Thursday Book: Britain misses the Euro-bus again

THIS BLESSED PLOT: BRITAIN AND EUROPE FROM CHURCHILL TO BLAIR

BY HUGO YOUNG, MACMILLAN, pounds 25

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

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test