Continental Drift review – the rise of Euroscepticism

What would Churchill think of Brexit? Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon’s history of the European project brings an outsider’s perspective to our current squabbles

Since June’s shock referendum result, Brexit has removed a Tory prime minister, and threatens to split the Labour party. Political news has become addictive to a degree unheard of since those fevered weeks in November 1990 when Margaret Thatcher’s long regime was brought to an end in an internal Tory putsch. The coup’s primary provocation was Thatcher’s surly attitude to Europe – and to her deputy prime minister, the Europhile Geoffrey Howe. Back then Howe was closely aligned with Thatcher’s former chancellor Nigel Lawson, who has since reinvented himself as a bullish Brexiter. Labour’s current travails also remind us of its own internal differences over Europe. In 1981 Labour’s hostility to Europe precipitated the breakaway of the “gang of four” – Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers – to form the Social Democratic party. Curiously, like Lawson, Owen too is now a convert to Brexit, as is Jim Sillars, the architect of the SNP’s successful “independence in Europe” policy. Europe has split parties, ruined political careers and prompted strange Damascene conversions; what it has not done until now is fan the interest of the British public.

Turnout in the UK for elections to the European parliament has rarely risen above 35%. Why has something so seemingly peripheral to mainstream British politics brought about so much disruption? Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon, a diplomat in the US State Department and former academic, brings an outsider’s perspective to our squabbles. He emphasises the ways in which the empire and Commonwealth influenced Britain’s relationship with the European project. But his findings will dismay cod-Churchillian Brexiters.

This is because Winston Churchill emerges from these pages as the champion of a “United States of Europe”, a formulation that he first used in 1938 and returned to in opposition, after the war. Churchill’s confident leadership of the United Europe movement – confidence derived from Britain’s imperial standing – paved the way for the establishment of the Council of Europe in 1949, with British participation. Grob-Fitzgibbon is persuasively insistent that imperial commitments did not run counter to European ideals, but, surprising as it may seem, underpinned them. In the late 40s Churchill understood that Britain was pulled in different directions, by its empire, by the Atlantic alliance, and by the imperative to rebuild European civilisation on durable foundations. Yet these various demanding commitments were complementary. For “imperial Europeans” in the Conservative party, such as Churchill, Julian Amery, Duncan Sandys and Harold Macmillan, it was obvious that European renewal called for globally engaged leadership. Colonial possessions did not in themselves provide a structural impediment to European integration, quite the reverse. After all, France had its own overseas empire, and it was to these two global powers that the leadership of Europe must inevitably fall. In the immediate postwar era Labour’s foreign secretary, the pragmatic trade unionist Ernest Bevin, shared some of these broad assumptions, though with some scepticism about Churchill’s plans for a European Assembly. Bevin’s own vision of a “Western Union” – a sphere of industrial and military cooperation in western Europe – was also an imperial one, drawing on the resources of Britain’s colonies and dominions.

However, according to Grob-Fitzgibbon, British leadership of the European project evaporated in the spring of 1950. The fraught circumstances of the Berlin airlift in 1948-9 had convinced Bevin that western European cooperation was insufficient in itself, and required the external support of the US. Discerning British hesitancy, Jean Monnet, one of the architects of European integration, abandoned his existing vision of Anglo-French leadership and plumped instead for a Franco-German project. The result, rapidly formulated, was the Schuman plan for a joint authority superintending Franco-German coal and steel production. Although Churchill and the Daily Mail – then fervently Europhile – were enthusiastic about the Schuman plan, Bevin was lukewarm.

All was not lost. Churchill’s government of 1951-5 promised to be the most Europhile in British history, except for the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, who, while happy to use pro-European rhetoric from time to time, was much less enthusiastic about the prospects for a European army. Nevertheless, the vision of Anglo-French partnership remained alive, for a while. Eden himself, as Churchill’s successor, orchestrated the calamitous collusion between the two powers at Suez in 1956. Under intense economic pressure from the US, Eden unilaterally decided upon a ceasefire, without consulting his French allies.

The six members (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg) of the European Coal and Steel Community had already met at Messina in 1955 to plan a common market, which was launched in 1957 under the Treaty of Rome as the European Economic Community (EEC). But as far as Britain’s swaggering “imperial Europeans” were concerned this was still “Little Europe”. There was room for something bolder and more comprehensive. In 1959 Britain, along with Sweden, played a leading role in establishing the European Free Trade Association, which also included Norway, Denmark, Portugal, Switzerland and Austria. Nevertheless, the UK did not envisage the Efta seven as a long-term rival to the EEC six so much as a stepping stone for membership of the common market.

However, the aftershocks of Suez lingered. French president Charles de Gaulle never forgot that Britain’s primary relationship was with the US, and twice during the 1960s blocked British applications to join the EEC – first from Harold Macmillan’s Tory government, and then from Labour’s Harold Wilson. Yet De Gaulle – ironically – was no fan of EEC-style integration, preferring instead a looser, anti-federalist “Europe des patries”. As Macmillan confided to his diary, “De Gaulle wants the kind of Europe that we would be able readily to join, but he doesn’t want us in it.”

Macmillan’s application to join the EEC clarified Labour opposition to it. Hugh Gaitskell, James Callaghan and Douglas Jay favoured an outward-looking internationalism based on a global, multi-racial Commonwealth. The EEC they regarded as a sinister capitalist plot to stymie socialism. By the mid-60s, a stark division appeared to prevail between a pro-Commonwealth Labour government faced by a Conservative opposition, led by Ted Heath, which was committed to EEC entry. But the appeal of the Commonwealth – an increasingly fanciful panacea for Britain’s economic woes – waned, and in 1967 Wilson’s Labour government submitted its own application to join the EEC, which was promptly vetoed by France.

With the demise of De Gaulle, Britain under Heath was at last admitted in 1973. However, the legislation paving the way for entry was only achieved with the help of 69 pro-European Labour MPs who defied their own party whip to support the government. For, with the passing of empire and the outward-looking confidence it engendered, the Tory backbenches had seen the first stirrings of Eurosceptic rebellion. In 1975 Wilson – crafty, cynical and competent – suppressed some of Labour’s divisions with a referendum on Europe in which collective cabinet responsibility was temporarily suspended to allow ministers to campaign on either side. With the steady support of prominent Euro-agnostics – most notably Callaghan, by then Labour’s foreign secretary, and Thatcher, the new leader of the Tory party – Wilson achieved his intended result: a 67% vote to stay in, which decisively confirmed British membership of the EEC.

A few minor errors notwithstanding, Grob-Fitzgibbon has produced an absorbing account of our current predicament. He interprets the Euroscepticism of the last few decades as a post-imperial condition, in which the longing for a lost greatness is so desperate that it grossly distorts the objects of nostalgia. But all of us, remainers as well as Eurosceptics, have lazily bought into the dominant narrative. A zesty and ingenious Remain campaign – of the sort we conspicuously lacked – might have presented the Europhile Churchill as a patriotic anti-Brexit icon. Alas, a truth that defies popular cliche would have sunk at the first focus group.

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• This article was amended on 16 August 2016 to correct the name of the European Coal and Steel Community.


Colin Kidd

The GuardianTramp

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