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The God quest: why humans long for immortality

We can’t stop craving eternity.

When on his travels Gulliver discovers that among the inhabitants of Luggnagg live the Struldbrugs, born with a red spot on their foreheads indicating that they never die, he is delighted. “Happy nation, where every child hath at least a chance for being immortal!” he exclaims.

It is true, says Gulliver’s interpreter in Jonathan Swift’s novel, that long life seems to be the universal desire and wish of mankind. But that is just because of “the common imbecility of human nature”. Then Gulliver learns that the Struldbrugs, thoughimmune to death, are not protected from old age, and he is horrified. “No tyrant could invent a death, into which I would not run with pleasure, from such a life,” he decides.

The strange thing about our dreams of immortality is that they persist even while so many of the stories we tell about them end badly. The Immortal in Jorge Luis Borges’s story of that name ends up wearily treading the world in search of an antidote to the elixir of youth that, in his foolishness, he sought out. This ennui with eternity is shared by the characters of Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time novels and the immortal Q in the Death Wish episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Even if the ravages of age are not physical, they are moral, as the perpetually youthful Dorian Gray discovers when his ageing portrait records his soul’s corruption. When Odysseus elects to return home to Penelope rather than remain in an island paradise with the beautiful nymph Calypso and become immortal, we suspect that he has chosen well.

But still we can’t stop craving eternity, which is why many religions have found “life everlasting” such a powerful recruiting tool. This irreconcilable conflict – experiencing the sadness, frustration and ­discomfort of the ageing process, yet knowing the folly of wishing it away indefinitely – is precisely why we need myths. Yet myths may be fed, not banished, by science. Once scientists researching the biology of ageing – biogerontology – found that some of its depredations can be slowed, a quasi-scientific cult of technological immortality was inevitable.

Myths live on by disguising themselves in the apparel of modernity. So it is fully to be expected that immortality today is a business offering to tailor clients’ diet regimes, that it is expounded at conferences in PowerPoint presentations, that it announces itself with words such as “telomere extension” and “immune regulation”. This is distressing to serious biogerontologists, who worry that funding of their careful work on age-related disease and infirmity will seem boring in comparison to supporting folks who promise to let us live for ever. They are right to be concerned but sadly theirs will ever be the fate of scientists working in a field that touches on fabled and legendary themes, where both calculating opportunists and well-meaning fantasists can thrive. Age-related research until recently has been rather marginalised in medicine, and the gerontologist Richard Miller of the University of Michigan suggests one reason for this: “Most gerontologists who are widely known to the public are unscrupulous purveyors of useless nostrums.”

 

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For an introduction to this bioger­ontological mythology, I recommend last year’s documentary The Immortalists, which profiles two of the most vocal advocates of scientific immortality: the computer scientist Aubrey de Grey and the biotech entrepreneur Bill Andrews. Yet the film shows that these men aren’t lone mavericks with unconventional ideas about ageing and its abolition, but participants in a complex and self-supporting network of techno-myth. And as is the case with, for example, human cloning, nutrition and the surprising properties of water, there is no convenient partitioning here into respectable and cranky science. In consequence, the immortality market can’t simply be eliminated by the appliance of science; it needs to be understood as a cultural phenomenon.

Ageing is partly genetic but there are no “ageing genes” – merely ordinary genes that may cause problems in later life. Age-related conditions such as heart failure, dementia and cancer typically stem from an interplay between genes and environment: we can inherit predispositions but environmental factors such as diet and pollution affect whether they manifest. (Research that was widely reported early this year as showing that most cancers are due to “bad luck”, irrespective of environmental influences, in fact had a more complex message.)

It is surprising, perhaps alarming, that we know so little about ageing. We get old in many ways. For instance, some of our cells just stop dividing – they senesce. While this shutdown stops them becoming cancerous, the senescent cells are a waste of space and may create problems for the immune system. Cell senescence may be related to a process called telomere shortening: repeated cell division wears away the end caps, called telomeres, on the chromosomes that contain our genes. Although shortened telomeres seem to be related to the early onset of age-related disease, the ­relationship is complex. It is partly because cancer cells are good at regenerating their telomeres that they can divide and proliferate out of control. Cells also suffer general wear and tear because of so-called oxidative damage, in which reactive forms of oxygen – an inevitable by-product of respiration – attack and disrupt the molecules that sustain life. This has made “antioxidants” such as Vitamins C and E, and the compound resveratrol, found in red wine, buzzwords in nutrition. But the effects of oxidative damage and antioxidants are still poorly understood.

These factors and others can interact with each other in complex ways. A group of UK experts called the Longevity Science Panel, funded by the insurers Legal & General, concluded in a 2014 report: “There is little consensus on which mechanisms of ageing are the most important in humans.” Biogerontologists don’t even agree about whether the ageing process itself is best considered as a single effect, or many.

Extreme ideas always fare best in areas where less is known. Which brings us to the star of The Immortalists and the self-styled poster-boy of the scientific-immortality movement: Aubrey de Grey. It is easy to see why the media like him. With his ponytail and Rasputin beard, his piercing eyes and dishevelled appearance, his delight in real ale and naked sunbathing and his mesmerising articulacy, the 52-year-old de Grey is every inch the prophet, a John the Baptist offering technological salvation. It is hard to know how much of this impression is calculated but it exerts a compelling effect that has won over some respected biologists, even if they insist they don’t fully buy his theories. The archetypal magazine article presents him as a colourful maverick, a self-taught biologist with a Cambridge degree in computer science, up against the scepticism of stodgy biogerontologists. De Grey knows how to wield this narrative to advantage, insisting that all he wants is to debate with a closed-minded community.

This, his critics have come to realise, is a game they can’t win. As a group of leading authorities in the field wrote in the biology journal EMBO Reports in 2005, in response to an article published there by de Grey:

Journalists with papers to sell or airtime to fill too often fall for the idea of a Cambridge scientist who knows how to help us live for ever with telomerase, allotopic mitochondrial-coded proteins and marker-tagged toxins. To explain to a layman why de Grey’s programme falls into the realm of fantasy rather than science requires time, attention and the presentation of detailed background information . . . anyone who is tempted to do so is easily cast as a Luddite, an enemy of creativity and noble ambition, and someone whose prissy reluctance to confront de Grey’s ideas might prevent us from living for ever.

 

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Is Aubrey de Grey a charlatan? For all the artful self-promotion, he genuinely seems to believe not only that he is on to something but that his ideas are of humanitarian importance. He is nothing if not sincere in thinking that to slow and ultimately reverse ageing is an obligation that science is failing dismally to fulfil. He regards old age as a disease like any other: it is scandalous, he says, that it kills 90 per cent of all human beings and yet we are doing so little about it. De Grey calls his quest a “crusade to defeat ageing”, which he regards as “the single most urgent imperative for humanity”. Death, he says, “is quite simply repugnant”, and he equates our acceptance of it in elderly people with our past casual acceptance of the slaughter of other races.

To many, the ethics face quite the other way. Don’t we die off to make room for our children and aren’t there already too many of us? De Grey’s response reveals a lot about the man. Imagining procreation as simply our best current shot at immortality (for isn’t this, in the end, all that our genes are after?), he argues that the desire to have children will wane once we can live for ever. And who is to say that future technologies won’t give the planet a far greater carrying capacity than it has at present? Such optimism can be alluring.

How does de Grey think we will stop our bodies from ageing? He proposes a seven-point plan called Sens (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) that, in his view, picks off all the processes by which our cells decline, one by one. We can get rid of unwanted cells, such as excess fat cells and senescent cells, by training the immune system or triggering the cells into eliminating themselves. We can suppress cancer by silencing the genes that enable cancer cells to repair their telomeres. We can avoid harmful mutations in the handful of genes housed in our energy-generating cell compartments called mitochondria by making back-up copies, to be housed in the better-protected confines of the cell’s nucleus, where the chromosomes reside. We can find drugs that inhibit the degradation of tissues at the molecular level. And so on.

His detractors point out that almost all of these plans amount to saying, “Here’s the problem, and we’ll find a magic ingredient that fixes it.” If you think there are such ingredients, they say, then please find just one. He is looking. With inherited wealth and venture capital backing from the likes of PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel, de Grey maintains an institution in Mountain View, California, called the Sens Research Foundation, with laboratories to investigate his proposals. But he insists that the criterion of success isn’t a steadily increasing longevity in model organisms, because Sens is a ­package, not a series of incremental steps. No one criticised Henry Ford, de Grey says, because the individual components of his cars didn’t move if burning petrol was poured on them.

Some critics are outspoken. The neurobiologist Colin Blakemore of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study appears in The Immortalists calling de Grey’s views “foolish” and “naive”, and denouncing his proposed remedies for ageing as “dangerous snake oil”. De Grey is confident that the ranks of such critics are dwindling – but that might be because they are wary of even giving him the respectability of debate. “I think giving any publicity to crackpots like de Grey and his ilk is distinctly bad for the field. It makes it harder for people outside the research community to take ageing research seriously,” said one gerontologist I contacted, who asked to remain anonymous. “I do not, however, particularly want to get drawn into character assassinations of Aubrey, or my take on the more extremist views,” said another.

 

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Regardless of what the Sens Research Foundation does or does not achieve, the immortality business seems certain to thrive. There will never be a shortage of customers for places such as the physician Terry Grossman’s Wellness Centre in Golden, Colorado, which offers personalised plans for lifespan extension, any more than there was ever a shortage of kings and emperors happy to fund alchemists seeking the elixir of life. (In The Immortalists, de Grey and Andrews are shown competitively working out at Grossman’s clinic.) The market sustains conferences such as Global Future 2045, held in New York in 2013 – an event bizarre even in a country sometimes eerily blind to its own strangeness. Experts in artificial intelligence and genomics rubbed shoulders with “quantum consciousness activists”, “self-realised Siddha masters”, “human enhancement trailblazers” and with the guru of this arena: the billionaire inventor of computer and music technologies, Google’s futurist and “singularitarian immortalist”, Ray Kurzweil.

Kurzweil’s concept of the Singularity provides the immortalists with their equivalent of the Resurrection: a moment in the foreseeable future when computer technology and artificial intelligence, biotechnology and nanotechnology will all converge to make it possible for us to download our minds and attain virtual immortality. Like de Grey, Kurzweil is holding out for this moment with a carefully designed regime of exercise and diet.

There is a symbiosis of fantasies at play here that flows into the currents of the so-called transhumanist movement, the truly eschatological branch of technological futurology. Transhumanists maintain that the destiny of humanity is to merge with technology, whereupon immortality will be just one superpower among many. Trans­humanism brandishes a handful of motifs with totemic significance, Kurzweil’s Singularity being perhaps the most revered. Its prophets are the spurned visionaries of every field: de Grey for ageing, Kurzweil for artificial intelligence, the maverick guru Eric Drexler for nanotechnology. They cite each other’s predictions to support the feasibility of their own. A horror of looming mortality pervades the field in ways that are all too easy to map on to the preoccupations of religious millenarians of former times.

Kurzweil and Grossman’s 2009 book Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever describes a programme of diet, exercise and vitamin supplements that should sustain you until the Singularity takes over. In their future vision, Drexler’s nano-robots maintain our memories and repair our cells. If it takes a little longer, you can always preserve your body or brain cryogenically (we don’t know how to avoid serious tissue damage – yet!), as de Grey and Kurzweil intend to do. The Soviets tried it with Lenin in 1924, as John Gray explains in his 2011 book on early 20th-century efforts to cheat death, The Immortalization Commission. The technology didn’t work; Lenin turned green.

 

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The hope of medical immortality may be false but it raises moral and philosophical questions. Is there something fundamental to human experience in our mortality, or is de Grey right to see that as a defeatist betrayal of future generations? Do we value life precisely because it passes? “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom,” Psalm 90 proclaims. And is there an optimal span to our time on earth? These are pertinent questions for even the most sober gerontologists, because the truth is that the ageing process can be slowed, and we can expect to have longer lives in the future and to remain well and active for more of that time.

For instance, it has been known for decades that rats and mice live longer, and stay healthy for longer, when given only the quantities of a well-balanced diet that they need and no more. This so-called caloric restriction seems to slow down ageing in a wide range of tissues. No one knows why, but it seems to point to a common mechanism of ageing that extends between species. Some researchers think that with caloric restriction it might be possible to extend mean human lifespans to roughly 110 years (with the occasional Methuselah reaching 140).

Others aren’t persuaded that caloric restriction would be effective at all for slowing ageing in human beings – studies on rhesus monkeys have been inconclusive – and they point out that it is a bad idea for elderly people. “If we can understand how to uncouple the benefits of a low-calorie diet from its detrimental effects, we may be able to develop therapeutics that have broad impacts on many age-related diseases,” William Mair of the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health tells me. “I think in the long term this is an achievable goal.”

Couldn’t we just make an anti-ageing pill? There are candidates. The drug rapamycin, which is used to suppress immune rejection in organ transplants and as an anti-cancer agent, also has effects on ageing. It stops cells dividing and suppresses the immune system – and increases the lifespan of fruit flies and small mammals such as mice. But it has nasty side effects, including urinary-tract infections, anaemia, nausea, even skin cancer. So it won’t be used as a routine anti-ageing drug unless a milder version can be found. Other drugs are under trial. One developed by the anti-ageing company Sirtris in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and now undergoing clinical trials with GlaxoSmithKline (which bought and then shut down Sirtris) aims to switch on a class of proteins called sirtuins, which some researchers believe are involved in the cellular processes of ageing. The red-wine compound resveratrol is thought to activate sirtuins, although exactly what they do in ageing is still unclear and controversial. GSK seems to be hoping for drugs that can combat age-related diseases; the aim was never anything as broad as an “anti-ageing pill”.

Other researchers think that the answer lies with genetics. The genomics pioneer Craig Venter, whose company Celera privately sequenced the human genome in the early 2000s, recently launched Human Longevity, Inc together with the spaceflight entrepreneur Peter Diamand. It aims to compile a database of genomes to identify the genetic characteristics of long-lived individuals. There is generally no evolutionary driving force for “longevity genes”, because animals don’t usually die of old age in the wild – they get eaten, suffer disease or injury, or fall off a cliff. Old age among animals happens mostly in zoos and domestic pets.

But “during times of food scarcity, organisms can switch their ageing rate, turning off growth and turning on stress defences and self-maintenance, to maintain themselves for better times”, as Mair, the Harvard expert on ageing, explains. “So ageing rate can be altered. And animals in this self-protecting state are not just long-lived but protected against diseases of old age, from cancer to Alzheimer’s to diabetes.”

Whether Venter will find genes responsible for the exceptional longevity of some individuals, and whether they would be of any use for extending average lifespan, is another matter. “His approach has some serious conceptual limitations,” the Michigan gerontologist Richard Miller tells me. “I think he’s radically overestimating the degree to which the ageing process is modulated by genetic variation.”

To read one script, we are on the cusp of a revolution in ageing research. Google has recently created the California Life Company, or CALICO, which seems to be seeking life-extending drugs. The hedge-fund billionaire Joon Yun has launched the $1m Palo Alto Longevity Prize to bring about the “end of ageing”, so that “human capacity would finally be fully unleashed”.

But the Longevity Science Panel, composed of scientists rather than venture capitalists, had a much more sobering message. To get a substantial increase in lifespan – an extra decade or so, say – we would need to find ways of slowing the ageing rate by half (which the panel deemed barely plausible given the current knowledge) and apply that treatment throughout a person’s life from an early age. If you’re already middle-aged today, even major breakthroughs are barely going to make any difference to how long you will live.

As for the immortalists, a few specialists are prepared to be blunt. After reading a March 2005 article on Aubrey de Grey in Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Technology Review, Miller asked the magazine to forward a letter to him. It began by explaining that Miller “was hoping that now that the ageing problem has been
solved, you might have time to help me in my publicity campaign to solve a similar engineering challenge, one that has been too long ignored by the ultra-conservative, fraidy-cat mainstream scientific community: the problem of producing flying pigs”.

Jonathan Swift would have approved of the satirical critique. Had the laws of Luggnagg not forbidden it in Gulliver’s Travels, the narrator attests that he would have been glad to send a couple of the immortal Struldbrugs back to England “to arm our people against the fear of death”. The fantasies spun about scientific immortality, rather than being showered with scorn, should be met with some sensitivity to that fear, and an acceptance of the myths it will always engender. But the immortalists, striving for eternal life with dietary supplements and techno-fables, will serve well enough as our own cautionary Struldbrugs. 

Philip Ball’s latest book is “Invisible: the Dangerous Allure of the Unseen” (The Bodley Head).

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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Twilight of the postwar era

This Brexit-focused election is just one milestone in a long and complex relationship between the UK and the EU.

On 25 March the European Union celebrated its 60th birthday in Rome. Of the 28 members, only the United Kingdom declined to attend, signalling, to quote one senior EU diplomat, that it didn’t think the occasion was “appropriate for us”. The Daily Express called this a blatant “snub” to Brussels.

On 29 March Theresa May sent her “Dear Donald” letter – not, of course, to that dear Donald but to “President Tusk” at the EU in Brussels. It was delivered by a senior British diplomat with an antique and strained politesse reminiscent of his predecessors in Berlin in August 1914 and September 1939.

On 18 April the PM declared that it was in the national interest to hold a snap general election on 8 June, having five times in person or through official sources denounced the idea of going to the country before the set date in 2020.

On 29 April, a month after the PM’s letter, Donald Tusk secured agreement from the remaining 27 member states for the EU’s negotiating guidelines.

The following day the press reported a total face-off between May and Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, and EU negotiators at a Downing Street dinner. She was living “in a different galaxy”, Juncker is said to have exclaimed. May dismissed the story as “Brussels gossip”. But then, on 3 May, in an address outside 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister hit back, accusing senior EU politicians and officials of meddling in the British election campaign.

Whom you believe depends, as usual, on which side of our national chasm you are standing. Of one thing we can be sure. The spin and the propaganda will go on remorselessly, day after day, for years to come, as this country tries to talk its way out of a European union in which it has never felt at home. To keep our bearings amid the dizzying intergalactic spin, it is worth taking a longer view. Because history matters in this debate and few of our “leaders” seem to have any historical perspective.

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At 60 the EU is a senior citizen – rather stiff in the joints, grossly overweight and often a bit of a bore. It’s hard now to recall the heady hopes that its birth aroused. After two ruinous wars in three decades, many western European leaders were determined to escape from the vortex of belligerent nationalism.

Six countries signed the original Treaty of Rome in March 1957 to set up the European Economic Community. The EEC was a common market and customs union between Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and two defeated Axis powers from 1945 – Italy and West Germany. Britain could have been present at the creation; in fact, most of the six wanted us to join. But then, as now, the message was: “We don’t think it is appropriate for us.”

In part, the motives behind founding the EEC were economic. Hard borders and high tariffs would hamper recovery after the war. Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands had already formed the Benelux customs union in 1948. They were also natural trading partners with Germany, sharing the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt Delta, and Germany had vied with France for decades over the mineral resources of the Saar and the Ruhr. Now the six countries decided to pool these vital assets. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) of 1952 was a stepping stone to the Treaty of Rome.

None of these states had abandoned the pursuit of national interests; rather, they were going about it in less confrontational ways. Electorates, still haunted by the Depression of the 1930s, now expected their governments not only to ensure order and security but also to stimulate growth and provide welfare. In these circumstances, some erosion of national sovereignty seemed necessary, even desirable. Prosperity wasn’t a zero-sum game, built on hard-nosed “us first” policies, but would be fostered by calculated yet enlightened interdependence. For the modern state, in short, absolute sovereignty could not be an end in itself.

That said, the essential imperative of European integration was not economic but political. For France and Germany, 1914 and 1939 were just the most recent manifestations of their bloody past, a cycle of wars that stretched back to the days of Bismarck, Napoleon and Louis XIV. Sedan 1870, Leipzig 1813, Jena 1806, Valmy 1792, Turckheim 1675 – the victories were emblazoned on public monuments and celebrated in school textbooks, the defeats quietly forgotten. ­European integration offered a chance for the French and the Germans to break free from centuries of tit-for-tat conflicts; a belated acceptance of the dictum “If you can’t beat them, join them”.

The Benelux countries were caught in the jaws of that Franco-German antagonism: whenever the two big beasts bit on each other, the three little ones felt the pain. ­Italy, the other founding member, was – like West Germany – desperate to jettison its pariah status from the Fascist era. So Rome 1957 served as a belated peace treaty, drawing a line under the Second World War for western Europe.

This zeal to transcend hard nationalism is seen most strikingly in the life of Robert Schuman, the man now celebrated as the “Father of Europe”. Born in 1886, Schuman grew up in Luxembourg but was educated at German universities and practised law in the city of Metz, in Lorraine – then part of Germany thanks to its victory in 1870-71. When the next war broke out in 1914, he was conscripted into the kaiser’s army: only medical problems saved him from having to fight against the French.

In 1919 France recovered Alsace and Lorraine, so Schuman became a French citizen and got into French politics. From 1942 to 1945 he fought in the wartime Resistance and then, amid France’s postwar kaleidoscopic politics, served variously as finance minister, prime minister and foreign minister. It was Schuman’s celebrated declaration of 9 May 1950 that paved the way for the ECSC and the Treaty of Rome.

Today the “Schuman roundabout” lies at the heart of the EU quarter in Brussels – an apt memorial, because his experience of the (un)merry-go-round of belligerent nationalism inspired his commitment to European integration. He was not alone. The West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer (born 1876) was a Rhinelander from Cologne who served as that city’s mayor from 1917 to 1933, until he was sacked by the Nazis. Over the years he had in turn chafed at Prussian domination of the Rhineland, feared French annexation, and endured two stretches of British military occupation.

The Italian premier Alcide De Gasperi (born 1881) had started his political life in the Austrian parliament before 1914, when his homeland, Trentino/South Tyrol, still belonged to the Habsburg empire. After the region was transferred to Italy in 1919, De Gasperi resumed his political career not in Vienna but in Rome, opposing first the Fascists and then the Communists.

The early lives of these three men along the shifting borderlands of war-torn Europe brought home to them the suicidal futility of hard nationalism. They also shared a profound sense of Catholic Europe, extending back through the Holy Roman empire to the era of Charlemagne.

It was from this historical platform that Schuman approached European integration. “If we don’t want to fall back into the old errors in dealing with the German problem,” he said, “there is only one solution: that is the European solution.” Coal and steel were an ideal starting point because they were double-edged – vital for industrial growth but also for waging war. Surrendering national control over these critical assets could enhance prosperity and peace.

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The British approach to “Europe” was very different. In the mid-20th century Britain still saw itself as a global power. The sterling area took half of all British exports: western Europe, struggling to recover from the war, less than a quarter. In 1951 British industrial production equalled that of France and West Germany combined. And although Britain worked closely with France in 1947-49 over the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty, its engagement with the Continent had clear limits.

“Our policy should be to assist Europe to recover, as far as we can,” senior British civil servants advised in 1949. “But the concept must be one of limited liability. In no circumstances must we assist them beyond the point at which the assistance leaves us too weak to be a worthwhile ally for USA if Europe collapses . . .”

“Limited liability” was a philosophy rooted in Britain’s experience of the war – also markedly different from that of the Six. In May and June of 1940, Germany conquered France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, with Italy jumping in to grab some of the spoils. That summer is now engraved in British national mythology. It was immortalised in David Low’s Very Well, Alone cartoon for the Evening Standard, depicting a pugnacious Tommy breathing defiance to the world from a rock in storm-tossed seas.

Victory was eventually achieved not with the Continentals, who seemed to be either foes or failures, but in alliance with those whom Churchill called “the English-speaking peoples” – above all, the United States. From this perspective, “sovereignty” clearly worked: we successfully defended our iconic southern border, the white cliffs of Dover, and gained ultimate victory. Only those who had been defeated (in 1940 or 1945) would imagine surrendering any national powers to a higher authority.

In 1950, therefore, when the Labour cabinet decided that the Schuman Plan was not appropriate for us, it was following the majority view in Whitehall and Westminster. Ernest Bevin, the ailing but still doughty foreign secretary who had led Britain’s drive for closer intergovernmental co-operation with France in the 1940s, had no time for the dread word “federalism”. In his inimitable phrase, “If you open that Pandora’s box, you never know what Trojan ’orses will jump out.” Pressed by the Americans to take these ideas more seriously, he questioned how he could go to his London dockland constituents in Woolwich, blitzed by the Luftwaffe in 1940, and explain that the Germans would help them in a war with Russia. As for France, he sniffed, “the man in the street, coming back from a holiday there, was almost invariably struck by the defeatist attitude of the French”. Great Britain, he exclaimed, was “not part of Europe”; she was “not simply a Luxembourg”.

This was a bipartisan attitude, endorsed by the Tories when they regained office in 1951. Churchill conjured up the image of three overlapping “circles” of global power, with Britain involved in each but not confined to any: the Commonwealth and empire; the “English-speaking world”; and, as he put it to the cabinet in November that year, “United Europe, to which we are a separate, closely and specially related ally and friend”. He and his successor Anthony Eden welcomed European integration for “them”, not “us” – as a way of reconciling France and Germany. After the Six embarked in 1956-57 on talks in Brussels about further integration, the British sent not a government minister but a Board of Trade official, and then merely as an “observer”.

The accepted wisdom in London remained that Britain’s trading interests were global and that a protectionist European bloc would be dangerous. Yet that kind of common market was not a foregone conclusion. Britain had a powerful potential ally within the Six in the form of West Germany, and especially its influential economics minister, Ludwig Erhard.

Almost as much as London, Bonn’s trading interests were global: 40 per cent of its exports went beyond Europe and much of West Germany’s European trade was outside the Six, with Austria, Scandinavia, Switzerland and the UK. Like the British, Erhard wanted a reduction of global tariff barriers to promote free trade, rather than the high-tariff, protectionist bloc favoured by Paris to defend France’s flabby economy. Yet a common market was inconceivable without the French, and Chancellor Adenauer – focused on postwar reconciliation – insisted that politics mattered more than economics. Erhard was told to get the best deal he could as long as France was “in”.

So that left the French able largely to dictate their terms. Among these were a steep external tariff, inclusion within the EEC of France’s overseas territories, acceptance across the Six of France’s high welfare payments and the development of a Common Agricultural Policy (Cap), which subsidised inefficient farming. By 1970 the Cap consumed 70 per cent of the EEC budget. But, as a senior Italian official observed ruefully, “Europe cannot organise without France and, to get her in, prices must be paid which may seem exorbitant.”

What would have happened if Britain had been fully engaged in these negotiations from the start? Might it have strengthened Erhard’s hand and helped forge a strong
Anglo-German axis in favour of a looser, more open free-trade area? That would have put pressure on Paris to accept London and Bonn’s terms, or be left out in the cold. In which case European integration could have developed along very different lines, with a Franco-German-British triangle operating in creative tension at the heart of the new Europe in an EEC that, in effect, would have been 3 + 4. A tantalising “what if”, but it would have required a very different attitude
in Britain towards its future and its past.

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And so the EEC was born on New Year’s Day 1958 with six founder members, not seven. The British had been completely wrong-footed. In 1950 they expected Schuman’s pipe dream to go up in smoke; they were equally complacent about the Brussels talks in 1956-57; and they repeated the mistake yet again in assuming it would take years for the EEC to become a reality. Instead, not only was the EEC now a fact, but the Six made rapid progress in dismantling tariff barriers and agreeing the basics of the Cap. By 1961 they were seriously debating political union, or at least a common foreign policy.

London struggled to believe that those despised Continentals, who in their various ways had botched the Second World War, could bury the hatchet and work together. British complacency, even arrogance, has aptly been called the “price of victory”. And we’ve been paying the bill ever since.

Once the Six was up and running, there was a grave danger of Britain being marginalised. The European community threatened
to become “the only Western bloc approaching in importance the Big Two – the USSR and the United States”, a senior Whitehall committee warned in 1960. Aside from the economic damage that would ensue, “if we try to remain aloof from them” Britain would “run the risk of losing political influence and of ceasing to be able to exercise any claim to be a world Power”. The economic case for membership was still finely balanced: commercial and emotional ties with the Commonwealth, strengthened by the war, remained strong. Yet, for Harold Macmillan, like Adenauer in 1956, politics took precedence over economics. In August 1961 his government applied to join the EEC.

But the price of victory kicked in again. Charles de Gaulle had not forgotten or forgiven Roosevelt and Churchill for treating his Free French as second-class members of the wartime alliance. A fierce nationalist, he accepted the European project but sought to turn it to France’s advantage, or his conception of this. Crucial to his strategy was keeping Britain out of the EEC.

“My dear chap, it’s very simple,” the French agriculture minister told his British counterpart. “At the moment, with the Six, there are five hens and one cock. If you join, with other countries, there will be perhaps seven or eight hens. But there will be two cocks. Well, that is not so pleasant.”

Determined to rule the roost, de Gaulle blocked first Macmillan’s application to join and then Harold Wilson’s. By the time he retired and Edward Heath had negotiated terms of entry, 15 years had elapsed since 1 January 1958. The original deal-making among the Six had set hard, to their advantage. Any new member had to accept the club rules as given: the “acquis commun­autaire”, in Eurospeak. Worse still, in 1973, just months after Denmark, Ireland and the UK had joined the community, the bottom fell out of the world economy with the oil crisis, recession and stagflation, making it nigh impossible amid all the crisis management to force the EEC into reform as Heath had hoped. The good ship Europe had been launched on the high tide of postwar prosperity. But as the Six became the Nine, that tide began to ebb. We have never had it so good – ever again.

Since the 1970s and Britain’s “entry” into Europe, successive prime ministers have tried to undo the damage caused by their aloof predecessors. Most have done so “alone” – in 1940 mode – rather than working to form alliances with reform-minded colleagues on the Continent. In particular, as in the mid-1950s, they failed to build creative partnerships with the Germans.

Margaret Thatcher was a notable example. Her cantankerous “handbagging” secured rebates on British budget contributions in excess of what probably could have been obtained by “normal” diplomacy, but it alienated many of her European colleagues. And her visceral suspicion of the Germans, dating back to the Second World War, poisoned relations with Bonn. “She doesn’t really believe that there’s any such thing as useful negotiation,” observed Sir Nicholas Henderson, a high-ranking British diplomat. “She doesn’t see foreign policy as it is, which is a lot of give and take.”

Yet Thatcher was only the extreme case. Even prime ministers who were more “pro-Europe”, such as John Major and Tony Blair, were hamstrung by domestic politics – meaning both the rooted Euroscepticism of Tory backbenchers and also the tabloids’ determination to treat every encounter with “Europe” as a replay of old battles. Woe betide any British PM who returned from Brussels without being able to proclaim victory in another Waterloo (though the 1815 battle was won in tandem with the Germans, plus Dutch and Belgian support).

The Brexit frenzy is only the latest round in that story. Even on the Remain side, the Cameron-Osborne campaign – a breathtaking blend of arrogance and incompetence – chose to make its case almost entirely by economic scaremongering about the dangers of Leave (through “Project Fact”, aka “Project Fear”), rather than highlighting positives of the European project, especially its enduring contribution to postwar peace.

Of course, the EU has often been its own worst enemy. Reform has been slow: the Cap, for instance, accounted for 73 per cent of total EU spending as late as 1985 and did not fall below 40 per cent until 2013, still a remarkable figure for one of the most industrialised regions of the world. Institutionally, the bureaucracy is flabby; financial control is weak; decision-making is ponderous; the European Commission frequently locks horns with the European Council (the heads of government); and the persistent “democratic deficit” has exacerbated a popular sense of alienation.

Repeatedly, too, politics has trumped economics, particularly over the question of enlargement. In the 1980s the Nine ­became 12 in order to embrace three underdeveloped countries that had recently thrown off authoritarian regimes: Greece, Spain and Portugal. In the 1990s the euro was driven not just by the ambition of Jacques Delors but by the determination of François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl to anchor the financial and industrial power of a unified Germany firmly in European structures – updating, if you like, Schuman’s vision. And since 2000, the EU has welcomed in from the Cold (War) those countries of eastern Europe that were anxious to escape the Russian bear hug. All these politically inspired moves have come at an economic price. To be sure, the EU28 is far more truly “European” geographically, but the original Six (apart from southern Italy) had a coherence as developed economies and functioning democracies that today’s mixed bag of members conspicuously lacks. Yet the EU project has continued to be animated by aspirations for close economic and political union that date from the 1950s.

***

Sixty is a ripe age. Many institutions do not survive that long and the EU (like Nato, founded in 1949) is painfully aware of the need to think imaginatively about its form and direction. The “Future of Europe” was firmly on the menu even at the Rome birthday party. On 29 March 2017 the UK, by contrast, began Year Zero – reborn into a brave new, Britain-shaped world, if you believe the Prime Minister; tumbling into the abyss, if you heed remaindered Remainers. Now Old EU@60 is about to meet New UK@0 for a long and bruising battle.

The stakes are high on both sides. Brussels is in no mood to let Britain off lightly: an easy exit would encourage other waverers and jeopardise the whole European project. Across the Channel, if May puts politics before economics (“control” of borders over access to the single market) her hard nationalism could alienate Scotland, undermine the Irish settlement, rupture the United Kingdom and end in no deal. A “full English” Brexit might prove very expensive.

The tabloids will doubtless report it as a replay of 1940 and “Our Finest Hour”: an earlier Brexit moment. Attentive as ever to them, May has embraced the description of herself as a “bloody difficult woman” who is eager to “fight for Britain”, in Churchill-Thatcher mode. Is her snap election intended to pave the way for a hard, nativist Brexit? Or does she just hope that a bigger majority will give her more room for manoeuvre in battling Brussels? No one knows, probably not even May herself. Current negotiating strategies, like battle plans, will not survive the first encounter with “the enemy”.

That is why it is important, amid the daily barrage of spin, sneers and aggro, to keep the bigger historical picture in mind. Because we may be entering the twilight of what can be called the postwar era, which began in the decade after 1945, when the horrors of belligerent nationalism prompted a fervent effort to make peace and build truly international institutions. The UN, Nato and the EEC were all products of that creative moment; likewise the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This fabric of postwar internationalism is now ageing and strained – often in need of radical modification – yet in a world where nationalism, protectionism and racism are on the rise, it provides some flimsy protection against the law of the jungle. If Brexit is handled belligerently, it could help to pull the threads from that thin tissue of coexistence and co-operation.

Our leaders show little awareness of what is at stake historically. According to US Vogue’s recent interview with Theresa May, “She says she doesn’t read much history and tries not to picture how things will be in advance.” Jeremy Corbyn seems to live in an ideological time warp of his own. Boris Johnson does have historical sensitivity, but of a typically self-serving sort: see his entertaining little (auto)biography of Churchill.

This Brexit election is just an early milestone on a long and painful road. It took the UK over 11 years from first applying to joining the EEC. It may take as long to complete a full, legally watertight exit from the EU. Certainly, for the next few years, at a time when so many global problems are crying out for creative policymaking, the EU and the UK will confront each other obsessively to the exclusion of almost everything else. A dysfunctional union and a disunited kingdom – each captivated by its contrasting past – will struggle and muddle towards divergent futures.

David Reynolds’s books include “Britannia Overruled” (Routledge) and “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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