Sir Humphrey Appleby: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last 500 years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it's worked so well?
James Hacker: That's all ancient history, surely.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Yes, and current policy. We had to break the whole thing up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn't work. Now that we're inside we can make a complete pig's breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch. The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it's just like old times.
James Hacker: Surely we're all committed to the European ideal.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Really, Minister. [laughs]
James Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well, for the same reason. It's just like the United Nations, in fact. The more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up. The more futile and impotent it becomes.
James Hacker: What appalling cynicism.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Yes. We call it diplomacy, Minister.
Sir Humphrey was cynical, but he wasn't wrong. At least since the time of Elizabeth I, England (and later the UK) intervened in Europe to prevent any one power from growing too strong. It would conduct diplomacy, and fight wars if needed, to constrain strong governments on the Continent. This held true as great powers rose and fell, from Habsburg Spain to Napoleonic France to imperial Germany. In this way the UK was able to promote its own trade, security, and other national interests.
If only someone had told the modern Conservatives. Back in Thatcher's day, this was exactly the kind of cold-blooded statecraft they embraced; but the foreign policy realists aren't in charge any more. Instead, the party leadership are terrified of a minority of fanatical anti-Europeans, who fear the EU will contaminate our precious bodily fluids. The Liberal Democrats enabled Cameron to ignore the fanatics for five years. Then he went and won a majority, called his EU referendum, and brought down consequences we all must endure.
Britain is disengaging from Europe; in part, because it feels a strategy older than the UK itself is too difficult and complicated to be worth the effort.
Why bother with knowing things and making compromises, when being lazy and stupid is so much easier? It is this, above all else, which Brexit has in common with Trump. They are not so much victories for nationalism, as for pig-headed ignorance.
Other governments can and will step into the gap left by the UK. Chancellor Merkel of Germany and President Macron of France have formed a close working relationship, and have an opportunity to shape the future direction of the EU to their liking.
This is likely to be good for France and Germany. It may be good for the EU 27 as a whole. It is most unlikely to be good for the UK. It's not that the post-Brexit EU will have any particular hostility to Britain; but it will have its own needs and priorities, which will sometimes conflict with those of the UK. When that happens, the EU can easily afford to ignore the UK and do as it pleases.
Sir Humphrey would have been appalled.