There is triumph as well as tragedy in the story of Britain and Europe

Andrew Rawnsley
Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

There was a hint of where it might end in how it began. On Monday 1 January 1973, the United Kingdom became a member of what was then the European Economic Community. Britain arrived not with a bang but a shrug. The union flag was raised outside the European parliament building. There were scattered celebrations this side of the Channel. A few enthusiastic celebrants lit bonfires. Most people were asleep.

The Labour opposition chuntered that the terms of membership were poor. Ted Heath, the Tory prime minister who had negotiated entry, was absent abroad at a funeral. Pyrotechnics were conspicuous by their absence. Under the headline “We’re in – but without the fireworks”, the Guardian reported: “Britain passed peacefully into Europe at midnight last night without any special celebration. It was difficult to tell that anything of importance had occurred, and a date which will be entered in the history books as long as histories of Britain are written, was taken by most people as a matter of course.” An opinion poll suggested that 38% of the public were happy to embark on what Mr Heath described as a great adventure, 39% were upset and 23% had no feeling either way.

There is a mordant symmetry between the passionless nuptials 47 years ago and the divorce that will become formal at 11pm on 31 January. There will be an unceremonious lowering of the union flag at the European parliament. The more zealous kind of Brexiter will toast their “liberation” from “captivity”. Some Remainers will hold mournful wakes and defiant vigils where the most unreconciled will swear to themselves that one day we will return. But, mostly, the nation appears to be planning to greet this hugely significant inflection point in its history with epic indifference.

For all the intense emotions and violent convulsions unleashed since David Cameron made his fateful pledge to hold a referendum, for all the raging battles that consumed both his premiership and that of Theresa May, for all the banner-waving and the slogan-shouting, the climax will be most anticlimactic. It will be difficult to tell that anything of importance had occurred. This will be more the case because, practically speaking, nothing much will change for the next 11 months while Britain sits in the anteroom labelled “transition” where we will be obliged to continue to apply all the EU’s rules without having any further say over their formulation. The government, under the orders of a Boris Johnson who is suddenly wary of looking divisive and triumphalist, has no special plans for the night. A prime minister recently returned to Number 10 with a stonking majority has found it beyond his powers even to have so-called “independence day” accompanied by the chimes of Big Ben. This is the way the UK’s membership of the EU ends. Not with a bong but a muffled thud.

France’s President Charles de Gaulle, pictured with Harold Wilson in 1967, vetoed Britain’s efforts to join the EEC. Photograph: AP

How phlegmatic, how stiffened lip, how very British. If you are minded to think this way, the paucity of excitement that attended both joining and leaving appropriately bookends decades that were always characterised by Britain’s grumbling semi-detachment from the rest of its continent. As our membership of the EU recedes into the historical rearview mirror, some will argue that there was always something inevitable about this. They will say that this is the ultimate vindication of Charles de Gaulle, the French president who vetoed the UK’s first application to join in 1963 on the grounds that the British, with their “very special, very original habits and traditions”, would never fully commit to Europe.

Looking back across the span of our membership, the European cause always had too few convincing advocates. Prime ministers rarely invoked EU membership as a cause for celebration. Harold Macmillan agonised in the 1960s. Harold Wilson manoeuvred in the 1970s. At best, partnership with our closest neighbours was presented as a grim necessity; at worst, a fiendish plot against Britain. Margaret Thatcher morphed from ardent enthusiast for Europe to belligerent antagonist. Tony Blair, the most pro-European occupant of Number 10 after Heath, could not convert his country to his convictions even when that loquacious leader was at the peak of his powers. John Major, ambitious to put the UK “at the heart of Europe” at the outset of his premiership, was engulfed by the rising tide of Europhobia on the right. Failures of political advocacy were accompanied by a reckless complacency about membership that reached its apotheosis in Cameron. When I wrote a column castigating his panicky pledge to hold an in/out referendum, one of his under-strappers rang me to sneer: “You surely don’t think the British people will ever really vote to leave?”

As it transpired, there did exist a substantial wedge of public opinion that was as passionate in its pro-Europeanism as the Brexiters were in their loathing for the EU. But this constituency only truly discovered itself to form an articulate identity after the vote to leave in 2016. Only then did parliamentarians fight hard, only then did folk rally in large numbers, to try to save our membership. Too late, my friends, too late.

A nation never better than cool about Europe, with leaders who never tried to change that condition. This is a compelling narrative, the more so because it conveys many elements of truth. But we should resist allowing the triumph of the inevitabilist argument that the UK’s membership was always doomed to fail. There is another story to tell about this large chapter of Britain’s recent history, and it is a much more positive one.

The UK’s membership of the EU was, in ways too numerous to do full justice to here, a good thing. To the EU was added a significant economic and military power with a different tradition and temperament, which became a creative complement and counter-weight to the clout of France and Germany. The single market, a creation driven by Thatcher’s government, allowed the EU to evolve into the most prosperous free trade zone on the planet, to the improvement of the quality of the lives of many millions of its citizens.

Membership was a spur to the modernisation of Britain by both extending the nation’s cultural horizons and raising its expectations. The EU caricatured in the rightwing British media was a sinister scheme to ban bendy bananas and force the sturdy yeomen of olde England into condoms of only Euro-approved dimensions. The EU of lived experience impelled Britain to clean up filthy beaches and toxic rivers, and to greatly enhance protections and rights for employees and consumers. The EU is not a flawless regulator, but it is not a bad one either. The fact that you can (generally) trust your food, your medicines, your motor cars and much else owes a great deal to the UK’s membership. What did the EU ever do for us? Quite a lot, actually.

Membership of the EU furnished the UK with a unique and uniquely useful identity

To my mind, Britain’s single most important contribution came after the fall of the Berlin Wall. When others, especially the French, were highly reluctant to embrace the nations that had just been released from vassalage in the Soviet bloc, the British were at the vanguard of the argument that the countries of central and eastern Europe, many of whom had no historical experience of freedom, be locked into democratic norms and human rights by putting them on a fast track to membership of an enlarged EU. Has it worked out perfectly? No. Could it have worked out much more nightmarishly? Absolutely.

One of the most significant drivers of the original decision to seek membership was that the United Kingdom had started to feel a bit lost in the world. In the confirmatory referendum of 1975, the Yes campaign deployed the potent slogan: “It’s cold outside.” Membership of the EU furnished the UK with a unique and uniquely useful identity. Connections with other parts of the world, including but not limited to the United States, enhanced the UK’s leverage in the EU. Britain’s membership amplified its influence in the rest of the globe. Above and beyond that, there was something precious about the ideal, however imperfectly practised, of the countries of what had been the world’s most murderous continent working together across borders for the prosperity and security of their peoples.

For Brexiters, this Friday may be a night to revel. For the many who will feel a profound sense of loss, it will be an occasion for anguish. Indifference will be the least appropriate emotion. Dusk falls on a long, hugely significant and in many ways fruitful period of our modern history. What comes next, no one is sure, least of all those who most willed this rupture.

• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer