The cockney Siberia

The Thames Gateway development is the largest urban regeneration scheme ever attempted in Britain. I

Appendix 2, Figure A2.1 on page 98 of the delivery plan launched by Gordon Brown in September 2007 is called "Governance of the Thames Gateway". It is intended to encapsulate, in diagrammatic form, the structure that the government has devised to ensure the regeneration of an area that stretches 40 miles along both sides of the Thames Estuary, from Tower Hamlets in London to Southend in Essex and Sittingbourne in Kent.

The colour-coded diagram features a bewildering variety of government offices, inclu­ding the Thames Gateway Cross-Government Board, the Thames Gateway Strategic Partnership and the Thames Gateway Executive. It attempts to illustrate, with a series of directional arrows, how these state organisations variously "influence, advise, direct or collaborate with" the equally bewildering number of agencies "tasked", in the government's language, with "delivering" the desired changes.

To those unschooled in the ways of government, it looks a mess.

Philip Cohen, formerly of the University of East London, is co-editor of London's Turning: the Making of Thames Gateway, published in 2008, which collects essays on aspects of the government's scheme. He calls it a "labyrinth": "You'll meet many lost souls wandering in those places." The Brentwood and Ongar constituency of the Conservative Party chairman, Eric Pickles, lies on the edge of the Gateway. He ought to be able to make sense of it if anyone can, yet he says the diagram is the Westminster version of a Sickert painting: "Look at it for long enough and you'll go mad."

Perhaps the complexity is not surprising. The Thames Gateway scheme, to develop the vast tracts of brownfield land that begin in east London and extend far beyond the city's borders, has been described as the largest urban regeneration project in the world. It is certainly the largest of its kind that has ever been attempted in the UK. "Not since the Great Fire of London will the capital city have been subject to such an enormous and concentrated process of change," writes Cohen in the introduction to London's Turning.

The Department for Communities and Local Government is in overall charge, but many other government departments, including those for health, education and transport, are also involved. The area covers 15 local authorities, home to some of the most deprived wards in England, and three regions of England. It is home to 1.6 million people at present, but planners believe it has the capacity to absorb half a million more: the government aims to create 160,000 new houses and 225,000 new jobs in the region by 2016, as well as the additional infrastructure, in the form of schools, hospitals and transport links, that will be required to support the communities emerging on the banks of the Thames.

There are six "strategic locations" - Stratford, Lower Lea and Royal Docks; London Riverside; Greenwich Peninsula and Woolwich; Thurrock; Kent Thameside; and Medway - and five areas of "urban renewal" - Barking; Basildon; Erith; Sittingbourne and Swale; and Southend. There will be major investments in education, including two new universities in Southend and Medway, and £1.4bn has been allocated for new or improved hospital provision.

Even the government concedes that there is much to be done - as one of its recent "vision documents" notes, the Gateway consists of "rundown town centres, poor transport links and uninspiring business areas". Anyone who has driven down the blighted corridor of the A12, ushered eastwards by pylons and puddled wastelands, will have formed an even less favourable impression. The Guardian's architecture critic Jonathan Glancey has described it as "the cockney Siberia". Steven Norris calls it "the land that God forgot". Yet, as Ken Livingstone said in one of his last published documents as mayor of London, the city's economic centre of gravity is shifting eastwards, and the Thames Gateway is the place where London's "needs and opportunities meet".

Livingstone is not the first planner or politician to have noticed its potential. Already, the scheme to regenerate the Gateway is entering its third iteration. When it was conceived more than 20 years ago by Michael Heseltine and Peter Hall (professor of planning at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London), the emphasis was on providing transport links to create a "linear city" extending along the banks of the Thames. Under John Prescott, the priority changed to affordable housing, but according to Philip Cohen, Thames Gateway Mk III is reverting to a form closer to the original prescription, with an emphasis on public works projects. He says it is hard to identify a coherent plan and yet even if there was one, the events of the past 18 months would have made it hard to realise. "It's all predicated on the assumption that private development is very profitable and that private developers will be prevailed upon to pay for the necessary infrastructure," says Michael Edwards, one of Hall's colleagues at the Bartlett.

Since 1990, developers on most major schemes have been required to contribute to the cost of roads, parks, schools, hospitals and social housing under a provision known as a Section 106 Agreement. "It worked tolerably well during the years of the long boom when profits were staggeringly high, but now the boom is over, it's not producing anything," says Edwards. The government plan was to spend £9bn in the Thames Gateway between 2008 and 2011, in the hope that its investment would attract £43bn of private-sector money in the next 20 years. Edwards believes such figures have become unrealistic. "What worries me is that the profitable bits will get done, but the infrastructure and the social equipment won't be provided. We shall just get great splurges of speculative housing and a few retail parks, and it will have very poor collective facilities. It could be awful - a very poor-quality experience for the people who live there."

Peter Andrews, chief executive of the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation - one of two such bodies that have been created to implement the government's plans - concedes that raising private-sector funds is proving "challenging". The LTGDC, which is responsible for regeneration projects in the five London boroughs that fall within the Gateway - Barking and Dagenham, Hackney, Havering, Newham and Tower Hamlets - plans to invest £150m in capital projects by 2011: £120m in public funds is guaranteed, but it will have to raise £30m by selling land assets; the yield from assets has been cut from £117m due to the collapse in property prices. "Two years ago, nobody could have forecast what would happen," Andrews says. "The credit crunch is impacting, and if we were writing our corporate plan now, we would probably look at things differently."

In one sense, the financial crisis has worked to their advantage: the LTGDC was set up in 2004, but, unlike the London Docklands Development Corporation, it didn't have land "vested" in it - it had to buy it. With the downturn, people have become more realistic about values. "We're able to acquire greater areas for less money - what we can't do is put our hands on our hearts and say we'll be able to recycle that money very rapidly."

However, Andrews says the market will recover sooner or later. He believes it is important to maintain a long view: the LDDC was set up in a recession in the early 1980s, and survived another recession in the early 1990s before it began to see the "true fruits of its labours". "Regeneration is a long-term process - it does not happen overnight, and you have to accept that you will have to go through one or two economic cycles."

The LTGDC is based on the ninth floor of an office block in Marsh Wall, and Andrews's office windows look out towards Canary Wharf and the half-built towers of other Docklands developments. It is clear that he regards the Docklands as a benchmark for LTGDC's work. Other people see it as a cautionary tale. Critics say that the development of the Docklands forced out local people and destroyed established communities, and there are fears that the same thing will happen in the Gateway. In some places, it already has.

The government has identified the construction of the Olympic Park and the adjacent development at Stratford City in Newham, east London, as one of the "four locations for transformational economic growth" that will drive the regeneration process; but some residents, such as the photojournalist Mike Wells, believe it is only an elite that will benefit. "Regeneration is something that is done by one social class to another social class," he told me, when we walked round the site of the Olympic Park. "The social class that does the doing says it's being done for the benefit of the other social class, but I take issue with that. Basically, they're moving one lot of people out and moving another lot of people in - people of a different class and income bracket."

The Manor Garden Allotments, which used to lie between the banks of the River Lea and the Channelsea River, in the northern area of the Olympic Park, are the best-known casualty of the park, but there are many others. Wells used to live on an estate called Clays Lane that was home to 450 people. It was the UK's largest purpose-built housing co-operative, designed to address the lack of housing for "vulnerable single people", and it was erected in 1977 on top of an old landfill site called the West Ham Tip. Each of its 57 shared houses and 50 flats faced in to one of ten courtyards - an arrangement that generated a strong sense of community, and a strong loyalty to the estate among its residents. They were sufficiently well organised to force a public inquiry to recommend the compulsory purchase of the estate, but it was dismissed by a high court ruling in July 2007, and the estate has since been demolished.

The area it used to occupy, off Temple Mills Lane, lies within the Olympic Village, on the site of the Olympic Park, although even before the bid for the games was won Wells regarded it as an anomaly: "You had a lot of not very well-off people living on a scruffy estate next to this multibillion-pound development, and I couldn't see it lasting - at some point, they'd have got rid of it and built another yuppie block of flats there."

As a photojournalist, Wells has documented the progress of the Olympic Village, and as an activist, he makes the case against it. He now lives on a narrowboat on the River Lea or the Lea Navigation, and he regrets the destruction of the two and a half square miles of London that lie inside the infamous blue perimeter fence. "It was one of the most fascinating areas of the city," he says. "It combined the most beautiful elements with the ugliest. It was so diverse.

“You could see a congregation of 10,000 arriving at the Kingsway International Christian Centre while ravers were leaving the clubs on a Sunday morning. There was everything going on there - rough sleepers, artists, entrepreneurs and religious people. There were meat-processing plants and scrap metal dealers. And yet the Olympic Delivery Authority and the London Development Agency make out that there was nothing there. It's quite bizarre."

After London won the bid to host the Olympics, LDA officials conducted a consultation process in which they asked local people what they wanted to see in the Olympic Park. When Wells looked down the list of amenities on offer, including "riverside walks" and "quiet areas", he realised that almost all of them were already available in the area: it seemed the ODA and LDA were planning to destroy what was there and then re-create it, at vast public expense. Wells identifies the travellers' caravans parked beneath the concrete bridges of the A12 and the Eastway as the boundary between the real world and the fantasy land of the Olym­pics, and he says the park's surreal nature is encapsulated in the specially commissioned logo that adorns the fence - it has been designed at great expense to look like a graffiti tag. The actual graffiti on bridges and underpasses tends to express local people's attitudes more succinctly. "Fuck the Olympics," says one. "The Olympics equals exploitation," says another.

Further south, two Victorian warehouses face one another across the still, dark water of the Lea Navigation - Queen's Yard is still intact, but King's Yard has been demolished. "In ten years' time, all you'll see will be flats like these," says Wells.

He gestures at the glass-and-steel buildings that have recently sprouted on Fish Island, where the LTGDC is developing "a comprehensive plan for new high-quality, mixed-use and industrial developments". In the distance, the towers of Canary Wharf rise above the jumble of buildings and flyovers that obscure the river's southward course.

To Wells, such schemes as the Olympics represent an extermination of history. "We'll lose our connection with the past, with our ancestors and with our built environment, and we'll leave people floating in soap-opera land."

Dr John Marriott, reader in history at the University of East London, who contributed a chapter about the industrial history of Thames Gateway to Philip Cohen's book, agrees that "historical amnesia" presents a threat to the validity of future developments. He rejects the conventional wisdom that the Industrial Revolution, in the words of the historian John Hammond, passed "like a storm cloud over London and broke elsewhere". Marriott points out that there were large industrial concerns in Havering, Barking and Dagenham, such as the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company and the Woolwich Arsenal, which employed 75,000 people during the First World War.

Almost all of them were swept away by the process of deindustrialisation that occurred throughout the UK in the 20th century with the loss of markets in various corners of the empire. Ford is cutting back on making cars at its Dagenham plant, though it remains one of the world's largest manufacturers of diesel engines. Tate & Lyle is the last major concern in the area around Silver Town and Canning Town, and Marriott says that significant industrial sites have also been lost around Stratford and the River Lea, bought by compulsory purchase as the site for the Olympic Village was assembled.

Yet Marriott believes that you cannot create sustainable communities unless you draw on the area's history. "It's not a 'tabula rasa', where nothing exists, or has ever existed," he says. Woolwich thrived as a community, because of the existence of the Royal Arsenal and Siemens Brothers, which manufactured submarine cable. "These were not places that provided just employment for their workers: they provided a huge range of facilities as well - entertainment, recreation and housing. Planners have to have due regard for these historical experiences. If they don't, very bad mistakes will be made and my fear is that we'll end up with the Docklands writ large, where the historical communities and the memory of those historical communities are obliterated."

He is concerned that the emphasis appears to be on providing housing, both private and social, to meet the metropolitan housing crisis, without sufficient thought to what the new residents of the Gateway will do for work and leisure. "We have been told the regeneration process will produce thousands of jobs for local people, but I just cannot see it happening." He warns that the provision of transport links, such as Crossrail, which will connect the residents of the Gateway with the financial centre of Canary Wharf, may prove counterproductive. "In a sense, the best thing that you can do is make them stay in the area - though if you're going to do that, you have to provide them with work. Otherwise, it will become a huge dormitory suburb for London, which will be a disaster. It will be dead. People will live and sleep there, but for their work and entertainment, they will go elsewhere."

Naturally, it will not be the old, large-scale industries that will provide employment if or when the regeneration of the Gateway comes about: planners will expect information technology, the so-called creative industries and "green-collar" jobs to fill the gap.

The LTGDC is developing a creative industries quarter in Barking, and it has recently appointed a development manager and a team of architects to help create what it has called a Sustainable Industries Park on a patch of derelict land by the river in Dagenham. It hopes to create "the UK's largest concentration of environmental industries and technologies" on a 25-hectare site enclosed by the A12 on one side, and the smokestacks and jetties of Dagenham Dock on the other.

At the moment, it seems a distant prospect. A row of decommissioned London buses, parked side by side in front of a sea of scrap metal, stands near the entrance to the SIP; vast pylons, which will dictate the height and location of new buildings, run through the middle of the site. When I walked round it, on a cold, wet morning, it seemed irredeemably bleak and inhospitable. And yet progress is being made. In autumn 2008, one of the first tenants of the SIP opened for business opposite the scrap metal depot. Closed Loop Recycling is the first business in the UK to recycle plastic bottles into food packaging material.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has said it wants the Thames Gateway to be "an eco-region", and in November 2008 it published a 47-point plan that attempts to define the term. In one sense, the need for environmental controls is clear - given that 42 per cent of the land in the Gateway has been reclaimed from the sea, flood protection is a priority, and in October 2009 the Environment Agency published a long-term flood risk management plan, Thames Estuary 2100. Within the Gateway, the government hopes to improve the environmental sustainability of all new developments and maintains that the area can become "an exemplar for the UK and other countries, helping to answer many of the big challenges of development for the coming century".

It is an admirable ambition. However, the exact details remain unclear, and Paul de Zylva of Friends of the Earth warns that old habits die hard. "We've had a hard time making sure that the regeneration plans don't result in the whole place being covered in concrete. It's a very rich area, and yet there is a danger that these sites are being picked off because someone wants to build another identikit office or warehouse."

He cites the case of West Thurrock Lagoon and Marshes as proof that the forces behind the Thames Gateway regeneration are still "stuck in the mindset of pouring concrete and turning it in hard landscaping". In the early 1990s, the power station that used to stand on the grazing marshes in south Essex was closed down and wildlife began to colonise the site. In the next 15 years it developed into one of the richest nature reserves in the country. Yet, in 2006, a planning application was submitted for a warehouse and lorry park, and in November 2008 Thurrock Development Corporation approved the plan. An organisation called Buglife led a three-year campaign to save the site, but in January 2009, the Court of Appeal concluded that the decision to build on the land was legal.

The planned development will destroy more than half of the site, including the flower-rich lands on which many of the insects depend, and many rare species will be lost from that area for ever. Buglife is equally concerned by the recent decision to develop a vast patch of land on the Isle of Grain, in Kent.

“We're in danger of denuding the Thames corridor of some of its most precious habitats," says de Zylva. "These are the kind of things which will be important to communities when the process is finished, and they'll have to try and re-create them when they're gone."

Had Havering Council run a more effective campaign, the newest reserve for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, at Rainham Marshes, might have met the same fate as West Thurrock Lagoon. Rainham is where London ends: the border between the London Borough of Havering and the Essex Borough of Thurrock runs through the middle of the marshes, and on a clear day you can see Canary Wharf and the London Eye on a bend on the river 16 miles away. Other man-made structures define its immediate borders: the raised carriageways of the A13 seal the northern edge of the reserve and the Channel Tunnel rail link marks its western limits.

There are bright red and yellow shells of trucks and trailers stacked in a wrecker's yard in Purfleet Industrial Estate beneath the arches of the flyover, and the marshes are dotted with shipping containers - emblems of the Gateway vernacular - that have been turned into hides and education centres. To the south, a high sea wall prevents the tidal estuary reclaiming the low-lying marshes, and to the west, the flats and houses of the old Garrison Estate on the edge of Purfleet rise behind the RSPB's new visitor centre: a sleek concrete box on stilts, encased in a feathered skin of brown and yellow planks.

Yet despite its precarious existence on Londons's industrialised fringes, the area is rich in wildlife. It is home to 10 per cent of the UK's population of water voles, to insects such as dragonflies, beetles and spiders and a rich array of birdlife, including knots, dunlins, redshanks, lapwings, ducks and geese. The Thames Estuary is part of the east Atlantic flyway, and so migrating birds pass through twice a year, en route from the Arctic to the north Atlantic and milder climates in the south.

The RSPB estimates that at any one time in the peak period of January and February, the Greater Thames Estuary between Canvey and Rainham is home to 200,000 birds - which rises to 300,000 if you extend the area to a line between Whitstable and Clacton. The birds are attracted to the mud that lies on both sides of the sea wall. It has been estimated that each square metre contains as much food energy as eight or nine Mars Bars. "Without this area, they don't have fuel and they don't get home," says Paul Outhwaite, the RSPB's communications manager for south-east England.

The site was finally reprieved in 2002, though the board inside the door of the visitor centre confirms it was a complicated process - it lists no fewer than 23 separate bodies that played a part in creating the reserve. "It's symbolic of what a mess it has become," says Eric Pickles, who is a keen birdwatcher and a frequent visitor to the site himself. "There were so many fingers in the pie and no one taking the big decisions. It's a beautiful reserve and a beautiful centre, but I can't help feeling it could have been a lot simpler if we'd all been a bit more rational about it." He wouldn't object if there were two or three organisations involved, he says, "But once you get into double figures, something has gone wrong."

Not all the proposed developments have met with opposition from environmental groups. Outhwaite says the RSPB has abandoned its "thou shalt not" approach and he commends the work of a firm called DP World, which plans to convert the former Shell refinery at Shell Haven into a port called London Gateway - the largest container port in Europe. Shell Haven Refinery, which stopped production in 1999, occupies one of the largest brownfield sites in the UK, with two miles of river frontage and 1,500 acres. DP World plans to expand it by reclaiming yet more land from the Thames.

The port is another of the government's four areas of "transformational economic growth" - the other three being the Olympic Park, Canary Wharf and the Ebbsfleet Valley, the proposed location for Mark Wallinger's 50-metre-high sculpture of a white horse. DP World says it will create 12,000 jobs in the short term and 36,000 in total. The company suspended the project last year during a "global business review" prompted by the economic crisis that struck Dubai, but on 5 January this year, the Prime Minister visited the site to mark the start of construction. Outhwaite is pleased that it is going ahead. He says it is a good example of the way the Gateway should work.

The package of measures designed to compensate for the habitats that will be lost in creating the port includes plans to establish two new areas of tidal mudflats - one in Essex, near the port, and one in Kent, on the other side of the Estuary - by making breaches in the sea wall. "If you're going to break the cycle of self-reinforcing environmental blight, then you have to have quality development in a natural environment that makes the most of what you've got in terms of open space and wildlife."

The task of integrating the various elements of the existing landscape has been entrusted to the architect Terry Farrell, whose international practice is responsible for Thames Gateway Parklands Vision, one of the many glossy documents the scheme has produced. In practice, the vision consists of such commonsensical ideas as a continuous estuary path, new river crossings and a green grid of bridleways, footpaths and cycle routes. The RSPB is developing other sites in north Kent and south Essex, and the LTGDC is attempting to develop its own green grid by opening up the southern portion of Rainham Marshes in phases before 2023.

The resulting amenity, which the corporation is planning to call Wildspace, will be the biggest public park to be created in London for over a century - 645 hec­tares, or twice the size of Hampstead Heath. Ultimately, Farrell hopes to develop it into a "new kind of national park", which will run from the mouth of the Thames to the limit of the tide at Teddington, in Middlesex, leaving 60 per cent of the land on both sides of the river untouched.

Peter Andrews says the LTGDC had a number of conversations with Farrell, but these didn't add much to the corporation's plans: "I don't want to sound arrogant about it, but we'd already got ours pretty well worked through, and I don't think Terry has changed what we have to do in any way. The greater concern was areas outside London that weren't so well thought through. You're trying to improve people's lives, whether through trying to create jobs or better housing, and inevitably it is very complex."

He was disappointed when the plan for the Thames Gateway road bridge, which would have connected Beckton and Thamesmead, was cancelled in 2008. "Maybe it's a British disease: it was in the Abercrombie report in 1943 and we're still talking about it." Andrews argues that strong political leadership is essential, and cites Michael Heseltine's commitment to the Docklands as an example.

In the short existence of the LTGDC, Andrews has already worked with four secretaries of state and half a dozen ministers. Continuity is hard to come by, though the Conservatives insist they would not cancel the scheme if they were to come to power, as developers are already committing funds in difficult circumstances.

In fact, Pickles's successor as Tory shadow secretary for communities and local government, Caroline Spelman, says that the scheme is more important than ever, because it can be used to maintain a skills base in the housing industry and provide a stimulus as the country begins to emerge from recession. She would institute an audit to ensure the money was being spent properly, and offset the growing sense that the scheme is what Pickles calls "a Whitehall farce". They want to change the perception that it is dominated by planners who insist on putting up "little ticky-tacky boxes, without regard for the people who live there".

In a sense, such prescriptions are bound to be self-defeating: it is hard to remove one set of hands from the tiller without replacing them with another, equally deadening set of hands, and there are some who believe that all planners and politicians and their glossy brochures have become a hindrance to development.

“I think it's sometimes the people on the ground who have the real vision," says the RSPB's de Zylva. "So much attention and effort and money goes into these grand documents, but the people in the local communities know what they need and they don't need another high-profile architect or urban visionary to tell them. We go from one 'visioning process' to another and you're never quite sure what's going to come out of it at the end." His advice for everyone involved in the regeneration process is simple: "Listen to what people want and then give them a chance to express it."

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on

ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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The Great Huckster: Boris Johnson’s reckless distortions of history

As a scholar of Churchill, Boris Johnson could have articulated a constructive vision for Britain and Europe. Instead, he wilfully manipulates and distorts the historical record.

This month, 76 years ago, the defeated British Expeditionary Force was making for the Channel ports. Thanks to the ferocious resistance put up by the garrison at Calais, and Hitler’s hesitation, the bulk of the men were safely taken off the beaches at Dunkirk to fight another day. Whatever their private feelings during those terrible hours may have been, most of them knew even then that they would return to Europe to finish the job.

Their forefathers had been intervening in Europe for as long as anyone could remember. From Shakespeare’s Henry V through to Elizabeth’s support for the Dutch revolt, the Second Hundred Years War against Louis XIV, the French Revolution and Napoleon, and the First World War, London had always been profoundly invested in the continent. Defending the “liberties of Europe” and thus British freedoms was what Englishmen and Britons did. It was part of what they were.

In early June 1944 – on D-Day – the British, Americans and Canadians hurled themselves into northern France as their ancestors had done since the late Middle Ages. At least one British officer tried to inspire his men that morning as the landing craft approached the strongly defended beaches by reading out Henry V’s speech before Harfleur, in which Shakespeare has him exhort the men, “once more unto the breach”. The film version of the play was released that same year, dedicated to the “commando and airborne troops of Great Britain”. In the popular mind, these Englishmen and their North American descendants were part of the continuity of a European story that went back to the medieval English empire in France.

Some of those liberating Europe thought that they could not simply return to “business as usual” after the war. One of them was the later Conservative prime minister Ted Heath, the man who took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. He first defended Liverpool as an anti-aircraft gunner and then took the fight to Hitler as an artillery man during the campaign in north-west Europe. Over the course of the next 11 months, Heath and his comrades fought their way across the traditional battlefields of northern France and the Low Countries, including the Walcheren swamps in which their ancestors had been mired in Napoleonic times; and through western Germany into the centre of the Reich. They were to stay there, at the heart of Europe, for some 60 years. They created a stable European order, based on Nato and what was to become the European Union, which remains with us to this day.

Now the Brexit stalwart Boris Johnson, my fellow historian, claims that it was all in vain. “The European Union,” he says, “is an attempt to do what Hitler wanted by different methods.” Worse still, the EU is a German plot, whose currency, the euro, was “intended by the Germans” to “destroy” Italian manufacturing and generally grind the faces of its unfortunate members. Johnson has also invoked the spirit of Churchill in support of his arguments. He has since doubled down on his remarks and has received support from other members of the Brexit camp, such as Iain Duncan Smith, though not apparently from more informed figures such as Michael Gove. Unfortunately, Johnson’s claims are as historically wrong as it is possible to be, comparable in their crassness only to his predecessor as London mayor Ken Livingstone’s suggestion that Hitler supported Zionism.

Far from supporting European political unity, Hitler was violently and explicitly opposed to the idea. This was partly because it was proposed by his opponents on the “left” of the Nazi Party, such as the Strasser brothers. They belonged to the “anti-imperialist” wing of the Nazi Party, which wanted a pan-European front against the Jews and the British empire. Hitler’s hostility to the European project was also in part due to a racial antipathy to the half-Japanese Richard, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, the author of the widely discussed book Pan-Europa (1923). One way or the other, Hitler condemned the Pan-Europa movement as “a fantastical, historically impossible childishness”, which would be no more than a “Jewish protectorate”.

Nor did he hold back with his alternative view of what the continent should look like. “The solution,” he wrote, “cannot be Pan-Europa, but rather a Europe of free and independent national states, whose spheres of interest are separate and clearly delineated.” Comparisons involving Hitler are usually odious but if one is going to draw parallels, his view of European integration then was much closer to that of the Brexiters today than that of the advocates of the European Union.

Moreover, the European project did not originate in the Nazis’ attempt to mobilise the continent on their behalf but rather in the resistance movement against Hitler. Take Sicco Mansholt, who hid Dutch resisters on his farm during the war, at great personal risk. He subsequently became the Dutch minister for agriculture and one of the fathers of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Take Altiero Spinelli, the Italian anti-fascist who spent ten years in Mussolini’s prisons. It was there, in June 1941, at the height of Hitler’s power, that he secretly wrote his draft manifesto For a Free and United Europe.

Take Paul-Henri Spaak, later prime minister of Belgium, first president of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of the EU – and secretary-general of Nato. He was forced to make a daring escape from wartime Europe in the false bottom of a lorry in order to carry on the struggle against Hitler in exile. Indeed, across Europe there were thousands of men and women who fought, died, were imprisoned or tortured because they believed in a free and united Europe. To suggest that they were trying to achieve the same thing as Hitler by different methods is an outrageous slur on their memory. If Johnson ever makes it to the top of the Conservative Party, and thence to No 10, he will have a lot of explaining and apologising to do in Europe.

***

As if all this were not bad enough, Boris Johnson’s invocation of Churchill flies in the face of everything we know of the great man’s attitude to the European project. To be sure, he began as a Eurosceptic. When army reforms were proposed in 1901 to support the creation of a substantial land force on the continent, the young Winston Churchill was one of the few MPs to oppose them on the grounds that the navy, rather than the army, was of crucial importance to British security. Writing in the Morning Post, Churchill argued that “history” and “geography” showed that the British empire was “essentially commercial and marine”, and had been defended by armies of foreigners.

As the German threat loomed large, however, he changed his mind. Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, told the Australians and New Zealanders in April 1913 that Europe was “where the weather came from”. It was the terrible storm of the First World War that caused Churchill not only to believe in the centrality of Europe but in the need for European – or at least continental European – unity.

In May 1930, the president of the Pan-Europa Union, the former French prime minister Aristide Briand, made a formal proposal for a “European federal union” based on a “European conference” with an executive to co-ordinate economic and military co-operation. The British government of the time rejected the surrender of sovereignty involved but many were sympathetic to the idea of continental European union under liberal auspices. The arch-imperialist Leo Amery, secretary of state for the colonies and later a powerful critic of appeasement, was a strong admirer of Coudenhove and his projects, which he regarded as the extension of Anglo-Saxon principles to the continent.

Likewise, Churchill, then chancellor of the Exchequer, told parliament in June 1925 that he hoped that one could “weave Gaul and Teuton so closely together economically, socially and morally as to prevent the occasion of new quarrels and make old antagonisms die in the realisation of mutual prosperity and interdependence”. Then, he continued, “Europe could rise again”. Churchill did not believe, however, that Britain should be part of any continental political union. “We are with Europe, but not of it,” he wrote in 1930. “We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”

In mid-June 1940, however, as western Europe buckled under the Nazi onslaught, Churchill went a step further. He made an unsuccessful offer of union with France – involving joint citizenship and a common government – designed to lock the French into the war effort against Germany or, failing that, to secure their fleet. The Nazi threat was so existential, in other words, that it justified the surrender, or at least the pooling, of British sovereignty.

When the threat of invasion passed, Churchill returned to the theme of continental European integration. In October 1942, he “look[ed] forward to a United States of Europe in which barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised. He “hope[d] to see the economy of Europe studied as a whole”, and the establishment of a council of “ten units, including the former Great Powers [and thus presumably Britain], with several confederations – Scandinavian, Danubian, Balkan, etc, which would possess an international police and be charged with keeping Prussia disarmed”.

Churchill returned to the subject immediately after the war, as the Soviet threat menaced Europe. In a speech at Zurich University in September 1946, he urged the continent to “unite”, with Britain supporting the project from the outside. Once again, including the Germans was central to his conception. Churchill urged no less than the full political union of the continent in a “kind of United States of Europe” under the “principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter”. He again praised the work of Hitler’s bugbear, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi’s “Pan-European Union”.

Churchill demanded an “act of faith”, beginning with “a partnership between France and Germany”, assembling around them the states of Europe “who will and . . . can” join such a union. Its purpose was clear, namely “to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause.”

Moreover, Churchill argued, “The ancient states and principalities of Germany, freely joined together for mutual convenience in a federal system, might each take their individual place among the United States of Europe.” In short, the new polity was designed to solve not merely the European question but the German problem, the two being one and the same. Once again, Churchill conceived of this United States of Europe alongside but not including the United Kingdom and the British “Commonwealth of Nations”, that is, the empire. Instead, he believed that Britain should be one of the “sponsors of the new Europe”.

Churchill’s attitude to continental European union was, unlike Hitler’s, highly positive. For Johnson to suggest, therefore, that he is donning the mantle of Churchill to prevent the current European Union from achieving Hitler’s aims through other means is a complete travesty of the historical truth.

Far from being intended to promote German power, the European Union was designed to contain it, or at least to channel it in the right direction. Contrary to what Johnson suggests, the euro was not planned by Germany to subjugate Italian industry or any other European economy. It was insisted on by the French to decommission the deutschmark, which they described as Germany’s “nuclear weapon”. Likewise, the Germans are not incarcerating the Greeks in their European prison: Greeks are desperate not to be released back into the “freedom” of the drachma and the corrupt national politics that they joined “Europe” to escape. If there is one thing worse than being dominated by Germany in the European Union, evidently, it is not being in the EU at all.

Boris Johnson may not have known the details of Hitler’s attitude to European integration, or the European sympathies of many resisters, but he is very well informed about Churchill and Europe. His ignorance is thus not just a matter of making mistakes; we all make those as historians. Nor is it simply a matter of these mistakes being, like bank errors, in favour of one’s own argument. To say that Johnson knows better is not a figure of speech: he has shown in print that he does. His recent book, The Churchill Factor, contains a very balanced account of Churchill’s position on Europe, including most of the statements listed above.

In making his arguments, Johnson is not appealing to the baser instincts of the electorate; it is far worse than that. The deeply ingrained British instinct to fight European tyranny is not base but fine. What Johnson and those who defend his rhetoric have done is to take something virtuous and pervert it. The European Union is not, as we have seen, the continuation of Hitlerism by other means and to suggest so is blatant manipulation.

The shame of it is that there is a perfectly plausible Eurosceptic argument on its own merits. It was well stated by Michael Gove at the start of the campaign. It insists on the historical distinctiveness of the United Kingdom, whose history does indeed set it apart from the rest of the continent. It makes the case for a reform of the EU. It rejects the scaremongering of “Project Fear”, on the cogent grounds that the United Kingdom has the political, economic and military weight to prevail even without the stabilisers of the EU. It scorns President Obama’s impertinent warning that Britain would have to “get to the back of the queue” for a trade deal after Brexit, with a reminder that Britain and her empire defied Nazi Germany for two years before the Americans joined the fray, when Hitler declared war on them (not vice versa). One does not have to accept every detail of this discourse to feel its force. Uniquely among the democratic European powers, the United Kingdom can “stand alone” if it must or wants to.

The Achilles heel of the Brexit campaign, however, is that it has no viable vision for continental Europe. Even Gove falls down here, as his idea of a British departure unleashing a “democratic liberation” of the continent is pure fantasy. It seems odd to have to explain this to Brexiters but Britain really is special. Casting off the bonds of Brussels will not emancipate mainland Europe but let loose the nationalist and xenophobic demons tamed by the integration project. This is clear when we look at the rise of radical anti-European parties in France, Hungary, Austria, Germany and many other parts of Europe as the European project fragments. These developments should not surprise anyone who knows the history of mainland Europe before the mid-20th century and to a considerable sense beyond.

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Most of continental Europe had failed before 1945 and even now the European Union is only failing better. Unlike virtually every other European state, which has at some point or other been occupied and dismembered, often repeatedly, England and the United Kingdom have largely – with very brief exceptions – been subjects of European politics, never merely objects. In this sense, too, she is exceptional. Yet this should not be an occasion for British triumphalism. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on 23 June, the European Union is not an enemy of the United Kingdom. It should best be understood as a modern version of the old Holy Roman Empire; hapless and officious, perhaps, but not malign. It needs help. The failure of the European project and the collapse of the current continental order would be not only a catastrophic blow to the populations on the far side of the Channel but also to the United Kingdom, which would be
directly exposed to the resulting disorder, as it always has been.

In short, the Brexit camp in general and Boris Johnson in particular are missing a great opportunity in Europe. A student and partisan of Winston Churchill, the former mayor of London was qualified to articulate a constructive vision for Britain and the continent. He has failed to understand that the only safe way that Britain can exit from the European Union is not through Brexit – whose consequences for mainland Europe would be dire – but through Euroexit; that is, a Churchillian political union of the continent in close co-operation with the UK.

Instead, in addition to their distortion of the historical record, Johnson and the Brexit camp are committing the cardinal sin of making a decision before they need to. The European Union is not, sadly, a United States of Europe, even though it needs to become one to survive, and is becoming less like one every day. If and when it musters the strength for full political union, there will be plenty of time to leave. Meanwhile, the EU needs all the support that Britain can give it from within.

In 1940, the British forces had been defeated and retreat was the only option. The situation could not be more different today. This is no time to head for the beaches in what will be a legislative Dunkirk of epic proportions, with incalculable consequences not so much for Britain as for the rest of the continent. Unlike in 1940, the United Kingdom is not being forced out of Europe. It has hardly begun to fight there, unless shooting oneself in the foot through Brexit counts as combat. The battle in Britain today is a distraction from the great struggle on the mainland. There is much work to be done in Europe. It is time the British stop tearing themselves apart and return unto the breach once more.

Brendan Simms is a NS contributing writer. His latest book is “Britain’s Europe: a Thousand Years of Conflict and Co-operation” (Allen Lane). He is president of the Project for Democratic Union

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster