Europe or America?

Ian Gilmour

When his book, ‘This Blessed Plot’, came out in 1998, Hugo Young said that it was ‘the story of fifty years in which Britain struggled to reconcile the past she could not forget with the future she could not avoid’. Ian Gilmour reviewed the book in the ‘LRB’ of 10 December 1998. What he says seems apposite.

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. 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. 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. 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, 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’. 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.

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.

Almost alone among recent prime ministers, Edward 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 predecessors of the 1930s and 1940s. 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 1970s 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.

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-1980s 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 talks to the president of the United States’.

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. It is Conrad 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.

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’. 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.