The idea of a European superstate was born in Britain, but we've remained stubbornly on the margins ever since

This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair

Hugo Young <em>Macmillan, 558pp, £20

How many British people fail to yawn at the mention of Europe? Few topics of conversation are such a powerful bromide. Yet if nothing else has sedated the citizenry more thoroughly over the years, neither has anything been the subject of such incessant fascination to politicians. From time to time there have been other priorities - socialism, the cold war, and so forth. But the land mass mistily visible from the Kent coast has always come back to cause trouble. Hence the need for a work that ties together the dominant theme of recent British history - a need admirably met in this comprehensive, fast-moving and definitive account by Britain's most judicious commentator. It may not wake the incorrigible British public up, but for the politically fixated (not to mention the Euro-deranged) it is essential reading.

The picture Young paints incorporates a lot of the attributes that, alas, many foreigners see as the essence of our national character: ignorance, arrogance, short-termism, vacillation and, above all, ambivalence, ever spiced with xenophobia. Overwhelmingly, the author has a "sense of the Community as a place of British failure". It is hard to disagree.

Ambivalence began as aloofness. As with other brilliant ideas that ended up as the property of other nations (football, for instance), we can lay claim to Europeanism as at least in part a British invention. From the outset, however, our attitude was irritatingly patronising. Speaking in Zurich in 1946, Winston Churchill called for work to start immediately on the creation of a United States of Europe - but with one ingredient missing from the vision: the United Kingdom. It never seriously occurred to him, or to anyone else, that Britain - with its Empire, American special relationship, sturdy democracy, comparative economic strength, and great-power delusions - should be part of the scheme.

Young is too intelligent a historian to believe that a pan-western-European entity involving this country was conceivable at that time. Nevertheless his tone is wistful. What if Britain or Anglo-France (Churchill's fleeting 1940 proposal) had been the core of the USE, instead of Franco-Germany? The subsequent 50 years would have been unimaginably different. As it was, the British attitude became set: we were to be benignly with Europe, but not part of it.

By the time of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the British mood had shifted, but only marginally. There was an intense awareness of the rapid recovery of the war-damaged nations of Europe. But Britain had other fish to fry. The mindset that took British troops to the Suez Canal Zone in 1956 to defend a threadbare Empire was the same one that set itself against a dawning European reality.

The appointment of Harold Macmillan as prime minister came after the opportunity for first-wave entry had passed. A second-wave attempt was aborted by France. Young speculates about the little accident of history that brought General de Gaulle, who was contemptuous of the whole scheme, to power just too late to scupper the Treaty of Rome. Had he arrived a few months earlier, "Europe" might never have happened. As it was, the general's Euro-scorn was directed not at French, but at British, participation.

Yet, suggests Young, it was partly our own fault. If Churchill had set one pattern of ambivalence (a good idea, but not for us), Macmillan set another (yes please, if the terms are right). Though he was the first to see a British future within Europe, Macmillan was as incapable as anybody of abandoning the baggage that made the British request seem half-hearted. The talk was of New Zealand butter and the Commonwealth. Thus the General's "non", delivered in order to settle old scores, also exposed a British desire to have our cake and eat it. Politicians, says Young, peddled a contradiction: entry was presented as essential to the national interest, but "nothing whatever would change in the British way of life and government" as a result. One problem was a nervously defensive assumption of our own national superiority. It was in such a spirit that the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell spoke of the "end of a thousand years of history" if we joined.

Until the l960s, Europe was merely an important aspect of politics. Thereafter, it became the overriding one. The man required to negotiate the change from an east-of-Suez Britain to a European one was not Macmillan but Harold Wilson. Over a 15-year period he performed a triple somersault: from opposition to entry in the l960s, to a concerted bid to get in at the end of his first term, then to hostility to entry in the early 1970s, and finally to support for a "yes" vote in the referendum. Young rightly sees Wilson as inherently neither pro nor anti, but acknowledges the critically important role he played in bringing the ship safely to harbour.

There were two crucial episodes. The first was the superficially comical tour in 1969 by Wilson, accompanied by George Brown, around the European Six, conducted in the gloomily accurate expectation of another Gaullist "non". Although immediately unsuccessful, the tour "deposited in the realm of unarguable fact the public commitment of a Labour cabinet to British entry", preparing the ground for it as soon as the general was out of the way. The second was the "rubber raft" referendum in 1975, conceived as a device for keeping a fractious Labour Party afloat. It did the opposite, yet put a permanent seal of democratic approval on British membership. Thus, if Heath was technically the "father of European Britain", Wilson can be seen as the twinkly-eyed, reprobate uncle.

Getting in, though, was only the start. One of Young's main contentions is that successive governments have misled the public about the scale of the change and as a result have given ammunition to outright opponents. "Ministers," he suggests, "avoided telling the full truth." Yet it is surely naive to expect politicians to admit to unpalatable facts unless it is required of them. Indeed, if British elections have never turned on the fundamentally important European issue, it is not for want of trying on the part of the political class.

Polls indicate that the electorate has tended to be evenly divided on Europe. But voting behaviour has barely ever been affected. Thus, in the early 1980s, the Social Democratic Party failed in its attempt to launch itself as a specifically pro-European party. Sixteen years later, Sir James ("I vomit on the government") Goldsmith put £20 million into an anti-Europe Referendum Party that barely obtained 3.1 per cent of the vote. The moral seems to be that Europe is a topic electors wish to delegate to their leaders.

Yet politicians - ever preoccupied with current politics rather than problems that have yet to arise - are fickle. In the l970s the Tories were pro, Labour anti. Today, it is the other way about. "The party [Roy] Jenkins left has become the party he would not have needed to leave," says Young. But for how long? As ever, the present government's decision to hold back on the euro has as much to do with a desire to maintain party cohesion as with economics. "My strategy is not, underline three times, to run as a Eurosceptic," Blair told Young before the election. Yet here we go again, waiting on the sidelines, half hoping the Continentals will make a hash of things.

Young concludes his thought-provoking study with a few deferential bows at our young premier and his Euro-shrewdness. But you do not have to be a phile or a fanatic to wonder whether - having long ago abandoned the option of Britain boldly going it alone - we might have done better to have helped launch an enterprise which we will end up, sooner or later, joining in any case.

Ben Pimlott is warden of Goldsmiths College and the author of a biography of Harold Wilson

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition