It was, perhaps, natural that Britain was unable to give proper attention to its relations with Europe until it was no longer an imperial power. Ever since the growth of its trade beyond Europe during the seventeenth century, Britain had ceased to be fully active in Europe except at moments of crisis. As long as Europe did not interfere with Britain's trade, and as long as the balance of power in Europe was not seriously disturbed, Britain could happily neglect European affairs.
At the end of the eighteenth century Napoleonic France drew Britain further into European politics than it had been, perhaps, since the Hundred Years war. In 1815 Britain co-operated with the other European powers to ensure peace, and it withdrew this support because it did not wish to work with the despotic powers then governing most of Europe. For the rest of the century, European affairs took second place to empire and imperial trade.
After the First World War it was natural that some Europeans should try to create a European union that would prevent a repetition of war. A few British people welcomed the idea. But when France proposed such an arrangement in 1930, one British politician spoke for the majority of the nation: "Our hearts are not in Europe; we could never share the truly European point of view nor become real patriots of Europe. Besides, we could never give up our own patriotism for an Empire which extends to all parts of the world . . . The character of the British people makes it impossible for us to take part seriously in any Pan-European system."
Since then Britain has found it difficult to move away from this point of view. After the Second World War the value of European unity was a good deal clearer. In 1946 Churchill called for a "United States of Europe", but it was already too late to prevent the division of Europe into two bloc's. In 1949 Britain joined with other Western European countries to form the Council of Europe, "to achieve greater unity between members", but it is doubtful how far this aim has been achieved. Indeed, eight years later in 1957, Britain refused to join the six other European countries in the creation of a European Common Market. Britain was unwilling to surrender any sovereignty or control over its own affairs, and said it still felt responsibility towards its empire.
It quickly became clear that Britain's attitude, particularly in view of the rapid loss of empire, was mistaken. As its financial and economic difficulties increased, Britain could not afford to stay out of Europe. But it was too late: when Britain tried to join the European Community in 1963 and again in 1967, the French President General de Gaulle refused to allow it. Britain only became a member in 1973, after de Gaulle's retirement.
After becoming a member in 1973, Britain's attitude towards the European Community continued to be unenthusiastic. Although trade with Europe greatly increased, most British continued to feel that they had not had any economic benefit from Europe. This feeling was strengthened by the way in which Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher argued for a better financial deal for Britain in the Community's affairs. The way in which she fought won her some admiration in Britain, but also anger in many parts of Europe. She welcomed closer co-operation in the European Community but only if this did not mean any lessening of sovereignty. Many Europeans saw this as a contradiction. Unless member states were willing to surrender some control over their own affairs, they argued, there could be little chance of achieving greater European unity. It is not surprising therefore that Britain's European partners wondered whether Britain was still unable "to take part seriously in any Pan-European system."
De Gaulle's attitude to Britain was not only the result of his dislike of "Les Anglo-Saxons". He also believed that Britain could not make up its mind whether its first loyalty, now that its empire was rapidly disappearing, was to Europe or to the United States.
Britain felt its "special relationship" with the United States was particularly important. It was vaguely believed that this relationship came from a common democratic tradition, and from the fact that the United States was basically Anglo-Saxon. Neither belief was wholly true, for the United States since 1783 had been a good deal more democratic than Britain, and most US citizens were not Anglo-Saxons. Even Britain's alliance with the United States was very recent. In 1814 British troops had burnt down the US capital, Washington. In the middle of the nineteenth century most British took the part of the South in the American Civil War. By the end of the century the United States was openly critical of Britain's empire.
Britain's special relationship rested almost entirely on a common language, on its wartime alliance with the United States and the Cold War which followed it. In particular it resulted from the close relationship Winston Churchill personally enjoyed with the American people.
After the war, Britain found itself unable to keep up with the military arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. It soon gave up the idea of an independent nuclear deterrent, and in 1962 took American "Polaris" nuclear missiles for British submarines. The possession of these weapons gave Britain, in the words of one Prime Minister, the right "to sit at the top of the table" with the Superpowers. However, Britain could only use these missiles by agreement with the United States and as a result Britain was tied more closely to the United States.
Other European countries would not have felt so uneasy about the close ties between the United States and Britain if they themselves had not disagreed with the United States concerning the Soviet Union and other foreign policy matters. Ever since 1945 the United States and the political right in Britain were more openly hostile to the Soviet Union. The Europeans and the British political left were, on the whole, just as suspicious of Soviet intentions, but were more anxious to improve relations. However, even under Labour governments, Britain remained between the European and American positions. It was natural, therefore, that under Thatcher, who was more firmly to the right than any Conservative Prime Minister since the war, British foreign policy was more closely linked to that of the United States, particularly with regard to the Soviet Union. This was most clearly shown when, after the Russians invaded Afghanistan, Britain joined the United States in boycotting the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Britain sided with the United States in other foreign policy matters too, which alarmed its European partners. In 1986, for example, it allowed US aircraft to use British airfields from which to attack the Libyan capital, Tripoli. One thing was clear from these events. Britain still had not made up its mind whether its first political loyalty lay across the Atlantic, or in Europe.