This book is basically a polemic. Its thesis is simple. Britain has failed to make the most of its relationship with the rest of the European Union because from the very start it has underestimated the resolve of the other members to make the project work. Consequently the various initiatives and developments over the years have been met with lukewarm approval at best. Britain has been content to snipe from sidelines in the belief that whatever was being proposed was going to fail anyway. Why get worked up about things that are never going to happen? So we end up outside some of the most beneficial aspects of the project. We don’t enjoy the stability of the single currency. We opt out of some of the social protections. We don’t even save ourselves some bother by joining the passport free zone.
Nothing that simple is every literally true of course.
There has been quite a lot of positive engagement with the European Union by top flight British politicians like Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke and probably the most pro-European of them all – Tony Blair. Even the handbag wielding Margaret Thatcher was a major architect of the Single market. And below the level of elected politicians the British took as much part in the project as anyone else. And they have probably taken more advantage of the new European structure than anyone else. The large British settlements in southern Spain and Portugal are remarkable. I remember being astonished taking the bus from Faro to Lisbon to see streets laid out with British names. And the British presence at international trade fairs is always significant – and English is of course the lingua franca that makes them work. On the ground Britain is just as European as any other EU member state.
In fact the problem with Europe seems to be mainly at the level of its political elite – despite the rhetoric to the contrary. I suppose it makes sense. One area where the EU has definitely taken over from national governments is in the drafting regulations. There has been no need for Westminster MPs to trouble themselves with many routine lawmaking activities. This sounds like basically a good thing. The EU Commission specialising in the drafting bit saving twenty seven legislatures across the continent sounds like a good way of improving quality while reducing cost. But maybe a bit of uneasiness on the part of MPs is understandable?
It is interesting to review the relationship of Britain’s elite with the European Union. They have been highly negative about the whole project, and simultaneously dismissive. British businesses have been happy to seek out customers on the continent. Retirees have taken advantage of the better weather of the southern half of the continent. Young Brits have exploited the boozing opportunities of the cheaper hospitality in Eastern European cities. But the elected representatives and the hereditary hangers on in the Lords have stood aloft from it all – undermining initiatives when they can, sniping when they can’t. It has been unedifying. But then there isn’t much point in being in an elite if you don’t get to ignore the real world and follow your own priorities instead.
This isn’t frankly a very good book. The chapter on Callaghan was so unreadable I couldn’t actually read it. It was written by David Owen who ought to have been in a good position to have done a good job, but didn’t. (A bit of a habit of his?) And the others are mixed. I have decided that biography only works if it is immersive and these pieces are not really either a consistent analysis nor great bits of writing. They do throw up some interesting factoids though. The best chapter is the one on Harold Wilson which shows the meticulous behind the scenes preparations he made for the referendum. This included getting concessions from the EU that actually benefited British consumers. It’s a shame that this lesson wasn’t learnt by Cameron when he tried to repeat his success.