Europe could damage her health

William Rodgers

  • The Challenge of Europe: Can Britain win? by Michael Heseltine
    Weidenfeld, 226 pp, £14.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 297 79608 9

On 28 October 1971 the House of Commons voted, at the end of a six-day debate, on Britain’s entry to the Common Market. There was a majority of 112 in favour, but 131 MPs rebelled against their party leadership, the most dramatic occasion of its kind since the prelude to Chamberlain’s resignation in 1940. On the Opposition benches, 69 Labour MPs defied a heavy three-line whip to vote for entry, and another 20 abstained. Of Conservatives, 39 voted against entry and two abstained. There was also one Liberal rebel.

The split in the Labour Party over Europe was to be decisive. It led to the resignation of Roy Jenkins as Deputy Leader and to the breakdown of the old, controlling alliance on the centre-right of the party. The SDP, when it emerged ten years later, was the lineal descendant of the Labour rebellion. But dissent in the Conservative Party presented no comparable threat. Since Harold Macmillan’s first application for membership in 1962, it had been settled policy to join the European Community. Now, with a decisive House of Commons vote behind it, the British would be ‘good Europeans’, at least as long as a Conservative government was in power. A handful of rebels was neither here nor there.

Michael Heseltine’s extended tract is a measure of how far, under Mrs Thatcher, this expectation remains unfulfilled. The Prime Minister’s abrasive relations with Britain’s European partners have been one of the characteristics of her period in office. For a while it appeared that a settlement to Britain’s budgetary problem, together with steps to control the Common Agricultural Policy, had diminished her antagonism to the Community. But her Bruges speech of last autumn, her opposition to full membership of the EMS, her contempt for ‘the socialist policies’ of the Commission’s President, Jacques Delors, and the restrictive, anti-federal tone she gave to the Conservative Manifesto for the 1989 Euro-elections, all point to a greater hostility than in her early days in Downing Street.

In turn, this has put the matter back on the political agenda, with consequences that have proved damaging to her. For many years, and despite the ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum of 1975, there were points to be scored in a populist approach to foreigners across the channel. Euro-beer, Euro-sausages were good for a laugh, with a side-swipe at Brussels bureaucrats, the arrogant French and the pompous Germans. But the tide has suddenly turned. The tirade against Brussels from Mrs Thatcher’s former adviser, Sir John Hoskyns, was not well received by the Institute of Directors he was still serving. Opinion polls show and the results of the Euro-elections confirm that outright hostility to the Community is no longer an obvious winner.

Mrs Thatcher is suffering both from her own promotion of the Single Market in 1992 and anxiety about rising inflation and interest rates. How can Britain expect to prosper if we are less than wholehearted partners in the Community? Why should doctrinaire objections (Mrs Thatcher’s) block full membership of the EMS?

The Challenge of Europe shows signs of being the product of several hands but there is no shame in that. This book is less important for what it says than for who says it and why he says it now. Michael Heseltine is bidding for the leadership of his party, not submitting a thesis or seeking the Booker Prize. He is setting out his stall for the moment when Mrs Thatcher goes.

Michael Heseltine is frequently oblique, preferring the rhetorical question to the plain statement of opinion. His few references to Mrs Thatcher are elliptical. In Bruges, we are told, she ‘proclaimed Britain’s European destiny’, which is a curious rendering of a speech more hostile to the development of the Community than any other made by a British Prime Minister. The journey ahead ‘will be slower than the more resolute travellers would like although faster than their would-be dissuaders admit’. There is ‘nothing ignoble’, he says, in a cautious approach to European matters. But this is the gentlemanly language in which ambitious Conservative politicians are still expected to address each other in public. Read between the lines, and this is a statement of a strong European commitment, sharply different from Mrs Thatcher’s.

That Michael Heseltine has chosen to publish at this time is significant. As a serious candidate for the Conservative leadership, he must remain in the public eye. He must also define his constituency, to the left of Mrs Thatcher but in the Tory mainstream. Domestic policies are not enough, because the world is the stage upon which British prime ministers are expected to appear. But Europe? This might have seemed an odd choice of theme.

It was a high-risk but shrewd judgment on Heseltine’s part to play the European card. Mrs Thatcher’s successor must shift the ground at home and abroad to win first the leadership and then the nation. Britain is a divided society in which essential public services – education, health and housing – are woefully neglected. And a friendly stopover in London by President Bush cannot hide the fact that Britain is currently in a minority of one both in Nato and the Community. If Michael Heseltine can stake out a distinctive position, he may even win some of the middle opinion that Mrs Thatcher never attracted and now positively repels. His European message is certainly attractive to those in all parties who voted for Britain’s entry to the Common Market eighteen years ago, and to their heirs and successors in another generation who take for granted Britain’s partnership with her European neighbours.

The story of Britain’s jarring relationship with her principal partners in the European Community effectively begins in 1950 with the Attlee government’s rejection of the plan devised by Jean Monnet and proposed by Robert Schuman for the pooling of coal and steel production. Many years later Dean Acheson, Secretary of State at the time, was to call it ‘the great mistake of the post-war period’ from which both Britain and Europe continued to suffer. The Foreign Office expressed sympathy for the Schuman Plan, and in the Economic Section of the Treasury it was thought that Britain would benefit from a wider market. But in the House of Commons, Sir Stafford Cripps defended the Government’s decision on the grounds of the dominance of the British coal and steel industries and the impossibility of handing them over to a European authority. ‘The Durham miners won’t wear it’ was a more colloquial rendering of the position. Steps towards Federation were rejected by Cripps as incompatible with Britain’s obligations to the Commonwealth and her role as an Atlantic and world power. And in a separate and more hostile statement from the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (drafted by Denis Healey), the idea was scorned of any union with countries opposed to socialist policies of full employment, public ownership and a planned economy.

Monnet later wrote in his memoirs, ‘Britain had not been conquered: she felt no need to exorcise history ... Europe was on the move. Whatever the British decided would be their own affair.’ But Britain had effectively surrendered the leadership of Europe that had been hers in 1945 and had reached its summit in the creation of Nato in 1949. The Opposition criticised Labour for declining to support the Schuman Plan, but the return of a Conservative government in 1951 did not lead to a reversal of policy.

The themes underlying the rejection of the Schuman Plan have persisted in the long subsequent debate about Britain and the European Community. Confidence about Britain’s imperial presence and world role was badly shaken by the Suez War of 1956, which did more than anything to reverse the views on Europe of the Conservative Party and a significant body of Establishment and liberal opinion. But the Atlantic connection gave de Gaulle his excuse to veto Britain’s entry in 1963, and ‘the special relationship’ has remained more precious to prime ministers than being on neighbourly terms with Paris or Bonn. Stripped of the rhetoric of ideology, Labour’s unwillingness to surrender control over Britain’s economic destiny in 1950 is not significantly different from Mrs Thatcher’s reluctance to join the European Monetary System today. The determination to retain economic sovereignty – which united Michael Foot and Enoch Powell in opposition to Britain’s entry in the debate of October 1971 – is the most persistent of the themes that have run since the Schuman Plan.

In an introductory gallop through a thousand years of history, Michael Heseltine finds space to mention the Venerable Bede, Sir Thomas More, Machiavelli, Newton, Catherine the Great and Adam Smith. But unlike Hugh Gaitskell in his memorable speech to the Labour Party Conference in 1962, he sees a closer link with Europe as the logic of a common European inheritance, not as a break with the past. For Gaitskell, steps towards political union meant ‘the end of Britain as an independent nation state’. For Heseltine, moving closer to Europe means no loss of identity but ‘a much greater one’.

Of the five conditions for entry laid down by Gaitskell and the Labour Party more than a quarter of a century ago, three have faded. EFTA, to which Britain then belonged, survives as a mainly Scandinavian Free Trade Area and a useful door through which the countries of Eastern Europe may one day walk, but Britain has no continuing obligations in that direction. Similarly, painful although the break was for New Zealand and some Commonwealth countries, internal Commonwealth trading relations have long ago declined. As for agriculture, farmers have grown far richer as a result of Britain’s membership of the Community than they dreamt of when enjoying the production and price guarantees established by Tom Williams, Attlee’s post-war Minister of Agriculture. Gaitskell’s two remaining conditions – freedom to plan the economy and the right to an independent foreign policy – are matters that Michael Heseltine convincingly addresses. Freedom and independence in the sense that Gaitskell implied are not luxuries in the modern world: they do not exist even for the superpowers.

At the time of the Schuman Plan, a handful of people in this country, mainly of a younger generation, grasped its importance and hoped that Britain would join. I was not one of them. I shared the confident belief that Britain could manage on her own. My first chastening doubts came with the Suez debacle and were confirmed by the signs of a collapsing economy in 1961 at the end of the long post-war boom. A year later, in my maiden speech in the House of Commons, I supported Harold Macmillan’s application for membership of the Community, then being masterminded by Edward Heath. Despite those critics, especially in the Labour Party, who dubbed supporters of entry ‘Eurofanatics’, there was nothing fanatical about my position then and nothing fanatical now. By 1962 there was overwhelming evidence that Britain simply could not afford to stay out of a Community which, as Michael Heseltine reminds us, many British politicians had previously thought would not work. Membership in 1962 would not provide economic salvation, but exclusion would accelerate economic decline. As for international influence, a weak and poverty-stricken Britain would have nothing to offer, and the leadership of Europe would pass irrevocably to the French and Germans.

At the same time, underlying these hard-headed calculations there was a question of values. A loss of sovereignty, meaning the ability to control one’s own affairs, was a serious matter upon which decisions should not be lightly taken. But behind legitimate constitutional arguments there often lurked a narrow and stifling nationalism, a belief that Britain knew all the answers and foreigners were lesser breeds without the law. ‘I did not become a member of a sovereign Parliament in order to consent to that sovereignty being abated or transferred,’ Enoch Powell declared. The name nationalism provided a reason for excluding Commonwealth immigrants.

Michael Heseltine does not confront this point and, remarkably, manages to avoid any reference whatsoever to Enoch Powell in his text. But this is a Manifesto aimed at his own party, and he is anxious to claim the future of Europe as ‘a Tory vision’. Appropriately, to end the book, he turns to Winston Churchill urging the audience, in his 1947 Albert Hall speech, ‘to promote the cause of a United Europe’. But Heseltine deserves a hearing outside his own party when he says that Britain now has the choice either to play a leading role in the community or to settle for a two-tier, two-speed Europe with Britain at the bottom and the rear. Dean Acheson was right. Britain’s greatest post-war error was to reject the Schuman Plan in 1950. Forty years on, there is just a chance of making up a little lost time.