Peter Hennessy is a national treasure. He is driven by a romantic, almost sensual, fascination with British history, culture, and the quirky intricacies of British democracy and the government machine. His curiosity is insatiable, his memory infinitely capacious. His innumerable contacts confide in him freely because his discretion is absolute. His tireless work in the archives is spectacularly productive. His generosity towards his students is boundless. His books — 14 at the last count — are gossipy, erudite, discursive, intensely personal: not your conventional academic history, but all the better for that.
His latest book — the third in a history of post-war Britain — ranges over the early 1960s. For most of that time the prime minister was Harold Macmillan, thoughtful, politically astute, driven by a sense of public service. Macmillan had restored confidence to a country demoralised by the bungled Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956. Now he set out to modernise the economy and the machinery of government, and to accelerate an orderly dismantling of empire.
But he was also seeking to solve an even tougher conundrum. With the shift of power from Europe to America and to a threatening Soviet Union, Britain, as the former American secretary of state Dean Acheson said cruelly but accurately, had lost an empire but failed to find a role. Macmillan’s solution was to get Britain into what was then called the European Community. He failed for reasons that remain entirely relevant.
He spent Christmas 1960 in bed, drafting what he called his ‘Grand Design’. Britain, he concluded, still had powerful cards to play: its Commonwealth associations, its relationship with America, and its independent nuclear force. But its economic future and its international influence could best, perhaps only, be secured by membership of the Community. There was a moral dimension too. Europe had pulled itself to pieces twice in a generation. The Community was a device to prevent that ever happening again. Since we could not beat them, we could only join them.
These are still plausible arguments. But Macmillan knew that Britain would have to make difficult adjustments. Some were essentially transitional: agriculture and the Commonwealth. One was fundamental: the issue of sovereignty. Hennessy argues that we had already made a greater surrender of sovereignty to Nato, which could get us willy-nilly into a catastrophic war. But the Nato treaty is not mandatory. It calls on each of its members to come to the common defence by taking ‘such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force’. It thus leaves them with full national discretion: the Americans would have agreed to nothing else.
The Treaty of Rome is different. It does indeed transfer some national decisions to the collective in Brussels. Lord Kilmuir, Macmillan’s cabinet colleague, warned against taking ‘the first step on the road which leads by way of confederation to the fully federal state’. In parliament the issue was raised on all sides, as it has been ever since. The leader of the opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, warned against abandoning 1,000 years of history to become a mere province of Europe. Macmillan countered that the fears were exaggerated. Whatever their rhetoric, the French would never go beyond what their president, General de Gaulle, called ‘l’Europe des patries’. ‘Europe’ would never become a true federation. That too was a plausible argument: it carried the day for the time being.
The membership negotiations seemed to be reaching success when the Cuban missile crisis erupted in October 1962 (Hennessy’s retelling of the story is terrifying). In the aftermath, Macmillan negotiated with President Kennedy an arrangement to put American missiles on British nuclear submarines. This left us, as Macmillan privately recognised, with an independence of action that was little more than a formality.
But for De Gaulle this was the final demonstration that Britain would always look towards America, not Europe. In January 1963 he announced that Britain was not adapted to the European project. The negotiations were abandoned. Macmillan was shattered. Even his opponents could not forgive the general for jilting Britain at the church door.
A year of transformation followed, marked by the exuberant rise of satire and the Beatles, and by Macmillan’s scandal-ridden fall. But the problem of Britain’s role in the world remained entirely unresolved. 1963 was also the year that Britain signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty alongside Russia and America, ‘the last time’, the British negotiator Lord Hailsham said later, ‘that Britain appeared in international negotiations as a great power’.
Hennessy’s story ends as Labour’s Harold Wilson arrives in Downing Street in October 1964. Wilson’s political cunning, eloquence, social conscience and underlying patriotism matched Macmillan’s. He too saw ‘Europe’ as an answer to Britain’s problems. He too was scuppered by De Gaulle. We joined the Community only after the general had gone.
When Wilson held a referendum in 1975, two thirds of the voters supported membership. But the British remained torn between a burdensome cooperation with their equals inside the European Union and an uncharted future among the giants outside. Leavers nevertheless insist that their small margin of victory in the referendum of 2016 settled the matter once and for all. They warn against any attempt to ‘thwart the people’s will’, a phrase with unfortunate overtones of the 1930s. Remainers, unable to mount an effective campaign of their own, sourly dismiss their opponents as ignorant provincials. Accusations of treachery fly about, always a sign that politics is in trouble.
Macmillan and Wilson sought solutions to the European puzzle within the bounds of our democratic system. This time, constitutional restraints, even the very definition of democracy, have been fraying away. Some Leavers talk of closing parliament to ram their polices through. Charles I tried that, and lost his head. Cromwell was more successful, but he died and the English returned to common sense.
Hennessy concludes with a powerful expression of faith in our age-old institutions. But he admits elsewhere that ‘our British political system is being tested on the anvil of Brexit’. Britain’s problem with Europe will not be resolved soon, whatever happens at the end of October. Genuine patriots of all stripes might think that their priority is now to preserve our democracy and reunify a sadly fractured people.