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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: From tragedy, triumph, deceit, and failure - the post-war history of the European project

The great majority of Conservatives have come to a simple, implacable conclusion. They think that the power of Europe has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished. For twenty years, Europe has been the Tory party's grievance of grievances. It has disrupted leaderships and intensified electoral defeats. At times, it made the party ungovernable, and the voters will not allow a party which cannot govern itself to govern the country. Partly because of the coalition, there is a wary truce, but this is the Peace of Amiens, not the Congress of Vienna. The conflict will have to be resumed. But it is worth using the uneasy peace for an historical retrospect.

Britain's relationship with Europe began with idealism. It was nourished by pessimism and even self-hatred, both of them enmeshed in deceit. It foundered on the rocks of geography, geo-politics and national revival.

Many Tories have come to regard the progenitors of Britain in Europe as traitors: the British equivalent of Quisling and Vichy. Yet there are no grounds for questioning the original good faith of Britain's founding fathers, or rather, founding youngsters. In 1945, many of them were young officers in a victorious army. 

But it was a victory which left Europe on the verge of ruin. "An old bitch gone in the teeth" was Ezra Pound's verdict on European civilisation after the First World War. By 1945, the lethal injection seemed even more imminent. Central Europe was full of shattered cities, ethnic cleansing, refugees and hungry, frightened populations. It seemed all too likely that there would soon be a third world war, with the once-dominant continent a mere playing field for the Russian-American contest. In their search for a way back from the abyss, it is hardly surprising that the thoughtful youngsters came to what must have seemed an obvious conclusion: that it was vital to move beyond the age of nationalism. National rivalries had mobilised peoples, stimulated economic growth, created the modern state. The nation states had then hurled the creativity, the stimulus, the mobility - into war. If Europe was to survive - if mankind was to survive - there had to be another way. Europe had to develop supra-national institutions.

It was a powerful argument and in the early years, it was reinforced by success. West Germany embraced democratic values. Europe recovered faster than almost anyone had thought possible. The Common Market was working. Although political union seemed a long way off, Europe was becoming part of the political psyche in its member states, which was hardly surprising. Holland was an ex-country. Belgium had never been a proper country. Luxembourg was a relic of the Holy Roman Empire. Many Italians felt that they were not fit to govern themselves, with good reason. Despite the Bundesrepublik's progress, many Germans felt the same, for understandable reasons. The French had no such doubts. Nor were they ready to move beyond nationalism. But they were content with Europe, because they assumed that they would run it.

In Britain, meanwhile, it was an era of frustration, in which it appeared to be impossible to attain steady economic growth without bottle-necks and over-heating. The phrase "stop-go" was coined to express the frustrations. By then, the young officers of 1945 were moving into positions of power. They argued that the UK needed some European dynamism. This received an increasingly sympathetic hearing in elite circles, reinforced by the four "s" s: sizeism, sentimentalty, self-hatred, and Suez.

As the fraught Fifties gave way to the failures of the Sixties and the follies of the Seventies, a lot of diplomats, other civil servants and politicians grew disillusioned with Britain. We seemed condemned to mediocrity, backwardness, littleness. By contrast, Europe was big and exciting. So a closer engagement with Europe would have two desirable consequences. It would provide a crutch for crippled Britain. It would also supply a large canvas for ambitious administrators, just as the Empire had been for their predecessors. Better the wide blue skies of Europe than the grey constraints of Whitehall.

Among the more sentimentally-inclined, travel is also a liberation from constraint, never more so than on departure from 1950s Britain. Those who went to Europe, still an adventure in those days, discovered good food, cheap wine, and abundant sun with, of course, the possibilty that sunshine plus alcohol would have aphrodisiac consequences. It was easy to believe that the more European Britain became, the better. The late Auberon Waugh proclaimed himself a good European, because he thought that Europe would mean decent table wine at five francs a bottle: they order these things better in France. Such sentiments are attractive, even enticing. But they often merged with a much less appealing characteristic of the British liberal bourgeoisie: a tendency to despise one's own country. To my knowledge, no-one has yet explained why such feelings should be so widespread in the British and American intelligentsia, while virtually absent in France. But a lot of people, liberal-minded about anything except their own country, were attracted to Europe as a means of doing down Britain (so were and are a lot of Frenchmen).

The liberal/leftie tendency to national self-denigration drew heavily on Suez. It is impossible to overestimate the dismay which that degringolade caused among the high-minded classes, who believed that it was the insane overreach of post-imperial delusion. To them, joining Europe was a way of getting real and growing up. But they had one difficulty with getting real. They profoundly distrusted their ability to take the British electorate with them. Hugo Young documented this in his book "The Blessed Plot". The phrase comes from Shakespeare's John of Gaunt, praising England. Mr Young adapted it to mean a plot which he was happy to bless: to beguile the UK into a federal Europe. Throughout most of the years of plotting, the Tory federasts were always the most dishonest, brazen and shameless. They would constantly reassure the voters that Europe was nothing to do with federalism, that any loss of sovereignty would be trivial and that it was all about free trade. They treated the electorate rather as a parent might minister to a sick child, fractiously refusing to take its medicine. Distract its attention, shove the teaspoon down its gob, then quickly proffer a sweet: "there, there. what was all the fuss about?" But the voters were not sick children. Bless them, they went on fussing.

The Euro-fanatics might still have succeeded, if the patient had been unable to recover. As it was, they were confounded by ancient and modern: primeval geography and a modern demiurge. Margaret Thatcher cured the patient. She revived the animal spirits of the middle classes; she re-awakened national self-confidence; she restored common sense. If the government pursued sound fiscal and monetary policies while British commerce produced goods and services that people wanted to buy at a price they were prepared to pay, the country would prosper. Our destiny was in our hands. So Europe should be our market, not our master.

The success of Thatcherism meant that we could once again place our trust in our oldest asset. An Englishman who believed in divine providence might well cite the sundering of his country from the European mainland as triumphant proof of divine beneficence. The creation of a national moat, the English Channel, shaped all subsequent British history. By insulating us from the turmoils of the continent, it helped the development of a unitary state and of constitutional structures which owed far more to evolution than to revolution. Partly as a necessary corrective to leftism and subversion, many Englishmen believe in their nation's innate moral superiority. But there is a problem: Occam's Razor. The Channel explains so much that moral pre-eminence is almost an unnecessary afterthought.

As a result of their experience of continental savagery, most other Europeans have come to distrust the nation-state. It is too keen on wearing jackboots. To us, however, the jackboots march under the banners of pan-Europeanism: Philip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler. Most of us trust our nation-state to make our laws and protect our liberties. Today, most people in Britain are clear about the current threat to their freedoms. It arises from the EU and the ECHR. That is why Jacques Delors was right. Britain is allergic to Europe.

Europe is also the victim of its earlier successes and its more recent failures. European institutions did help Europe to recover. But as a result, the fears of 1945 have gone, for ever. Germany and France will never again go to war over Alsace-Lorraine. We do not need a federal Europe to prevent a third world war. There is nothing inherently evil about modern European nation-states, even France.

Those are the threats from success. They are far outweighed by the threats from failure. Whatever view one takes of Suez, the Euro is far, far worse. The position is easy to summarise. It can neither go forward, nor backwards, nor stay as it is. Those who invented the Euro can console themselves on one remarkable feat. They have devised a problem which may be beyond the power of the human mind to solve. For the rest of us, at least in Britain, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that British federasty is dead. The bad news is that no-one is sure how to keep the European economy alive.


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