E.P. Thompson, the Great Bustard & the European Referendum

In Uncategorized on June 22, 2016 by kmflett

E.P. Thompson, the Great Bustard & the European Referendum


It is unfortunately a good bet that even if you are interested you haven’t heard of of Lexit, the left leave campaign for the June 23rd Referendum.

With both Tony Benn and Bob Crow sadly dead and Jeremy Corbyn supporting ‘in’ the Lexit campaign lacks a figurehead that will attract media attention.

Back in 1975 it was rather different. The socialist historian E.P. Thompson was given space in the pre-Murdoch Sunday Times to present the case for leaving what was then the EEC.

I’ve posted earlier about the lighter hearted aspect of Thompson’s remarks: the Euro-stomach.

He also however made some very serious points.

Thompson argued that ‘going into’ Europe was humbug for four reasons:

  1. He argued ‘we are there already’ Britain is part of Europe as commonly defined.
  2. Secondly he argued that the 1975 EEC was not Europe. It should also include ‘Warsaw, Prague and Belgrade
  3. He noted that the Common Market defined Europe at its ‘crassiest’ level ‘a group of fat rich nations feeding each other’
  4. He suggested that the EEC defined ‘introversial white bourgeois nationalism’ as internationalism

This then was not in Socialist Worker or the Morning Star but the Sunday Times.

He went on to suggest, returning to his earlier theme that the Euro-Stomach would soon find the need to ‘Euronate’ and this would be done over the British working class.

Yet Thompson was too good an historian and a left-wing theorist not to understand that there were weaknesses in remaining ‘English’

In his open letter to Leszek Kolakowski (1973) Thompson compared himself to the great bustard, grounded and unable to fly with wider intellectual developmements. Rather he saw himself as part of a distinctively English tradition which as he noted had strengths and weaknesses:

But I cannot fly. When you spread your wings and soar into the firmament where Kierkegaard and Husserl, Heidegger, Jaspers and Sartre and the other great eagles soar, I remain on the ground like one of the last of the great bustards, awaiting the extinction of my species on the diminishing soil of an eroding idiom, craning my neck into the air, flapping my paltry wings. [13] All around me my younger feathered cousins are managing mutations; they are turning into little eagles, and whirrr! with a rush of wind they are off to Paris, to Rome, to California. I had thought of trying to join them (I have been practising the words “essence”, “syntagm”, “conjuncture”, “problematic”, “sign”) but my wings grow no bigger. If I were to try I know very well that with my great bulk of romantic moralisms, my short-sighted empirical vision, and my stumpy idiomatic wings, I would fall – plop ! – into the middle of the Channel.


I belong to an emaciated political tradition, encapsulated within a hostile national culture which is itself both smug and resistant to intellectuality and failing in self-confidence; and yet I share the same idiom as that of the culture which is my reluctant host; and I share it not only through the habits of a writer but out of preference. This, if I am honest, is my self, my sensibility. Take Marx and Vico and a few European novelists away, and my most intimate pantheon would be a provincial tea-party: a gathering of the English and the Anglo-Irish. Talk of free-will and determinism, and I think first of Milton. Talk of man’s inhumanity, I think of Swift. Talk of morality and revolution, and my mind is off with Wordsworth’s Solitary. Talk of the problems of self-activity and creative labour in socialist society, and I am in an instant back with William Morris – a great bustard like myself, who has never been allowed into the company of such antiquated (but “reputable”) eagles as Kautsky or Plekhanov, Bernstein or Labriola – although he could, if given the chance, have given them a peck or two about their gizzards.

Well, that is what I am, and it is a ludicrous predicament. It is an excuse for any amount of silence. Holding for too long, and with too few companions, to an unregarded position breeds – as this letter has already shown – symptoms identical to those of egotism. I have become too much aware, in my silence, of the motions of my own mind; too detached from the thought around me into which my own argument can never be inserted; too stubborn in resistance to assimilation.

Unfortunately E.P. Thompson died aged 69 in 1993 so we cannot know what his thoughts on the current Referendum might have been. His criticism of what is now the EU is clear, but his concern at being isolated from wider European culture suggests that he had in mind the pursuit of a European unity of a rather different kind. That of solidarity and socialism


2 Responses to “E.P. Thompson, the Great Bustard & the European Referendum”

  1. E. P. Thompson ought to have got out more. 😉

  2. Thanks Keith for an interesting post. As a fellow admirer of E.P.Thompson I would agree that our European comrades are enriched by our distinctively empirical dissenting English tradition, just as we are by theirs. Thompson’s brilliant critique of Louis Althusser was an example of that kind of international dialogue at its best.

    But the most obvious coda to Thompson’s 1975 statement is: well, now Warsaw and Prague are in the EU, and Belgrade may be on its way too. The reason why the far right hate the EU so much now is precisely because it isn’t just a ‘group of fat rich nations’ anymore. The collapse of Stalinism and the enlargements of the EU have enabled workers in poorer countries in eastern Europe to enjoy the freedoms that we take for granted to work in the West – and they deserve our solidarity. The same British rightwingers who loudly denounced the Berlin Wall when it was still there, and pushed for enlargement in 2004, are cross that plenty of real people have actually taken up the freedoms that the Berlin Wall prevented before 1989. They’re also angry that there is a net transfer of wealth from richer to poorer countries, and from richer to poorer regions. Sounds suspiciously like international socialism to me!

    Here’s my own contribution to the debate on Lexit:

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