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Brexit has prompted an urgent and necessary debate on the future British relationship with the European mainland. It has recently brought to mind the observations made by William Gladstone following the Prussian defeat of France in the late 19th century, wherein he praised relative British detachment from the continent and warned against our potential abstention or acquiescence.
“I cannot help but feel that we have some reason to be thankful,” he argued, “but I admit, and am the first to admit that, whatever be that security, power, and independence, we have no right to wrap ourselves up in an absolute and selfish isolation.”
Isolationism has been a longstanding vice in British strategic thinking. Until the end of the Second World War, the UK flip-flopped between international engagement and withdrawal, not least in relation to its own neighbourhood. When the continent was in broad equilibrium, Britain withdrew to cultivate its imperial concerns, though when the balance was pulled out of alignment by a European irredentist or revisionist, the country thrust its power behind a coalition to knock the power grabber down.
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