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.

In none of the arts has the exchange been equal. English music and painting have over the centuries owed much to Continental models and practitioners, which may explain why they have ranked as subordinate arts. In literature it is the other way round. We have never absorbed Goethe, Racine or Dante as others have absorbed Shakespeare. Indeed, not the least embarrassing feature of a visit to the Continent is the widespread familiarity there with an impressive range of English letters, and the expertise that the visitor is assumed to be able to display on it.

Sometimes that, too, can lead to retrospective wishful thinking. When I was in Germany last month, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V was showing everywhere, and had clearly caused something of a stir. More than one German asked me whether it should not be seen as part of a long-standing English vision of European unity. I had to confess that I had never before thought of Shakespeare as a European federalist. The Olivier version, made, like the Branagh version, at a politically sensitive time, was distinctly short of eirenic themes.

Not long ago we celebrated two centenaries – of the defeat of the Armada and of the Glorious Revolution. Both confirmed the popular image of the Continent as a source of danger, of monarchical absolutism, expansionist militarism and Popery. Britain’s independence and prosperity depended on the Empire, trade and the Navy. It was threatened by the Continent and its armies. Fending off the Continental danger required a constant search for allies who could be signed up, and frequently needed to be paid, to maintain a balance of European power. Nothing summed up the accumulated wisdom of Britain’s relations with the rest of Europe better than Sir Eyre Crowe’s 1907 memorandum: ‘It has become almost an historical truism to identify England’s secular policy with the maintenance of this balance [of power] by throwing her weight now in this scale and now in that, but ever on the side opposed to the political dictatorship of the strongest single State or group at a given time.’ In the 20th century even European allies did not suffice for this purpose. The pax Britannica was restored to Europe in 1918 and 1945 only with American men and money, something that has decisively affected British assumptions about the world.

But there is another way in which the 20th century has pointed Britain towards the Atlantic. Europe emerged as a source not only of military but of ideological menace. What were Continental Europe’s contributions to the modern repertoire of political ideas and practice? Fascism, National Socialism, Bolshevism, anarchism, red terror, white terror, civil war. What heroes has the Continent produced in our century? Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco. Beside them those who did quiet good, like Tomas Masaryk or Henri Dunant, shone rather palely. Europe did not seem to be setting attractive political examples or pointing in desirable directions.

Britain’s reluctance in 1945 to be involved with a Continent that had a disastrous political past and a doubtful economic future was therefore understandable even if, with hindsight, profoundly mistaken. Alone of European belligerents, with the exception of Russia, Britain had emerged victoriously from World War Two. The others had all been defeated in 1940, 1941 or 1945, and their political systems to a greater or lesser extent discredited.

But, as Nietzsche had warned the Germans after 1871, a great victory is a great danger. It suspends the faculty of self-criticism. It tempts the beneficiary to ignore the re-appraisals that the less fortunate have embarked on. For most Britons the war taught two lessons: that a nation secure in its identity and cohesion, confident in its history and its mission, can triumph over odds; and that appeasing dictators merely adds to the bill you ultimately have to pay.

Across the Channel the lessons were harder and the conclusions less complacent. There the idea of the sovereign nation-state, the ideal polity of 19th-century liberals, was discredited. Had it not led to chauvinistic pride and racial fantasies? Frontiers were there to be transcended, the purpose of teaching history was to reconcile, not to wave the flag. British statesmen were not aloof from these trends. It was Churchill who launched the idea of a United States of Europe in his Zurich speech of 1946, Bevin who was the chief begetter of the Marshall Plan. But European unity was for others: Britain still operated the three intersecting circles, of which the Atlantic and the Commonwealth loomed larger than Europe. We did not refuse economic co-operation with the Continent, as at first institutionalised by the OEEC: we merely underestimated its importance. The idea that France could be anything but a sinking ship, that the West German economy might grow at 8 per cent annually for a decade, occurred to too few, and the evidence, when available, sank in too slowly.

Britain nodded in agreement when the European Coal and Steel Community was created (1950), the European Defence Community was debated (1954), and when the Treaty of Rome was signed (1957). But its policy-makers and public failed to register the impulse behind them. The EEC seemed a political means to an economic end. Hence the British preference for the alternative European Free Trade Area. But, as we now know, it was the opposite: it was an economic means to a political end – a united, supra-national (Western) Europe.

Has anything changed? Have the fall of Communism, the rise of John Major, and the passing of the war-time generation, made a difference? The average Briton is certainly more Europe-conscious than he was. I do not just mean in the consumption of microwave lasagne, which probably does not exceed that of the toned-down exoticism of Indian and Chinese cuisine; nor the Costa holidays, carefully designed to insulate the participant from the surrounding culture. The greater part of our foreign trade is now with the rest of Europe. Large numbers of Britons now work, temporarily or permanently, on the Continent. Student exchanges with other European universities have become commonplace, facilitated by the readily-observed fact that though we might not speak their languages, they certainly speak ours. What has gone is confidence in the superiority of British institutions. As opinion polls show, most people think that education, care for the environment, industrial innovation, public transport and the elimination of class distinctions are better done on the Continent than here; only in democratic government is Britain thought better.

The Ridley affair, which was fortunately not taken seriously beyond our shores, now seems like a last spasm, though generational change-over at the level of the political élite is not the whole explanation. Ridley is 14 years older than Major, but 12 years younger than Edward Heath. Whether one had fought in the war seems not to be a decisive criterion. Among the public, however, age does matter, as does class. The middle classes – or the better-educated, for it is difficult to know which is the crucial variable – favour European integration at all levels more strongly than the working classes. The age gap is greater still. Among under-25s only two out of ten want British withdrawal from the EC, compared with four out of ten among over-65s. But even they are now in a minority. What is rather more significant is the limits of Euroenthusiasm. People are keenest on integration in specific policy areas: environmental standards, the Social Charter, language teaching, passport-free travel, common defence policy and, by a narrower margin, a central bank. They do not want a common currency or more power for a European parliament at the expense of Westminster. But, when pressed, they do not want to die in the last ditch for sterling in an 11-to-one minority.

I take these data from polls conducted last November and December. Perhaps the Gulf War has changed things. The Bush-Major axis may not have the emotional intensity of the Reagan-Thatcher partnership, but one does get the impression that, for the moment at least, the Prime Minister finds it easier to talk to George Bush than to Helmut Kohl or François Mitterrand. Public perceptions are bound to be affected by the failure of the EC to make coherent noises on the Gulf. Indeed what the Gulf crisis has done is to revive, not so much the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, but the Grand Alliance of World War Two. Gorbachev, though snubbed over his peace plan, does not want to lose his say in the post-war settlement. Yet it is difficult to see how this new alignment can last. What America, Britain and the Soviet Union have in common is that they are playing military and diplomatic roles that do not reflect their general importance in the world. The Gulf War has deflected and disguised, though it cannot reverse, the relative decline of all three countries. The Nineties will belong to those with the best currency reserves, not to those with the best missiles. Sooner or later, therefore, the public agenda will return to the consequences of les évènements of last November.

Which brings us to the question of Britain’s newly-found commitment to Europe. Opinion polls give us a rough idea of how wide this is. But how deep is it? It is scarcely of the same intensity as in many parts of the Original Six. The background is different, as are the motivations. Germans in search of an acceptable political identity had a particular incentive to become good Europeans after 1945. It turned out to be highly profitable. French governments, even if not their citizens, had an equally strong incentive: a United Europe was a way of keeping Germany in check. This strategy, which worked pretty well until 1990, may no longer work so well. But at least it is a strategy.

What has happened in Britain has a rather different dimension. It is a facing of the facts. We no longer have an empire. The revival of the special relationship is temporary. Europe is not now the threatening continent of Philip II, Louis XIV, the Kaiser or Adolf Hitler. Chimeras of the Fourth Reich are dismissed with the contempt they deserve. Splendid isolation is no longer available as an option. The conversion to Europe is a victory of the head over the heart. Its limits are shown by the very guarded public support for complete economic and political union. But if what I have said about the history of Anglo-European relations is valid, that is quite a revolution. It is not, pace Thomas and Heseltine, a reversion to a common heritage, temporarily broken up by the adventure of Empire, but a new epoch in British political consciousness, the final act of our long farewell to greatness.

Perhaps the end of the Cold War and the Helsinki process that preceded it helped to make Europe more attractive to British eyes, a continent of reconciliation, not confrontation, one that stopped at the Urals, not the Elbe. Perhaps the great liberating upheavals of 1989, the daily images of popular idealism in Leipzig, Prague and Bucharest, helped some people to find a new place for Europe in their world-picture. I should dearly like to think so, but cannot prove it.

Heseltine reproaches British business leaders, and Thomas the British political élite, whether party politicians or the Foreign Office, not merely with lack of vision but with an incapacity for long-term thinking on Europe. The latter failing probably applies in every area, not just this one. The few exceptions – Edward Heath or Roy Jenkins – tend to be dismissed as enthusiasts, always a term of abuse in English life. If Thomas is right, the intensive ‘re-education’ that Whitehall prescribed in 1960 did not even take place in its own house. I am rather less worried about the lack of passion. This century has had its fill of passionate intensity. Euro-hot-air tends to be self-defeating, as the Gulf crisis has shown. Perhaps its boringness is now Europe’s greatest asset. It needed great architects at the first hour, men like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman. It now needs bricklayers. Bricklayers have, I suspect, always been more respected in Britain than architects. For architects one goes abroad. To Europe, as we used to say.