislead as to the extent of the concentration upon Britain which remains. To speak of ‘Britain in Europe’ or even of ‘Europe in Britain’ both have their difficulties and advantages. In short, in the event, there is something for everybody!
The difficulty, though perhaps also the urgency of the task, is compounded for historians by the circumstances of history teaching and learning in schools and universities in the United Kingdom where, very largely, ‘British history’ and European history’ have been studied and written about by different people who have disclaimed significant knowledge of the other or have only studied a particular period of the one which has been different from the period of the other. The extent to which ‘British history’ is really a singular history and the extent to which it is a particular manifestation of ‘European history’ are rarely tackled head-on at any level. This series attempts to provide just that bridge over troubled waters which present European circumstances require. It is, however, for readers to decide for themselves what bridge into the future the past does indeed provide.