Eurosceptics, Europhiles and the British Establishment

"The Official History of Britain and the European Community: Volume II – From Rejection to Referendum, 1963-75" and "Confessions of a Eurosceptic" reviewed.

Harold Wilson in 1974
Harold Wilson in 1974. Photograph: Getty Images

The Official History of Britain and the European Community: Volume II – From Rejection to Referendum, 1963-75
Stephen Wall
Routledge, 688pp, £70

Confessions of a Eurosceptic
David Heathcoat-Amory
Pen and Sword Books, 192pp, £19.99

“The member states of the [European Economic] Community, the driving force of European construction, affirm their intention to transform before the end of the present decade the whole complex of their relations into a European Union.” “The heads of state or of government reaffirm the determination of the member states . . . to achieve economic and monetary union.” These commitments were made not in 2012 but in 1972.

They were questioned not by the then British prime minister, Edward Heath, still flushed with the success of having negotiated entry, but his Danish counterpart, Anker Jørgensen, who said that he was not clear what “European Union” meant: “Was it a federation, a confederation or something else which they were trying to set up?” “Happily,” the British record of the discussion concludes, “he did not ask for a reply and President Pompidou lost no time in winding up the proceedings.”

As Stephen Wall shows in his magisterial book, the second volume of the official history of Britain’s relations with the European Community, it was during these early years that the fundamental principles of the European Union were agreed. The Single European Act of 1986 and the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 merely filled in the detailed framework. Neither Heath nor Harold Wilson, who had made an unsuccessful application to join in 1967, seems to have made the slightest objection to the idea of a common currency. Neither of them saw any alternative to a European orientation. Nor had their  predecessors at No 10 – Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home. The establishment was united in its pro-Europeanism.

Wall’s first theme, then, is the compelling force of the European ideal to the British Establishment. Yet, in the 1970s, the people were moving in the opposite direction – towards Euroscepticism. Wall’s second theme is that Euroscepticism was blunted by Wilson, his unlikely hero, who ensured that Britain remained in Europe.

After Labour’s defeat in the general election of 1970, Wilson found himself being outflanked by his shadow home secretary, James Cal - laghan, who appeared to be mounting a leadership challenge on a platform of anti-Europeanism. When President Georges Pompidou declared that French was the true language of Europe, Callaghan announced that this was an insult to the nation that had produced Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. “If,” he continued, “we are to prove our Europeanism by accepting that French is the dominant language in the Community, then the answer is quite clear and I will say it in French to prevent any misunderstanding: ‘Non, merci beaucoup.’” Anthony Cros land, too, moved in a Eurosceptic direction, as did Denis Healey, rapidly recanting a pro-EEC advertisement he had signed for the Daily Mirror just a few weeks earlier.

Roy Jenkins, for whom Europe was perhaps becoming more important than the cohesion of the Labour Party, told Wilson that if he kept the faith, Labour pro-Europeans would act as his praetorian guard and sustain him in the leadership. Wilson judged that their strength was insufficient. He was almost certainly right. Indeed, he was only able to prevent Labour from committing itself to a withdrawal from the EEC by threatening to resign his leadership.

Wilson persuaded Labour to adopt a compromise position – opposition to entry on “Tory terms”. He then united the party around the idea of the referendum, a referendum intended to ensure that Britain remained in the Community and that led to a two-to-one majority for Europe in 1975. That, he told his private secretary, Ken Stowe, once the result was known, was the outcome he had always expected: “And people say that I have no sense of strategy.”

David Heathcoat-Amory was Conservative MP for Wells from 1983 to 2010. He was, briefly, a member of the shadow cabinet but felt unable to continue following the tragic suicide of his son, Matthew, which is movingly described in his new book. In 2010, intervention by a Ukip candidate caused his defeat by a Liberal Democrat. Ironically, Ukip’s success led not only to the defeat of a leading Eurosceptic but to the balance of power at Westminster being held by the most pro-European of the major parties, the Liberal Democrats. Confessions of a Eurosceptic charts the journey of an honourable man “from acceptance of the EU to rejection of it”; it provides an insider’s view of the ructions in the Conservative Party and of the workings of the Convention on the Future of Europe, which produced the ill-fated European constitution of 2004.

In the 1990s, however, Heathcoat-Amory was a Eurosceptic equivalent of Jenkins. For him, too, Europe was more important than the cohesion of his party. Like his fellow Eurosceptics Michael Portillo and John Redwood and the Europhile Kenneth Clarke, he demanded that John Major get off the fence and declare a clear position on Europe. Had Major done so, the party would have been rent in twain. As it was, the Conservatives lived to fight another day.

The position of Wilson and of Major was unheroic. In 1972, Wilson told the shadow cabinet that while they had been indulging their consciences, it had been left to him “to wade through shit”. Yet Bernard Donoughue, head of Wilson’s Policy Unit after 1974, was surely right to say that while Heath had taken the British Establishment into Europe, it was Wilson who brought in the British people.

In his autobiography, Major declares that Arthur Balfour “had been bitterly criticised for not having a view on protection and free trade”. Balfour had said that the important thing was to preserve the unity of the Conservative Party. He had been abused for that. But who argues now about protection and free trade? When was the last time the conventional arguments were exchanged – 1923? Whereas the preservation of great national institutions had been the right policy. David Lloyd George might have been clear-cut on policy but he destroyed the Liberal Party. “The day may come,” Major concluded, “when a similar judgement is made on the single currency.”

Tony Benn once divided politicians into two types – weathervanes and signposts. Wilson and Major were weathervanes; Heath, Jenkins and Heathcoat-Amory were signposts. The signposts are more glamorous and history is generally kinder to them but perhaps the weathervanes are also needed – and sometimes more effective.

Whether or not one shares this judgement, there can be no disputing that From Rejection to Referendum is a formidable work of scholarship, firmly based on Wall’s deep knowledge and understanding of how foreign policy is made. He is a former Foreign Office official and was a private secretary to David Owen, Geoffrey Howe and Major, as well as EU adviser to Tony Blair. Although a committed European, he lays out the arguments fairly and objectively and the Eurosceptic will find as much to support his position as the Europhile.

From Rejection to Referendum charts the origins of the European controversy, which has arguably destroyed three Conservative prime ministers – Heath, Margaret Thatcher and Major – and may yet destroy another, David Cameron. For today, as in the 1970s, Britain’s future in Europe is in doubt. Indeed, the whole European enterprise is in flux. Yet the British establishment remains firmly attached to Europe, even though the people remain full of doubts. Can Labour once again perform Wilson’s conjuring trick by keeping Britain in the European Union while securing the allegiance of a Eurosceptic electorate?

Vernon Bogdanor is research professor at the Institute of Contemporary British History, King’s College London.