The story starts with geography. Britain is a relatively small island situated off a large but historically divided continent. It is narrow, with navigable rivers, and it is blessed with natural resources and fertile land. This combination of factors has various implications for the country's development. Its island status and narrow dimensions mean that the coast is always nearby, making a large proportion of the population maritime; add an ample supply of wood, and conditions are ripe for the construction of a strong navy. The fertile soil allows for a stable population, while resources such as coal, metals and sheep (for wool), along with navigable rivers, facilitate strong international trade. From the United Kingdom's perspective, the divisions in the Continent both reduced its threats — limiting Continental powers' ability to build a navy strong enough to invade — and increased its opportunities, as British traders found ways to insert themselves between countries that were often at war. Thus, once the island's basic needs of safety and nourishment were satisfied, Britain's geography enabled it to become a maritime trading power.
Changing British Fortunes
The 19th-century historian John Seeley described Britain as having acquired its empire in a "fit of absence of mind." Britain's merchants led it to conquer the world. The wool trade flourished for a time, but the arrival of cotton superseded it, and it became important for Britain's textiles industry to have sources of the material in warmer climates. This drove it to establish trading posts and colonies in India and North America. The ever-strengthening navy provided more opportunities further afield, and trading stations in the Caribbean and Asia also grew, feeding an ever more rapacious British consumer. The British had to counter threats from local groups or competing European powers, and ultimately it became more economically viable for Britain to take outright control of whole countries to protect its trade. This expansion repeated again and again, and by the start of the 20th century the British Empire covered 22 percent of the world's land mass. Control, of course, also allowed the United Kingdom to keep trade weighted in its favor — a factor that undermined its industrial competitiveness. But the twin requirements inherent in Britain's geography led to its ultimate demise: When Germany threatened to unite the European continent and develop an empire of its own, British interests were endangered both at home and abroad. The result was two world wars that exhausted the trading empire and effectively ceded global domination to the up-and-coming United States.
The United Kingdom that emerged in 1945 was a shadow of its former self. The remains of its empire dropped off in the following decades, and it found it was unable to keep up its former trading prowess. In fact, the amount of sterling held around the world by its former colonies was a great burden on the faded British economy, depreciating the currency strongly. The United Kingdom had to institute exchange controls in 1947. The manufacturing powerhouses of northern England were now exposed as uncompetitive in the global market, as were the great shipbuilding cities on the coasts. Worst of all, the population had grown so much in the previous century and a half that the island now needed to import half of its food. Doing so was affordable in the days of empire, but now the United Kingdom struggled to pay with its newly depleted finances.
Meanwhile, Europe was suppressing its divisions and uniting under Franco-German leadership, with the only consolation for the United Kingdom being that the new bloc did not appear hostile. Confronted with the danger of losing all influence on the Continent, and with abundant French and Italian food supplies offering an answer to many problems, Britain joined up in 1973, in the process erecting trade barriers against the rest of the world, including all of its former colonies. The United Kingdom did not join sooner because London's realization of its new circumstances was slow, and France — uncertain whether the United Kingdom would be a productive member — vetoed two applications in the 1960s.
The Financial Advantages of Membership
Being a part of the European Union (originally the European Community) was always a challenge for the United Kingdom. Not having joined at the bloc's creation, London found the rules weighted against it. The more agricultural France and Italy benefited from the Common Agricultural Policy, and Germany's industrial efficiency challenged Britain's waning manufacturing industries. It was not until the 1980s, when Britain traded in its veto power for the creation of a single market in financial services and achieved a rebate for its excess payments, that the economic advantages truly emerged.
London, the epicenter of British finance, had been suffering like the rest of the country after the war, falling far behind New York on the global stage with the dollar's ascension as the global reserve currency at the expense of the pound. But a giant program of liberalization in the 1980s, partly touched off by the removal of exchange controls in 1979, complemented investment access to the European market. This allowed London to reclaim its place as the home of international finance in the following decades (a large proportion of New York's transactions are domestic), even after the United Kingdom chose to stay out of the eurozone in 1992.
London currently generates 22 percent of the United Kingdom's gross domestic product with just 13 percent of the country's population. In the services trade, of which financial and business services make up 55 percent, the United Kingdom is now second only to the United States on the world stage, and with its goods trade now so depleted, the entire country now leans heavily on the sector as its source of foreign capital. The British navy is no longer an influential force in the world, but the country's trading instincts persist in its facilitation of transactions from the comfort of its own home.
The Benefits of Remaining an EU Member
The financial services sector, then, is the life raft that emerged from the sinking empire. These are the interests that the United Kingdom must protect if it is to preserve any semblance of its Great Power status. Armed with this knowledge, it is now possible to approach the broader question of whether the United Kingdom's interests are better served by staying within the European Union or by leaving it.
A recent episode provides a clue. In March, the United Kingdom won a court case against the European Central Bank at the European Court of Justice. The bank had been attempting to move the clearing function for eurozone transactions within the monetary union itself. The move would have excluded London and made Paris and Frankfurt significantly more attractive as financial centers, endangering London's position in Europe's financial services sector. The court case victory was an example of the benefits of retaining influence within the European Union. In 2013, 41 percent of Britain's financial services exports went to EU countries. If the United Kingdom were to leave the European Union, it seems very likely that tariffs would be raised and actions would be taken to encourage this trade to move back within the bloc.
This is not to say that opportunities do not exist outside the European Union. London has been pursuing the nascent Islamic finance market, in which it is the number one Western trading location, and it also plays host to two-thirds of all yuan transactions that take place outside Hong Kong and China. Historical links, similar legal systems and language similarities will all play their part in creating opportunities for the United Kingdom in former colonies — many of which are projected to be among the world's fastest-growing economies — in the decades to come. However, in Asia, the British inevitably will come up against the very strong hubs of Hong Kong and Singapore, while in the Americas, New York will continue to be a strong adversary. Europe represents a domestic market, which gives the United Kingdom global clout — and not only in financial services. Thus the risks of departure are stark, and the opportunities do not outweigh them.
In the coming months, British Prime Minister David Cameron will attempt to negotiate more favorable terms for the United Kingdom in Europe. His wish list will include restrictions on future immigration, attempts to regain some of the sovereignty London has given up, exemptions from the trajectory leading toward the United Kingdom losing its independence and assurances over the country's continuing access to the single market in financial services. Europe does not want to see the United Kingdom leave — the United Kingdom gives Europe military depth and direct access to the United States and serves as a balance between Germany and France — so Cameron will have some bargaining power and may be able to make some progress in achieving these goals, or he may return with cosmetic results as did Harold Wilson in 1975. The British public could welcome any gains that are achieved, or there could be dissent over a perceived lack of results, but this will not affect the United Kingdom's final decision. Britain is a trading nation that has always been led by its economic considerations, and right now, remaining within the European Union fits with British interests.