It came as a surprise, to many on this side of the Atlantic, when the British began seriously to contemplate the idea of withdrawing from the European Union. Why would they want to do a thing like that? All over Europe and its fringes, nations beg to enter the EU. Or, if they are already associated with it, they are earnestly petitioning to become full members, as Britain is now.
For a long time the British, with the vehement exception of Margaret Thatcher and her close associates, were more or less content to swim along quietly as members. They complained now and again at the EU's habit of outnumbering them while making rules, apparently in the belief that they should be entitled to outnumber all the rest just by being British. Still, they believed their government when it claimed the system was working for them.
They kept their pound sterling, of course, rather than adopt the euro. As that fiscal process rolled along, London's financial district, for one thing, became the centre of European business. The other day Dominique Moisi, a leading French professor of politics, made the striking remark that "London is much more confident than Paris."
That's how it looks from elsewhere, but the British have been increasingly wondering why they can't do better. In recent years, British annoyance with the EU's Brussels bureaucrats increased to the point that Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to promise he would hold a referendum on leaving the EU if he won the 2015 general election.
Having won, he had to pretend that letting the people decide would be the honourable and democratic thing. Now he's firmly in the Stay camp, which puts him in opposition to many members of his Conservative party and the pro-Leave adherents of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP, as it's graciously called).
Britain last had a say on this question in 1975, when a referendum approved joining the EU. Now, Cameron has to simulate a goodnatured tone when noting that the EU has changed a lot since then, so "It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time to settle this European question in British politics." That will, perhaps, set the question aside for another four decades.
Cameron has believed, all along, that things were going well and in fact never would be the right time to raise such a fractious business, which could go the wrong way and wreck his fragile career.
With the vote coming on June 23, the debate over leaving the EU does not exhibit any notable degree of coherence.
On both sides the arguments sound like out-takes from the 1988 federal election in Canada, when Liberals and New Democrats churned out hysterical rhetoric over free trade. They predicted that Conservative plans for an agreement with the U.S. would erode Canada's independence and destroy our best services, such as the health program. Neither proved to be the case. In Britain, the Conservative health secretary has warned that leaving the EU would lead to an exodus of overseas doctors and nurses, presumably because medical professionals move to Britain because of its open borders. On the other side, anti-EU British voters argue that Britain would be able to make its own rules for doctors and all other desirable immigrants. They believe that the membership dues being paid to the EU could be used to increase the National Health Service budget.
The more vacuous arguments appear, the more it seems that the referendum has become a question of national stature, rather than a trade dispute. It's symbolic, rather than practical, more a matter of feeling than thought. The anti-EU forces have sovereignty on their mind. The Leave.eu partisans sound like a polite version of Donald Trump. It's as if they are campaigning to MakeBritainGreatAgain.
They feel diminished by the EU. Like Trump, they resent that they don't come out on top in every dispute -- and, like Trump, they find it natural to blame the foreigners and the bureaucrats who keep trying to make Europe resemble a union on all political questions, trade and movement of workers being only the obvious ones.
The EU, with a penchant for cute names, calls this summer's proposal the Brexit, as Greece's plan to jump ship was called the Grexit. An obsession with leaving the EU is now Brexosis, its backers Brexeters. It's possible that if the Leave side wins a majority, the prime minister will declare the beginning of the statutory two-year period for withdrawing and the EU will offer a better agreement. Britain will accept it and become a full member again. That will be called the Breturn.