Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government in Kings College in London, has recently written a book on a very topical subject, “Britain and Europe in a Troubled World”.
Its publication by Yale University Press coincides with the likely agreement on a new future relationship between the UK and the EU, which the UK recently left.
The first part of the book is historical.
It shows that the Attlee Labour government in London in the early 1950’s chose not to join the European Coal and Steel Community(ECSC) because it had recently nationalised the British coal and Steel industry and felt that the ECSC would have too much of a private sector focus. It did not want a continental body telling Durham miners that their coal were surplus to requirements, or too costly.
Churchill favoured a United States of Europe, but with Britain in partnership, and trading, with it, but without being a member itself.
He saw Britain as most comfortable as sitting in the overlap between three concentric circles –
- the transatlantic relationship with America, and
- the Commonwealth ( or Empire as Churchill would have preferred to call it).
Churchill even went as far as envisaging
“ a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship”
among Europeans. He was right in this, but the goal is not yet achieved.
Churchill’s successor as Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, wanted free trade with Europe, but no Customs Union and no political Union. He did not believe the six countries attempting to agree such a Union in 1957 would succeed in their goal.
But they did succeed.
Meanwhile the UK was losing its Empire, the links with the Commonwealth were weakening, and the Suez debacle of 1956 had reminded them that their alliance with the US was not based on equality.
So, in 1961, Macmillan changed his mind and made what he called the “grim choice”to join the Common Market, only to have the application vetoed by de Gaulle because he felt that Britain was too close the US, and was not wholehearted in its commitment to Europe.
Eventually another Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath did succeed in persuading France to allow the UK to join the European Communities in 1973. In the recent Brexit debate, many Brexiteers claimed that the UK only ever wanted to join a common market, without any political strings. But at the time Edward Heath told the House of Commons in April 1975 that the European Communities
“were founded for a political purpose, the political purpose was to absorb the new Germany into the structure of the European family”.
Vernon Bogdanor identifies a number of issues that led UK public opinion to turn away from the EU. notably
- the rows about the UK’s financial contribution,
- the ejection of the £ from the European Monetary System,
- immigration, under the free movement provisions of the EU Treaties and
- the upsurge in identity politics in the wake of the financial crash of 2008.
He has a final chapter in the book entitled “Never Closer Union” in which he attempts to say what will happen to the EU after Brexit.
It contains a number of contestable statements like
- “ few in Europe had heard of Juncker” before he became President of the Commission,
- Germany has “no desire for fiscal union”, and even that
- there is a “very real possibility that the EU could disintegrate”.
Of course , nothing can be ruled out but the decision, after the UK had left, to allow the EU to borrow on its own account to boost the post Covid economic recovery suggest that the European Union is in much better health than the author believes.
Indeed his sentiments illustrate why Britain was never fully comfortable as a member of the European Union. It had joined with its head, but never with its heart or its imagination. In that sense Brexit was inevitable.