This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe

Book review

By Robert Tombs; reviewed by Michael Arnold, published 23rd April 2021

This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe

This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe, Robert Tombs, Allen Lane, 2021, 203 pp, £16.99. ISBN 978-0-241-48038-0 

Robert Tombs is well-known for his works on French and English history and he has turned his hand to an admirably concise history of Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours from the third century BC to the present day in the context of the UK’s departure from the EU.

Tombs’ work is an important addition to the already extensive library of work on Brexit, much of which has a different focus, whether it be, for example, Tim Shipman’s excellent blow-by-blow accounts of the last five years or the reminiscences of those who were involved in the various campaigns. 

In his analysis, Tombs sets himself the task of answering two fundamental questions, namely, why the result caused so much astonishment and why the Leave majority was so small. This task, approaching the history of the UK’s relationship with the EU from a different direction from the more common narratives, provides the author with an opportunity to display his mastery of not merely recent and earlier British and European political history but also constitutional legal issues and economic policy. 

Amongst the broader themes, Tombs provides some fascinating details and bon mots. At the time of the 1975 referendum E. P. Thompson wrote that “arrangements convenient to Western capitalism blur into a haze of remembered vacations, beaches, bougainvillea … and vintage wines.” A former president of the European Commission “deplore[d] a situation in which the policy of [the UK] should be left to housewives”. In 2016, one prominent left-wing intellectual remarked that “at Cambridge, the Vice-Chancellor’s office censored unwelcome opinion with stone-walling worthy of the Writers’ Union under Brezhnev”. 

As one would expect from such an eminent historian, the text has copious supporting footnotes, many of which contain suggestions for further reading. This book is thoroughly recommended.