An island only in the mind: The Channel Tunnel has connected us to France, but we were never really cut off, says Linda Colley

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IT'S always nice to be told what to think. And as far as the opening of the Channel Tunnel is concerned, the pundits have been in almost eerie agreement. Of course the French are excited. Foreigners are like that. Of course the British are more subdued and even apprehensive. It's only natural. Eurotunnel challenges our identity as a proud island nation. What did John of Gaunt say of England in Richard II: 'This sceptr'd isle . . . This precious stone set in a silver sea.'

Except that when Shakespeare wrote those words, he was expressing not so much nationalism as imperialism. England (though the English often forget it) has never been an island nation. It shares an island with two other nations, Wales and Scotland. Even Great Britain, the invented nation superimposed upon these three very different countries, is not an island but rather an archipelago. Think of Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, the Orkneys. All these have a claim to be British.

Sheer pedantry, the pundits might protest: Britain has always been cut off from continental Europe. Except, of course, that it hasn't. Wales and Cornwall have strong cultural links with Brittany. Scotland's current enthusiasm for the European Union only echoes its auld alliance with France. And what of England? We all know that the Normans invaded in 1066. But many of us forget that for centuries after, England and parts of France were one kingdom. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Gascony and Normandy were ruled from London. In other words, British insularity is not just a reflection of geography or history. It is more a state of mind, essentially irrational and fluctuating over time. How did it come about?

In large part because the 16th century saw both the end of our territorial links with France and the coming of the Protestant Reformation. England, Wales and Scotland all became predominantly Protestant countries and the Channel came to represent much more than a mere stretch of water. It was now what separated us from the Papist powers of continental Europe, the natural and providential defence of the new British Israel. 'We are fenced in with a wall,' one clergyman said, 'which knows no master but God only.'

Nor was this Protestant-Catholic split just a matter of competing faiths. Until the end of the 19th century, Britain's most consistent opponents, both in Europe and in the struggle for empire overseas, were Catholic powers. France, in particular, so much bigger than us in size and population, was widely viewed as our 'natural' enemy. So when Victorian Britain's celebrated engineers - men such as Brunel and William Low - were struck with the idea of building a Channel tunnel, they ran into opposition from politicians and generals anxious about national security. The Channel, they protested, was Britain's cordon sanitaire. Or as Lord Randolph Churchill put it more nastily: 'The reputation of England has hitherto depended upon her being, as it were, virgo intacta.'

The idea that a cross-Channel link would constitute a kind of phallic threat to our national purity shows the depth but also the complexity of British Francophobia. On the one hand, we attributed to the French all kinds of failings as a means of inventing and celebrating certain virtues for ourselves by contrast. They were superstitious and priest-ridden, so we enjoyed true religion. They wore wooden shoes and suffered under oppressive governments. Therefore we were prosperous and possessed the freest constitution in the world (our present Eurosceptic defenders of Westminster against Jacques Delors still in their guts believe this). On the other hand - and as Lord Randolph's words suggest - we felt towards the French an almost sexual antipathy.

We believed - and perhaps still do - that they were scandalously over-sexed. So we have French kisses and French letters. But we also, and quite illogically, regarded the French as being essentially effeminate and insincere, while we were manly and frank. It is no accident whatsoever that London made itself the world centre of smart male tailoring in contradistinction to the dominance over female fashions long claimed by Paris. Across the centuries, we have positively needed the French and our dislike of them to work out who we are ourselves.

The power of these myths of identity meant that resistance to a Channel tunnel endured long after Germany replaced France as our 'natural' enemy. The national security argument had, anyway, always been suspect. That thousands of French troops 'ably led by a daring, dashing young commander' might clamber aboard a narrow train and pass beneath the waves to invade our shores struck even some patriotic Victorians as far-fetched. Where would they all put their weapons? And why could they not be blown up or drowned before they arrived? Once the French became our allies, military objections to a tunnel appeared even shakier. Both Marshall Foch and Winston Churchill believed that had one existed, the First World War might have been won much faster.

There was a sense indeed, as Churchill and other anti-appeasers argued, in which the Channel made the British strategically lazy. It encouraged them to brush aside the coming of air power and seek refuge still in the comforting illusion that we were cut off from a dangerous continent by water, stoutly protected by our (in reality diminishing) navy. The Second World War, which might have been expected to shatter these views, strengthened them. The fact that virtually every continental European state was invaded or defeated, while we emerged intact, sustained our sense of enviable difference from Europe. Victory reinforced what Protestantism had for so long made us believe: that we were better than mere Europeans and consequently more fortunate. Fog in Channel: Continent cut off.

Hence what in retrospect was a criminally stupid refusal to join and lead the European Community when it emerged in the 1950s. Not until the debacle over the Suez Canal exposed the frailty of our remaining imperial pretensions did our rulers (both Labour and Conservative, remember) come reluctantly to accept that Europe could no longer be evaded. One aspect of this was that from the 1960s, a Channel tunnel came at last to be taken seriously. Indeed, many of its backers at that time were the self-same British and French engineers and managers who had been driven out of Suez by Nasser. But joining Europe remained - and for many still remains - a poor consolation prize for the loss of empire.

Only contrast our very different reactions this year to the commemoration of D-Day and to the final, formal opening of Eurotunnel. The latter looks forward to an exciting future as well as being one of this century's foremost engineering achievements. Yet only very belatedly have government, media and public responses this side of the Channel been anything more than muted and carping. As far as D-Day is concerned, however, everyone wants to pour money, time and imagination into marking it, even if they disagree over exactly how to do so. Nor is this wrong. But it is sad and significant that we are happy to celebrate invading continental Europe in the past but ill-at-ease when it comes to a project that will facilitate our being part of Europe in the future.

It is significant, too, that Britain's government, in contrast with the French, has starved the tunnel's rail link of necessary cash, while pouring taxpayers' money into Eurofighter, which is not only far more expensive than Eurotunnel, but also of much less


It all goes to show that we still, some of us, like to huddle in our warrior-island past. Yet we can no longer fight Europe. Nor can we ignore or feel superior to it. We have to live in Europe; and, in the light of some of our history, that's bound to be hard. But I stress some of our history. There was always another side to it that we tend to forget. In the Middle Ages, we were part of France and it was part of us. Despite all our many wars, and our real and reputed differences, that has never really changed. Until this century, most highly educated and influential Britons spoke French. Our upper classes rushed off to the Continent to enjoy themselves as often as they could, littering its holiday haunts with Hotel Bristols and Hotel Westminsters as they went. French food, French clothes, French wine and French culture were consumed here with an avidity that suggested, deep-down, a conviction that we were not all that superior to them after all. The crowds that leave these shores today to snap up French property or to shop in Calais are only conforming to a very long tradition of British Francomania, which always ran alongside our Francophobia.

We need to remember all this as we sit back on Le Shuttle and ask ourselves why Britain, which pioneered the railways, now makes such a hash of them, while the French don't. We need to remember that the real reason that Britain is no longer an island to itself is that it was never really an island in the past.

The writer's 'Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837' is published by Pimlico.

(Photograph omitted)