Saturday, 15 October 2011

We can’t spend another 50 years like this

As I meander through Hugo Young’s outstanding A Blessed Plot, a highly readable history of Britain’s vexed relationship with Europe, the theme of head-in-the-sand denial of the inevitable is a constant one.

One particularly striking thing is that the fundamental arguments have not really changed, and that Britain’s attitude has usually been one of fatal underestimation of the capacity of "the Continentals" to pull the project off and go ahead without them. Again and again, Britain thinks that further integration will not happen. Again and again, it is flummoxed and irritated when it does.

In keeping with our traditionally half-hearted attitude, Young documents how MacMillan, the first, unsuccessful leader to attempt entry, was not a natural pro-European at all, but heavily conflicted on the subject; on the one hand the misty-eyed Edwardian, nostalgic for Empire, on the other the ruthless pragmatist (as the Night of the Long Knives, when he sacked half his Cabinet, duly showed) who realised that Britain’s only realistic future lay with Europe. But not as some kind of glorified free trade area: Mac was canny enough to realise that it was fundamentally a long-term political project that Britain needed to be a part of, if it wanted a seat at the world table. And, ironically, the cause to which he was a reluctant convert ultimately did for his career when he failed.

In MacMillan’s case, it was a Cold War protection strategy against a Russian threat that made him urgently want Britain to stand together with France. There is a wonderful scene from 1962 where MacMillan, frustrated in the extreme by De Gaulle’s intransigence towards allowing British entry, is reduced to tears
'by the General's unwillingness to share his own sentiments about the common interests of the great powers, among whom he counted France. De Gaulle recounted the occasion, with lordly derision, at a Cabinet meeting a few days later. "This poor man," he said, "to whom I have nothing to give, seemed so sad, so beaten that I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder and say to him, as in the Edith Piaf song, "Ne pleurez pas, milord."'
In our own case, French obstructionism is no longer the problem; and the modern-day threat is not of a Cold War USSR, but of British irrelevance in a 21st century world where the main players are no longer just the US and Europe; a threat that Blair saw very clearly, Brown did not and neither does Cameron. And, just as we did then, we use our Atlanticism as an excuse, when all the US really wants is to see Britain leading the way in any European political project, because it enhances the strength of its ally and thus that of the Western alliance.

As we stand at the crossroads for perhaps the critical, final pieces of the EU political jigsaw to be put in place, yet again we stand on the sidelines. As we watch the euro on the brink, it is easy to think that France and Germany will not press on and see through political integration, but that is repeating the perennial mistake. History shows us that they will. They have too much to lose: no French or German leader will want the legacy that the EU collapsed on their watch. Perhaps it will cost Merkel and Sarkozy their jobs, but their successors will do it, or their successors’ successors. It will happen.

And we will be on the outside looking in, noses pressed up against the window, yet again.


  1. Britain may be at the point of imploding (not today's Occupy London Stock Exchange but what could grow from it). I had to explain "Night of the Long Knives" a few years ago. To a history teacher.

  2. Ah, fatal problem of today's youth. Understanding of history absolutely essential to civilisation, and often missing.


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