Head over heart for Europe

Peter Pulzer

  • Ever Closer Union: Britain’s Destiny in Europe by Hugh Thomas
    Hutchinson, 96 pp, £7.99, January 1991, ISBN 0 09 174908 5
  • The Challenge of Europe: Can Britain win? by Michael Heseltine
    Pan, 226 pp, £5.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 330 31436 X

‘We should have to contend with the ordinary Englishman’s almost innate dislike and suspicion of “Europeans” ... Intensive re-education would be needed to bring this section of the public to realise that in the modern world even the United Kingdom cannot stand alone.’ The words are those of a committee of civil servants convened to advise the Macmillan Government in 1960 on the pros and cons of joining the ‘Six’. The paper has just been released under the thirty-year rule.

Whitehall, as we know from the history of the Second World War, has never had much faith in ordinary people. The idea that the public is a backward tribe in need of ‘re-education’ is a trifle patronising. But most of us would agree that a government trying to ‘take Britain into Europe’ had a public relations problem. Is that still the case? Are Hugh Thomas and Michael Heseltine right in arguing that Britain’s leaders are now lagging behind public opinion in Europeanism or, at the very least, that they are failing in their duty to enthuse us?

That two Conservative public figures should, within a space of three weeks, publish books urging Britain in almost identical terms to go the whole European hog, is surely remarkable. More than anything else, it indicates the post-Thatcher agenda: Europe was certainly the occasion of Mrs Thatcher’s going, even if not its principal cause. It was also the cause of her two most damaging Cabinet crises, the Westland affair and the resignation of Nigel Lawson; of her most ridiculous embarrassment, the Ridley affair; and of her one national electoral defeat, in the European elections of 1989. Perhaps if she had not insisted on inventing the poll tax, she might still be in Number Ten. But if so, she would be severely and increasingly constrained, more by European questions than by any other.

Hugh Thomas is in no doubt that British history has never been anything other than European:

Except during the climax of Empire ... our history has always been part of Continental history – just as our arts have been interwoven with those of the Continent ... Throughout the Middle Ages England was a Continental power; during much of that time, our laws were written in French. Over half of Shakespeare’s plays are set on the Continent. Donizetti and Verdi certainly regarded English literature as part of their own heritage ... Our architecture is obviously part of European architecture, just as our literature and music arc of European art.

Where Thomas concludes, ‘Our history has been part of European history,’ Heseltine begins:

Britain’s past is tightly spun into the history of Europe and it is this web of influence that makes us what we are today. The relationship goes back to the origins of the British people and has lasted in spite of long periods of mutual neglect ... The great names of European letters and thought are the common possession of all our peoples, although not all reputations travel equally well.

I want to argue that what we have here is retrospective wishful thinking, which fails to explain why it has taken the British people so long to decide to throw in their lot with Europe. This part of the Heseltine/Thomas thesis commits three errors. It takes a part (high culture) for the whole. It assumes an approximate reciprocity of cultural influences. It derives political conclusions from cultural evidence.

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