Ian Gilmour

  • This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair by Hugo Young
    Macmillan, 558 pp, £20.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 333 57992 5

For most of the last half-century, Britain has had two options: to be a whole-hearted member of Europe or to be a satellite of the United States. In this field there has been no ‘third way’. Full-hearted co-operation with Europe does not mean and never has meant the end of the Atlantic Alliance. The great majority of the countries in the European Union have always been members of Nato. Yet British prime ministers and politicians have tended to think that for Britain to be fully European somehow endangered our allegedly ‘special’ relationship with the United States. This is an odd notion because, at least since the end of the war, the United States has given up treating Britain as an equal and has nearly always been anxious for us to join Europe and play our proper part there. Nevertheless, with the conspicuous exception of Ted Heath, most prime ministers have dithered between seeking to co-operate with Europe and accepting American domination, while inclining heavily towards the latter.

Nobody is better qualified than Hugo Young to tell the sad tale of Britain’s fumblings with her neighbours since 1945. As well as having been a close observer of the British and American scene for some thirty years, he seems to have interviewed nearly everybody alive who had much to do with his subject – and many who are now dead. But his book is not merely a piece of diligent research: it is a powerful, sustained and entertaining indictment of British policy and politicians. This Blessed Plot, Young tells us, ‘is the story of fifty years in which Britain struggled to reconcile the past she could not forget with the future she could not avoid’. One of the participants in the British rejection of the Schuman Plan in 1950 thought that the Attlee Government’s combination of hauteur and neglect had produced the biggest foreign policy failure since the war, and unfortunately that was far from being the last time that British hauteur and neglect – and failure – were on display. Young himself neglects nothing, and if he occasionally exhibits more than a little hauteur himself towards politicians, such indulgence is pardonable, perhaps inevitable, for he is recounting a lengthy ‘saga of political ineptitude’. It ‘is not an opinion’, he declares, ‘but a surely incontestable fact’ that ‘the thread running through this history’ is ‘high political misjudgment’, a claim which he then meticulously, indeed mercilessly, substantiates.

The first political misjudgment was an almost universal overestimate of Britain’s postwar power and status. Nearly all the politicians and leading civil servants of the time believed that they did not have to choose between European co-operation and American dominance. Even Churchill, who at the end of the war had recognised that the resources of the United States ‘were vastly superior to our own’ and that the British Commonwealth could only ‘hold her own by our superior statecraft and experience’, was less clearsighted in peacetime, despite the fact that the disparity between British and American power had grown much greater in the postwar years.

Because of their misconception of Britain’s place in the world, all the politicians and most civil servants of the day thought there was a third way. Britain with her Empire, they were convinced, was still a great power, not perhaps as great as the United States or the Soviet Union, but still perceptibly great. None of them had the percipience of a Foreign Office memorandum which, in 1945, pointed out that Britain could only be treated ‘as an equal’ by her ‘two big partners’ if she made herself the leader of Europe as well as of the Commonwealth; nor the discernment of the scientist and defence adviser Sir Henry Tizard, who minuted in 1949: ‘We are not a great power and never will be again. We are a great nation but if we continue to behave like a great power we shall soon cease to be a great nation.’

In recent years, that minute has been much quoted, but it went unheeded at the time, even by the Foreign Office, which was generally as mistaken as everybody else. Its own 1945 memorandum also went unheeded. Yet the abilities of a great scientist should not have been needed to see that Britain’s days as a great power were irretrievably past. I remember a school lecture in 1938 on the rise and fall of empires. Captain Currie, a bouncy, cheerful little man with a cavalry moustache and an explosive temper, having explained how all previous empires had collapsed or been defeated, ended with a map of the world whose most distinctive feature was the gratifyingly large patches of red showing the extent of the British Empire. Could Britain retain those red patches and could her Empire avoid the fate of its predecessors? The Captain did not risk a definite answer, but he was clearly pessimistic. Britain evidently lacked the power to defend her massive possessions against her competitors. Captain Currie was not the possessor of a majestic intellect, either historical or scientific. He was mainly interested in sport and taught only the bottom forms. Yet, even before the fall of Singapore and Indian independence, he had a better grasp of the limitations of British power than most British politicians and civil servants could muster after those events.

Young thinks Churchill was almost as misguided about Europe as he was about the continuance of British power. Here he is, I think, on shaky ground. He sees Churchill as ‘the prime exponent of British ambiguity’ over Europe and the most potent source of ‘illusion and uncertainty’ on the subject. He concedes the great man’s prescience both before and during the war, but contends that after it Churchill saw Europe as stopping at the English Channel. Britain, he believes, was outside the Churchillian concept of Europe. As well as being convenient for Young’s (basically correct) thesis that virtually all British politicians have been hopelessly deluded about Europe, this view is not refuted by Churchill’s first two great postwar European speeches at Metz and Zurich. And it is consistent with the conduct of the Churchill Government of 1951-55, but it is not at all consistent with the speeches Churchill made in 1947-48.

In a speech to a United Europe Meeting at the Albert Hall on 14 May 1947 (not mentioned by Young), Churchill asked:

Are we Europeans to become incapable, with all our tropical and colonial dependencies, with all our long-created trading connections, with all that modern production and transportation can do, of even averting famine from the mass of our peoples? Are we all, through our poverty and our quarrels, for ever to be a burden and a danger to the rest of the world? Do we imagine that we can be carried forward indefinitely upon the shoulders – broad though they be – of the United States of America?

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[*] Centre for Policy Studies, 28 pp., £5, 9 July, 1 897 96978 3.