Thursday Book: Britain misses the Euro-bus again

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The Independent Culture


IT IS becoming ever clearer that the central theme of post-war British history is the failure to come to terms with Europe. Dean Acheson's brutal perception that Britain had "lost an empire and not yet found a role" is as true today as it was in 1962. For all that time, it has been obvious to almost every serious politician that Britain's only possible destiny lies in Europe. Yet governments of both parties have shrunk from acting on this analysis: 25 years after supposedly joining the Community, we are still dithering on the edge, half in, half out, while Europe continues to be built without us.

Historians, like politicians, have mostly averted their eyes from the centrality of Europe. Hugo Young is, astonishingly, the first author to have attempted a comprehensive popular narrative, tracing the whole miserable saga from Churchill to Blair. His title, invoking John of Gaunt, brilliantly suggests both the defensive nationalism of the Europhobes and the mandarin conspiracy they accuse of selling their birthright. But the substance is even better, combining thorough research in the archives with journalistic insight gained from close observation over 30 years. It is striking how much of the best contemporary history is now being written by journalists.

From the public record Young has compiled a masterly account of British efforts to sabotage the Schuman Plan, based on "laughably erroneous" official advice that it could never work. His contacts have gained him access to classified material: Sir Con O'Neill's internal history of the 1971 entry negotiations, more revealing than anything in Heath's memoirs; and the highly-charged exchanges between the Foreign Office and No 10 about Mrs Thatcher's Bruges speech.

He has a deft touch with character sketches, from the founding fathers such as Monnet and Schuman, to the Europhobes who destroyed John Major. Even a self-important bore like Bill Cash becomes explicable when you learn that he was born on the day Churchill became prime minister, and that his father was killed in Normandy four years later. The book falls off only towards the end, when a slightly portentous style that seemed appropriate to Churchill feels a bit overblown applied to Major and Blair.

Young makes no bones that he is telling a tale of missed opportunities, and will be denounced by the Europhobes. He does his best to be fair to the anti-marketeers, but none of them at any time offered a serious alternative. He has a particularly good chapter on Hugh Gaitskell, who set Labour on a 20-year course of rejection of Europe with his "end of 1,000 years of history" speech in 1962, yet privately knew that isolation was not sustainable. This was dishonest politics, and a failure of leadership. The antis wilfully deceived themselves, and they still do so now.

The pro-Europeans were not much better. Macmillan saw that neither the Commonwealth nor the Special Relationship offered Britain a serious future, but was still reluctant to face the country with the scale of the change involved, giving de Gaulle every opportunity to veto. Heath was uniquely far-sighted, yet even he shrank from being frank, and failed to overcome the public's scepticism. Wilson in office faced reality, then turned round to play politics as soon as he was out. Inheriting British membership, neither Wilson nor Callaghan made any effort to make the most of it, but treated it as a sort of national defeat.

Mrs Thatcher was the same. She took Britain ever further into the Community, kicking and screaming all the way. Emotionally hostile, she never considered Britain's objectives rationally, but reacted with fury to every new initiative from Brussels, before acceding to it. (As Douglas Hurd has written, her invariable stance was not, "No, no, no", but "No no, yes".) Major tried to be positive, but was driven by political weakness to appease his Europhobes; while Blair shows few signs of being more courageous.

Young's heroes are the civil servants. Whereas the first post-war generation, steeped in Great Power illusion, encouraged politicians to scorn the Schuman Plan in 1950 and the Messina conference in 1955, the second generation - Con O'Neill, Michael Palliser, Michael Butler and John Robinson - drove policy forward from 1960 to 1972. There was no conspiracy, since the Community's goal was clear, though the means were inexplicit. No one knew exactly where it was going; the argument was that Britain had to be there to help direct it. Despite the warnings of Enoch Powell and others, the public - encouraged by practically all those who subsequently became foaming Europhobes - were resolutely unworried by the loss of sovereignty.

It is unbelievable that we are making the same mistake again. Hague, Portillo and the rest should read Young's unanswerable indictment, and learn from history before we miss yet another bus. There is, as the lady said in another context, no alternative; and there never has been.

The reviewer is the biographer of Edward Heath, and is now writing a book on Margaret Thatcher