National Archives release is a brutal reminder of how divisive Europe has been in British politics

Analysis: Arguments between Leavers and Remainers in the Tory party, and now between the so-called hard and soft Brexiteers, are pretty much the same arguments as those that have raged for the past couple of decades

Failures or disputes over Europe wrecked, or helped to shorten, the Conservative premierships of Harold Macmillan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron
Failures or disputes over Europe wrecked, or helped to shorten, the Conservative premierships of Harold Macmillan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron

The latest release of official documents are a timely and brutal reminder of just how divisive an issue Europe has been in British, and particularly Conservative Party, politics for so long – and why the disputes of today, with their roots in their past, remain so sensitive today.

Why else, after all, would discussions about such dusty historical matters such as sterling’s short and disastrous membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism more than a quarter of a century ago be regarded with the same nervous official eyes as, say, the release of documents about the divorce of Charles and Diana?

The feeling can only be that public disclosure would open up old wounds in the Tory party, mainly about Europe. These have hardly healed in the intervening years, centring on the alleged “betrayal” of national interests in what was a crucial period in the attempt – which ultimately foundered – to settle the issue and place Britain, in the words of the then-Prime Minister, John Major, “at the heart of Europe”. Yet that is no excuse for holding back facts and arguments and the reasons for historical decisions taken then that have such resonance now, and which, in any case, the public has a right to know about (as indeed it did at the time).

The cliché about history is that is necessary to understand the past to understand the present, but it is true, and nowhere more so than about Britain’s relationship with the European Union. But many of the papers that can shed light on that are to stay firmly locked away in the Public Record Office at Kew. Many of the protagonists are still alive, but so what? They should long since have ceased to be embarrassed about what was said and done at the time. Most, too, have written volumes of memoirs, necessarily self-serving and partisan. No one would think they were the last or most objective word on the recent past.

If the public is in fact being kept in the dark, just to save the Tory blushes, then that may not work anyhow. The very doubts being stirred about what lies in those files can only serve to fuel speculation and conspiracy theories about knavish tricks by Brussels and their collaborators in the British establishment and the upper reaches of the Conservatives at a pivotal moment. It would, as with most things, all be better understood if there was better freedom of information, but which politician or civil servant ever believes in that?

The holding back of papers about the Scott arms-to-Iraq inquiry simply stinks. This was one of the most morally debased episodes in British foreign policy, where officials and politicians lied – or were “economical with the actualité” to use the former minister Alan Clark’s charming euphemism at the time – about arming Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein secretly during the 1980s, so that he could, in turn, fight the Iranians, who we disliked even more.

Saddam was the man against whom we would later to go to war, twice, and castigate as a monster who made war against his own people – but with weaponry sold to him by the UK. This was undertaken clandestinely against international sanctions, contrary to publicly stated national policy – and with the knowledge of the British government. Maybe the stuff about basing US nuclear cruise missiles in the UK is conceivably a matter of continuing national security, and the breakdown of royal marriages still a personal matter, but there is no excuse for obscuring the truth about the arms-to-Iraq affair, or the later Scott inquiry into it. It looks very much as if the Scott Report may have been doctored at the time to lessen the political damage. I’m not surprised they don’t want us to know about that.

It’s all political, of course it is, and it’s fascinating to see how such long-gone disputes echo down the years, and how powerfully the official instinct for secrecy endures, even if the events are mainly about party politics. Perhaps the single most defining moment in Conservative Party politics and for the UK’s position in Europe in the past three decades was the regicide of November 1990: the forced resignation of Margaret Thatcher, and its long aftermath.

Even today there are those who believe that there was a sort of conspiracy to engineer the fall of Thatcher from 1989 not so long after she had celebrated her 10th year as premier and still with the faithful’s chants of “10 more years” from the Tory conference of only a few weeks before still ringing in their ears. She herself described the manner of her eventual undoing a year later – the advice of most of her cabinet ministers for her to quit, given in a series of one-to-one interviews, was “treachery with a smile on its face”.

The Thatcherites, those who grew up politically during her time in office and took their cue from her prejudices, now own the party, after all. Like the lady herself, they were never reconciled to the way she lost office – in a party coup rather than defeat at a general election – and Tory party has never recovered from the trauma of that time.

The arguments between Leavers and Remainers in the Tory party, and now between the so-called hard and soft Brexiters, are pretty much the same arguments as those as have raged for these past couple of decades between dedicated, ideological Thatcherites and the rest of the Conservative “family”, the battle lines drawn in the 1990s. And with much the same results, it must be said – division, fratricide, massive instability, damage to the national interest. Only when, briefly, the party took David Cameron’s advice to stop “banging on” about Europe did they get anywhere near power again. The truce didn’t last. The Tory civil war is back on.

Even after Brexit, it is apparent that the British will still not have reached a state of consensus about what “Europe” means to them. They may never do so, having failed to do so since the Second World War. Failures or disputes over Europe wrecked, or helped to shorten, the Conservative premierships of Harold Macmillan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron, and, with a delayed reaction, they are surely doing the same to Theresa May.

History does tend to repeat itself, and loudly, even if sometimes important documents and voices from the past are kept quiet.

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