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?

The time had come, he said, for those questions to be answered. In his experience of large enterprises, Churchill had found it was ‘often a mistake to try to settle everything at once’. Just as he was opposed to the Conservative opposition entering into firm policy commitments – wisdom not matched, unfortunately, by the Party’s leaders today – he was always opposed to the European movement being drawn, as he later put it, ‘into laboured attempts to draw rigid structures of constitutions’. Yet now they had ‘at once to set on foot an organisation in Great Britain to promote the cause of United Europe’ and to give the idea such prominence that it would affect the actions of their fellow countrymen and ‘influence the course of national policy’. ‘The British self-governing Dominions – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa – feel with us that Britain is geographically and historically a part of Europe, and that they also have their inheritance in Europe,’ Churchill continued. ‘If Europe united is to be a living force, Britain will have to play her full part as a member of the European family.’ The British Government, together with other governments, he concluded, ‘should approach the various pressing Continental problems from a European rather than from a restricted national angle’. That speech, as well as his speeches at The Hague and Amsterdam in the following year, surely dispose of the idea that in those years Churchill did not consider Britain to be part of Europe. Inevitably, some will differ from Hugo Young on particular episodes, but throughout the book his careful, searching analyses and vivid narrative normally compel agreement.

When he regained Downing Street, Churchill abandoned United Europe to the unsympathetic hands of Eden and the Foreign Office, himself concentrating on relations with the United States and the Soviet Union. In view of his wartime experiences with the Big Three, what President Eisenhower thought Churchill’s ‘almost childlike faith in British-American partnership’, which even survived Eisenhower’s explicit rejection of a ‘special’ relationship, was understandable. Harold Macmillan had no such excuse. Dismayed by Churchill’s change of front on Europe when he became prime minister, Macmillan had almost resigned from the Cabinet in 1952. Yet although, after the Suez débâcle, Eisenhower, Dulles and Adenauer had all thought he should and would turn to Europe, instead he turned back to America, thinking only of restoring relations with the United States.

When Macmillan did change tack in 1961, he was too late and too half-hearted. He told Parliament that joining the EEC ‘was a political issue as well as an economic issue. Although the Treaty of Rome is concerned with economic matters it has an important political objective, namely to promote unity and stability in Europe.’ Yet President Kennedy’s approval of his decision had given Macmillan particular pleasure, and he continued to demonstrate his American inclinations. The negotiations dragged on for more than a year, by which time the French President felt strong enough to veto British entry. However you look at it, Young’s verdict runs, ‘de Gaulle without doubt treated Macmillan monstrously.’ That is true, and de Gaulle was repeating the British mistake of greatly overestimating his country’s power. All the same, some of his fears about Britain in Europe – in particular her obsessive obeisance to the United States – later turned out to be justified.

On Europe, Harold Wilson was at his Wilsonian worst, first deriding the Conservative Party’s European policy, then adopting it, then attacking and attempting to defeat Heath’s successful application to join the Six, then vowing to renegotiate Heath’s terms of entry, before finally, after his renegotiations had achieved virtually nothing, opting for unenthusiastic membership of the Community. But on one thing Wilson was always consistent: in Young’s words, his ‘cringing submission to Lyndon Johnson’. Interestingly, the then Mr Wedgwood Benn, who had very different views on these and other matters before he assumed the title of ‘Tony Benn’, also leaned in the same direction. Young quotes the Crossman Diaries: ‘Tony Wedgwood Benn made an extremely good speech asking what was European about us and what was American and whether the Anglo-American relationship isn’t worth a great deal more than entry into Europe.’

Almost alone among recent prime ministers, Heath never made the mistake of appearing to be America’s surrogate in Europe; he, at least, never fawned on the White House. Heath is the nearest thing This Blessed Plot has to a politician-hero; apart from Roy Jenkins the other heroes are the usually unsung civil servants: Lee, O’Neill, Robinson, Butler, Palliser etc, who shepherded us into the Community with a skill and persistence which almost made up for the visionless complacency of their Forties’ and Fifties’ predecessors. Young is impressed by Heath’s ability at their crucial meeting in May 1971 to convince President Pompidou of the seriousness and sincerity of Britain’s European intentions; and he praises Heath’s single-mindedness ‘which produced a rare phenomenon, the complete attainment of a political objective’. But Young – no doubt rightly – is a hard man to please. He thinks that Heath did not do enough ‘to move the British towards starting to become truly European people’ – to which the quick answer is that he was in power for only one year after our entry.

More seriously, Young seems to think that it is the duty of politicians not only to win the argument and the votes at the time but also to neutralise in advance whatever preoccupations may be prevalent twenty years later. He concedes that ‘sovereignty’ was much less on people’s minds in the Seventies than it is today. This is partly because Britain was then more self-confident and partly because the country had not had twenty years of anti-European propaganda drummed into it by right-wing papers and by politicians, left as well as right. Probably, too, people were then more realistic, not confusing the legalistic conception of sovereignty with genuine freedom of action. For instance, there is not much advantage in having the legally unfettered right to raise and lower interest rates if in practice you only have the freedom to do what the Bundesbank does. And the fiercest defenders of British sovereignty are quite happy to see large chunks of British industry and commerce sold to foreign companies.

Honesty and candour are essential at elections and referendums, but to require politicians to deal with all the possible objections Europhobes might dream up twenty years later seems a little excessive. Even if that had been done, the Phobes would today still be chanting incantations about sovereignty. More important, if politicians have to dwell on all the most unpopular aspects of their case – something which is normally thought to be the job of their opponents – or all the parts of it which can be made to seem unpopular two decades later, they will probably end up convincing people to vote against their project, which would make the whole exercise pretty pointless. Anyway, as Young says, the practice of reading into the early Seventies ‘the assumptions of the middle Nineties produced a false indictment’. Heath did not deceive the electorate over Europe. Unlike Wilson he was honest and consistent.

Young raises the interesting possibility that the difference between Heath and Wilson over foreign affairs was partly due to their contrasting wartime careers. ‘It probably mattered quite a lot to the direction of later events,’ he writes, ‘that in early September 1939, as Ted Heath was making it back to Britain from Poland by the skin of his teeth before war was declared, Harold Wilson was motoring to Dundee to deliver an academic paper on exports and the trade cycle, and that later, while Heath was training to run an anti-aircraft battery, Wilson became a potato controller at the Ministry of Food.’ In this, though in nothing else, Margaret Thatcher may have been rather similar to Wilson. During the war, the Roberts household naturally talked a great deal about Germany. The young Margaret, she wrote in her memoirs, ‘knew just what I thought of Hitler’, and she was intensely proud of the British Empire. According to Sir Charles Powell, probably the most influential private secretary she had in Downing Street, the Prime Minister was in thrall to childhood memories. ‘For a small girl growing up in Grantham the Germans were about as evil as anything you could think of.’ In that case, it might be thought, the young girl would have been eager to do anything she could to help defeat that evil. In the First War her revered father had tried to enlist no fewer than six times but was always turned down on medical grounds. On leaving school during the Second War, therefore, his daughter’s natural move would have been to volunteer for the ATS, like, say, the Queen, who is six months younger than she is. Instead, she went straight to Oxford in 1943, where Conservative politics became a ‘focus’ for her life. So those childhood memories may well have included some guilt about the war. Had she joined the Forces, she might have escaped what one of her disenchanted courtiers, George Urban, called her ‘Alf Garnett’ view of Germany.

As of Hitler, Margaret Thatcher knew exactly what she thought of the European Community. She did not like international organisations as such. She disliked the United Nations and the Commonwealth, and she disliked Europe even more. She did not understand it, and she did not know its history. Remarkably, though, for a short period in the mid-Eighties her hostility seemingly abated. She became a builder of the European Union not an impediment to it. ‘The Single European Act,’ Young writes, ‘was a fusion between the visions of Margaret Thatcher and Jacques Delors for the future of Europe.’ That Act introduced majority voting into the Council of Ministers and surrendered or shared more ‘sovereignty’ than any other passed since 1972, yet it was backed by Thatcher and nearly all the Thatcherites. This had happened, she later claimed, because she had not fully understood what the Act meant – which seems unlikely. In any case, even during her apparently more pro-European period, her deep seated prejudice against the Community remained, as it did from the beginning to the end of her tenure of Downing Street.

Another important reason for her dislike was the leaders of the larger European nations being her equals. Nigel Lawson observed that she was ‘mesmerised by power’ and therefore much preferred the rulers of the United States and the Soviet Union to those of our European partners. Mrs Thatcher, President Mitterrand agreed, ‘is like a little girl of eight years old when she is talking to the President of the United States’.

Probably, indeed, the most important cause of her ‘truculent chauvinism in Europe’ (Lawson again) was her ideological bond with Ronald Reagan. Hence she found transatlantic relations far more agreeable than European ones. Her friendship with the President was a bonus during the Falklands conflict. As Argentina was the undeniable aggressor and three times as many Americans supported Britain as supported the invader, the United States would probably have had to support Britain anyway, but the tilt towards us was certainly influenced by the close friendship between the two leaders. Unfortunately, America’s help fed Thatcher’s delusions about what she called Britain’s ‘very, very special relationship with the United States’. In fact, since 1945, the ‘special relationship’ has been largely a myth. It is a phrase much used by British politicians and journalists, but seldom employed by Americans, as they have known it does not exist. Virtually all it amounts to is that London’s ‘intelligence’ relations with Washington are closer than those of other countries. Even that privilege is not always a benefit: it probably led to Tony Blair giving an immediate, unequivocal endorsement of Clinton’s attack on the innocent, and only, pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan. Otherwise, the term ‘special relationship’ is merely a flowery way of concealing Britain’s habitual subservience.

If Thatcher’s soul-mating with Reagan was an important factor in her hostility to Europe, much the same applies to the campaign currently being waged by what Michael Heseltine calls ‘our North American press’ – that is to say, the Murdoch and Black empires – against Britain forging closer ties in Europe. As Conrad Black has lived here for a dozen years, obviously cares about the country and does not own a British tabloid, it is a little unfair to bracket him with Rupert Murdoch. But since his views seem to be essentially North American, it is probably legitimate to do so. And it is Black who, in his lecture, Britain’s Final Choice: Europe or America?, has produced the most coherent case for Britain opting for the United States.[*] The US attempts to push Britain into Europe, he plausibly maintains, were ‘not for any reasons having to do with Britain’s national interest’. Similarly, of course, his own and Murdoch’s attempts to push Britain out of Europe have little to do with Britain’s national interests and much to do with their own interests and their own political opinions. Their interests are too obvious to linger over: their empires are too powerful to have much to fear from any ‘nation state’; the European Union, on the other hand, might well tame them.

Their political opinions are more interesting, and as the two of them are probably the greatest obstacles to Britain joining EMU – provided it works – their views are worth some attention. In his lecture, Black makes two main arguments for Britain joining the United States, Canada and Mexico in the North American Free Trade Area and disengaging as far as possible from Europe. The first is that remaining in the European Union involves an unacceptable loss of ‘sovereignty’, while lining up with the United States would involve no significant loss of it; the second is that Britain has far more in common, politically, economically and (presumably) socially with the US than she does with Western Europe.

The sovereignty argument I have to some extent already dealt with. Being in the Union clearly involves some sacrifice or merger of sovereignty but, as Churchill put it at The Hague in 1948, ‘it is also possible and not less agreeable to regard it as the gradual assumption, by all nations concerned, of that larger sovereignty which can also protect their diverse and distinctive customs and characteristics, and their national traditions.’ Clearly Britain has more power and influence as a member of the EU than as an ‘independent’ offshore island (which even Black rules out) or as an appendage of the United States. In the days when America had a foreign policy based on the national interest, to be an appendage was not too malign a fate. Now that she has one scarcely worthy of the name, largely derived from the pressures of domestic politics and national minorities, such subordinate status is not an alluring prospect. Britain would lose little sovereignty, but her power and prestige would be virtually nil.

Black seems to admire the recent foreign policy of the United States – surely a difficult feat. One does not have to go all the way with Gore Vidal and think that ‘irrelevance is now the American condition, both as a global empire and an incoherent domestic polity.’ Yet America acts abroad, the columnist William Pfaff recently wrote, according to ‘what corporate interests and electoral combinations dictate’. Nevertheless, Black evidently approves of this and resents what he regards as European meddling in foreign affairs, believing that ‘Europe possesses neither the geopolitical strength nor the political maturity’ for an ‘early re-emergence of European leadership in the world’. He may well be right about the geopolitical strength, but does he really think that America is now a prime example of political maturity? Although the leader of the UN, the United States owes that organisation nearly a billion dollars, and it recently failed to pay its debt because a decidedly immature bunch of Republican Congressmen insisted on linking the discharge of its obligation to the wholly irrelevant subject of abortion. Black’s remarks about foreign affairs are an implicit admission that Britain’s accession to Nafta would be an acceptance of continued flunkeydom to the United States.

Black’s second argument is merely an extension of his extreme right-wing political and economic opinions, which he mistakenly thinks are widely shared in this country. He is convinced that Franco-German social market capitalism ‘subsidises unemployment and disincentivises work’, and that what he thinks of as the Anglo-American way of conducting these matters is infinitely superior. In fact, between 1960 and 1997 the growth rates of the European Union and the United States were the same. France’s GDP per capita is virtually the same as America’s, and France unlike the US has a healthy trade balance. Admittedly, Black’s lecture was delivered in early July, when a good many more people than today were in the grip of the fantasy that deregulation and global laissez-faire were the summit of political and economic wisdom, and that every country’s economy should be as much like that of the United States as possible. But it is unlikely that his beliefs have greatly changed since then. For him, the lowest possible levels of taxation, social expenditure and regulation are the ideal. The extremism of his opinions may be gauged by such phrases (in a later article on the subject) as ‘Sir Edward Heath’s pathological anti-Americanism’, ‘the canons of Euro-federalist socialism’, and the great ‘ideological gap between Britain and the relatively authoritarian socialist regimes of Europe’.

In attempting to equate British politics with those of the United States (and his own), Conrad Black misrepresents both the past and the present. Leaving aside the last twenty years, Britain has since 1688 always been one of the most advanced countries in Europe both politically and socially. In the 19th century she was the most liberal major European state. Between the two world wars, she introduced the most advanced social services in the world, and continued in that vein after 1945. She has never been in the vanguard of the Right. And even today, although she certainly moved in that direction in the twenty years of Two-Nations Conservatism, she is still only just in sight of right-wing America.

For the time being, the United States unquestionably has the most powerful, efficient and prosperous economy in the world, although its ‘goldilocks’ are likely to fade before long; and she is incomparably the strongest military power. But, despite those achievements and many other estimable qualities, the US has some disturbing features more appropriate for a Third-World country than for the world’s only superpower. America is easily the most unequal as well as the richest country in the advanced world. The richest 1 per cent of American households own nearly 40 per cent of the country’s wealth, and the richest 20 per cent nearly 80 per cent of it. The average chief executive officer of a large American company makes nearly two hundred times the average worker’s salary. Yet until very recently the living standards of many Americans had fallen since 1980, and more than a quarter of all black families and more than 40 per cent of their children remain trapped in poverty.

America spends more on health – 15 per cent of GDP – than any other Western country, but unlike them has no national health service to provide universal coverage. More than forty million Americans have no health insurance. In 1997, the infant mortality rate for black babies was the same as that for infants in Bosnia and worse than for those in Costa Rica. And in its mortality rate for children under five, the US ranked 25th in the world, equal with Cuba, and behind the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Israel. The Clintons did initially try to improve matters, but their plan was destroyed by what Gore Vidal calls ‘corporate America’. American insurance companies get one-third of all the money spent on healthcare, a bonanza so valuable that to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on defeating the Clintons’ project was well worth their while.

Clinton learned his lesson and started cutting welfare. Yet however difficult it is to admire the President over either his home or his foreign policy, he is surely preferable to his Republican enemies – Starr and Lott and Hyde and ‘Newt’. (Conrad Black demonstrates his rupture from reality by thinking that Gingrich’s support for our joining Nafta is in British eyes a recommendation.) The so-called ‘Christian Coalition’ – among industrial countries the US has easily the highest percentage of regular Sunday church-goers without that impressive congregation having much visible effect on what is done during the rest of the week – the gun lobby, the tobacco lobby and the pervasive influence of money on both Congress and elections are among the other unappetising aspects of the American scene. The low turnout at elections – 36 per cent in this month’s mid-term elections and less than 50 per cent at the last Presidential contest – suggests that they are similarly unappealing to the huge numbers of non-voters. Luckily, both voters and non-voters seem to be much more sensible than most politicians and nearly all the pundits.

So, however congenial the American polity is to Conrad Black, the claim that Britain is closer to America’s politics and economics than to Europe’s Christian and Social Democracy is as much of a myth as the ‘special relationship’. Though Black is not to blame for it, probably the only sphere in which the two countries greatly resemble each other is their newspapers, something which can give neither much pleasure. Closer links with the United States would doubtless benefit a few – but only a few – multi-national corporations, but it would not benefit the rest of the country. Apart from American aid in the Falklands war, fifty years of toadying has brought us little return – according to the former American Ambassador in London, British intelligence was passed onto the IRA – only a certain amount of deserved contempt from other countries.

Not only is there no third way, there is not even a second way. Nobody wants to end the Atlantic Alliance, but the United States is not an alternative to the European Union. Partnership with equal nations is far preferable to subordination to a much stronger power; Britain’s present and future lie in Europe. Nevertheless, a strong possibility remains that the ideological and corporate interests of over-mighty press barons will prolong Britain’s European flounderings. Sir Roy Denman, an astute observer, has dubbed Rupert Murdoch Britain’s real prime minister in things European. Britain’s other prime minister has sent out mixed signals. All too frequently Tony Blair seems to revel in being President Clinton’s favourite poodle. Sometimes, however, he casts off his Monica role and Marianne takes centre stage. Blair then seems far more positive about Europe than his predecessors; the logic of events certainly should make him more so. Hugo Young is relatively optimistic. Let us hope he is right. Whether he is or not, he has written a magnificent book.

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