Fear of Germany drives the Goldsmith gang

Sir James's Referendum Party friends let slip a secret obsession that blinds them to European realities
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The Independent Online
We can, at least, rehabilitate Arthur Balfour. The millionaire zoo keeper and eugenicist John Aspinall committed a gross injustice to poor old Balfour in his bizarre speech to the Referendum Party conference at the weekend. It went unnoticed among the more eye-catching passages, worthy of the old League of Empire Loyalists, about the nature of true English stock. But "Aspers" claimed that Balfour had said that on the issue of tariff reform he would rather consult his valet than the British people. What Balfour actually said was that he would rather consult his valet than the Conservative Party conference. A very different - and much more admirable - sentiment.

It's an interesting mistake, because it helped to reinforce the party's pitch that most professional politicians are contemptible elitists and that it is Sir James Goldsmith who is a true man of the people. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Sir James's own speech, in which he put himself proudly at the head of a popular army ready to fight for the liberation of the "peoples of Europe" from the yoke of Eurotyranny. In doing so, Sir James spent quite a lot of time dissecting the anti-democratic contempt of Hegel, whom he called "the philosophical father of the German constitutional tradition". Hegel, he implied, would have been well pleased with the German-dominated EU. Indeed, the conference was heavily laden with phobia, real or pretended, about Germany's atavistic goal of dominating Europe once again - and France's weakness in "collaborating" with it.

This matters, less because it may help to give Sir James a few thousand more votes on polling day, but because it exposes, in extreme and eccentric form, the contradictions in British attitudes - mainly, but not exclusively, on the right - to Germany and its modern political class. After all, even the ravings of "Aspers" look less utterly unorthodox when you consider that the late Nicholas Ridley, in the Spectator interview which triggered his fall from the Cabinet, said not only that the single currency was a "German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe", but in answer to the question of whether Helmut Kohl was not preferable to Adolf Hitler, replied: "I am not sure I wouldn't rather have the shelters and the chance to fight back than simply be taken over by economics." The vocabulary of Euro-sceptics - sometimes in public, but more frequently in private - is still laced with satirical imagery of this kind.

What's wearisome about this demonic model of German domination through the EU is that it is wilfully used by politicians who are intelligent enough to know that Helmut Kohl's purpose, since he became a committed European in his teens, has been precisely the opposite. That doesn't in itself make European integration right for Germany, any more than it does for the UK. But it impoverishes the debate about Europe in Britain - to an extent impossible in France - to ignore the simple fact that Kohl's entire foreign policy has been devoted to the proposition that a Germany bound to its EU partners is a Germany that will not seek again to overrun, by economic or military means, the rest of Europe. Whatever its other merits and demerits, Emu isn't an instrument of German domination. Rather, it is the price she is prepared to pay for political union. If you doubt it, ask the Bundesbank.

This is one reason why some of the most prominent politicians who fought in the war were and are pro-European - Heath, Whitelaw and, a mite less consistently, Denis Healey. Margaret Thatcher hasn't, of course, shared that view, though she is of the same generation. But even she, while thinking they were wrong, recognised in her memoirs that "so many Germans want to see Germany locked into a federal Europe".

What's more she, at least, was consistent, in that she had an alternative means of containing German might, which was to deny it reunification. Indeed, she regarded reunification as her one great failure of foreign policy. In her view a divided Germany would have weakened, among other things, the argument that a closely integrated EU was needed "to tie down Gulliver".

What is much less obvious is what the current Kohl-bashing Euro-sceptics think about a reunified Germany in a much looser EU, or in no EU at all. Do they buy the doubtful proposition that in the long term, Germany, as a now mature democracy, would be less rather than more of an economic threat? Or do some of them believe that Kohl's determination to lock Bonn into the EU reflects a now obsolete sense of guilt about the war, and rather thrill to the prospect of a reunified Germany free-standing as a proud nation state, unshackled by the rest of Europe?

As it happens, I would not put this latter view past some of the international and polyglot followers of Sir James or even some Tory individualists like Alan Clark. But it looks as though many Euro-sceptics haven't really thought about it all.

Which is part of the problem. The future of Germany dominates every item, every nuance of Britain's agonies over the EU. Yet it remains the least seriously or rationally debated issue in British foreign policy. John Major made a brave attempt in his "heart of Europe" speech in 1991 to provide a context for better Anglo-German understanding. Since then there has been very little, at least from him. As his predecessor pointed out, there's a tendency to see what she insisted on calling the "German problem" as "something too delicate for well-brought-up politicians to discuss. This always seemed to me a mistake."

Amen at least to that.

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