Simon Heffer

How Britain was misled over Europe for 60 years

From Harold Macmillan’s government onwards, the Tories have dodged the issue of sovereignty, leaving a festering wound, says Christopher Tugendhat

How Britain was misled over Europe for 60 years
Edward Heath signs the treaty bringing the UK into the European Union in January 1972. [Getty Images]
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The Worm in the Apple: A History of the Conservative Party and Europe from Churchill to Cameron

Christopher Tugendhat

Haus Publishing, pp. 256, £20

Just as one is inclined to believe Carlyle’s point that the history of the world is but the biography of great men, so Christopher Tugendhat, in this level-headed account, is right to conclude that the history of the Conservative party in the past 60 or 70 years has been deeply affected by the biography of the movement for the European Union. And it would have shocked Carlyle that a great woman – Margaret Thatcher – played a central part and, according to Tugendhat, altered the course of the party’s relationship with Europe.

She was certainly central to the debate, not least because rather too many Conservatives felt she had died a martyr’s political death in 1990 when she was forced from Downing Street by people they regarded as treacherous pro-Europeans. They were determined to see that her sacrifice was not in vain. A quarter of a century later, they succeeded.

Tugendhat was himself a commissioner in Brussels, and makes no secret of his sadness that Britain has left the EU. But he is no vitriolic and sour remainer, refusing to accept the outcome of the largest democratic vote ever held in this country. He concludes by hoping for a fruitful relationship on an altered basis between Britain and the EU, something that may even be possible when the petulance and arrogance with which the EU, and some heads of government, regard any challenge to it dies down. But his book is especially valuable because he openly admits the mistakes that were made earlier on in this difficult history, and were made by those for whom the cause of Europe was everything.

Tugendhat’s key point is that Harold Macmillan, when seeking to secure agreement for Britain to enter in the early 1960s, ignored a crucial point made by his Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir. Kilmuir told him to admit that an issue of sovereignty was central to the question of joining the Common Market, and felt that to get it out in the open would allow the debate to proceed honestly; but Macmillan ignored him.

In any case, the attempt to join was vetoed by Charles de Gaulle in January 1963, because he understood Britain’s fundamental apartness from continental Europe better than many Britons did. The previous autumn Hugh Gaitskell, who died four days after de Gaulle’s intervention, had been rapturously applauded at the Labour party conference for saying that Britain risked tearing up ‘a thousand years of history’ by joining. The truth was now out there: this was not just the free trade organisation Macmillan and his senior negotiator Ted Heath claimed it to be.

This protestation had even convinced Enoch Powell, then in Macmillan’s cabinet as health minister, that entry was not worth resigning over. However, by the time the question arose again before the 1970 election Powell had seen the light, and became Heath’s most formidable intellectual enemy on the matter (as on several others). But Heath did not learn: there was no mention of sovereignty, as Tugendhat points out; the 1970 manifesto promised only to negotiate, not to join. Again and again, Powell quoted back at Heath his election promise that entry would occur only with the ‘full-hearted consent’ of the British parliament and people. It was not least because there was no such consent – the second reading of the European Communities Bill passed by only eight votes in February 1972, thanks to the help of Roy Jenkins and other Labour rebels – that a wound was left open that would never heal in the 44 years between then and the 2016 referendum.

Thatcher, like Powell, had originally supported entry; and when Harold Wilson sought to dress the wound by calling a referendum on membership in June 1975 our place in Europe was affirmed by two to one. But the EU, formed of states who in living memory had suffered occupation, persecution and the destruction of democracy, was determined not to conduct itself in a way that the British people, with their own memories of the second world war, would find appealing. ‘The project’, devised by bureaucrats, had to be secured at all costs. Thatcher had to haggle for a rebate on the British budget contribution because Heath had been prepared to pay any price to get in. She then witnessed, to her horror, sovereignty being eroded, directive by directive, treaty by treaty. There were too many Heathites around her to give her the support she felt she deserved for what she considered the patriotic job she was trying to do. That many of her MPs and party activists agreed with her accounted for the debacle of the Major administration, when a weak man allowed himself to be railroaded into an attitude of abject pro-Europeanism by colleagues of far more powerful character. The catastrophe of our ERM membership should have warned British politicians off the course of deeper integration. Luckily Gordon Brown, when pressed to join the euro, saw the point. From then, for the pro-Europeans, it was downhill all the way.

Honest though he unquestionably is, Tugendhat does not paint entirely clearly what the issues are, not least that if you can’t change the economic policy of your country by the way you vote at an election, because your economy is controlled by non-democratic forces elsewhere, then what remedy is open to you other than to riot?

Post-Covid, key issues remain to be settled. It is not merely that Frankfurt can’t go on funding Greece; it can’t go on funding Italy, whose economy is 11 times bigger. Tugendhat cites Charles Powell, Thatcher’s foreign affairs adviser, as saying she would not have voted for Brexit. I think this is the only thing I have ever disagreed with Lord Powell about. She undoubtedly would have because she knew the game was up long before she died.

The question of immigration remains toxic in Europe: the cultural differences between the Visegrad nations and western Europe have yet to be properly resolved. It might just be that we had a lucky escape thanks, again, to the EU in its arrogance offering David Cameron, just before the referendum, pitiful ‘concessions’ that were nothing of the sort, and did not address the fears of a growing number of Britons. Nigel Farage’s mobilisation of the working-class vote, and the Tory party’s perceived association with a metropolitan elite, did the rest of the damage.

Tugendhat’s book is a thoughtful and decent primer on these questions. But the real history of how the Tory party betrayed the public over Europe remains to be written.

We’ll burn up any extra calories when we do a runner
‘We’ll burn up any extra calories when we do a runner.’