Dan Murrell
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The super-recognisers of Scotland Yard

How an elite police unit is catching some of London’s most prolific criminals.

A successful thief sets his own rules and the best ones live by them. These were some of Jimmy McNulty’s: target luxury stores only, dress as smartly as the wealthiest customer, engage and charm the salespeople if approached. Never rush, never panic, and always trust in your powers of sleight of hand.

Here he is at 12.59pm on 28 September 2013, ringing the bell of the Leica Store in Mayfair, where cameras sell for thousands of pounds. He is 40 years old, with short, dark hair and of athletic build – McNulty is the name given to him by a Metropolitan Police detective who saw a resemblance to Dominic West’s character in the television series The Wire. He wears a pink dress shirt, a dark cardigan and jacket, smart shoes. Under his arm is a wad of papers. McNulty picks up a camera, and then a pair of binoculars, carefully appraising them. Two store assistants stand a few metres away. When they turn their backs, he slips the camera inside his jacket. He asks to be let out and casually strolls away.

This is McNulty again at 4.39pm on 18 October 2014, sitting at a table in Buy Fine Diamonds, a retailer in Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery district. A salesman lays out a selection of bracelets. McNulty uses a jeweller’s loupe to examine several items. When the salesman stands up to retrieve a piece from a window display, McNulty strikes, pincering a bracelet and dropping it into his pocket. The salesman returns and from under his nose McNulty lifts another bracelet into his palm and closes his fist.

Now here he is at 6.27pm on 13 May 2015 at the Hackett clothing store on Regent Street, Piccadilly. After slipping a few leather accessories into his sleeveless jacket, McNulty picks up a pair of shoes from a display, walks to an empty sales counter and stuffs them down the front of his trousers.

That was his favourite place to hide stolen goods: merino wool jumpers, cashmere scarves, fancy shirts and wallets disappeared below his belt. He hit Salvatore Ferragamo on Sloane Street, Smythson on New Bond Street, Aquascutum on the Brompton Road, Alfred Dunhill on Jermyn Street, Ede & Ravenscroft – the oldest tailor in London – on Chancery Lane. Boutiques in Islington, galleries on the Portobello Road, the Space NK and Jo Malone cosmetics shops. At Linda Farrow, an eyewear shop in Mayfair, he slipped a pair of sunglasses into his jacket and then, as if it were a game, asked the assistant for a business card.

McNulty had a rule for closed-circuit ­television cameras, too: ignore them. More than 400,000 CCTV cameras watch over London and most upmarket shops have them. But McNulty knew they were used mostly as deterrents. Even if the footage was sent to the police, at best he’d be fingered for a single crime, he thought. Unless, of course, they recognised him as a serial ­offender and found out his real name. What were the chances of that?

***

Since the 19th century, doctors have known that some patients who suffer brain trauma lose the ability to recognise faces, a condition known as acquired prosopagnosia (from the Greek prosopon, “face”, and agnosia, “not knowing”). In the 1970s scientists discovered that a congenital form of the disorder affects a much wider segment of the population – ordinary functioning people who have never experienced head injuries and have perfect vision.

Studies suggest that two out of every 100  people have developmental prosopagnosia, meaning they have great difficulty recognising faces, sometimes even their own in the mirror. To identify someone familiar, a face-blind person relies on clues such as voice, gait, posture or unusual facial characteristics.

Among the best-known prosopagnosics was the late doctor and author Oliver Sacks, who became aware of his bewildering predicament as a schoolboy in London. He learned to pick out his best friends, Eric Korn and Jonathan Miller, by their ­specific features. “Eric had heavy eyebrows and thick spectacles, and Jonathan was tall and gangly, with a mop of red hair,” Sacks wrote in the New Yorker. When he looked at old photographs a decade after leaving school, Sacks could not identify a single classmate. Stephen Fry and Jane Goodall are other well-known sufferers of the disorder, which is associated with lesions in a part of the brain known as the fusiform gyrus.

In 2009 a trio of researchers led by Richard Russell published the results of their study, which aimed to determine if there was a third group of people when it came to face recognition, whose problem (or rather talent) was that they struggled to forget a face. Russell, a psychologist who was then based at Harvard, tested four people claiming to have superior face recognition abilities, including a 26-year-old female student who told him: “It doesn’t matter how many years pass. If I’ve seen your face before, I will be able to recall it.” Russell set his subjects and a larger control group two tasks, involving famous faces and unfamiliar faces. In both, the test group performed “far above average”, leading Russell to coin the term “super-recognisers”. “In both face recognition and face perception, the super-recognisers are about as good as many dev­elopmental prosopagnosics are bad,” he and his colleagues wrote.

Around the same time, Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville of the London Metropolitan Police was reaching his own conclusions about people with an exceptional ability to recognise faces. In 2007, Neville had set up a unit to collate and circulate images of unidentified criminals captured on CCTV. Officers were asked to check the Met’s “Caught on Camera” notices to see if they knew any of the suspects. “It became apparent that some officers were much better than others,” Neville told me. “For example, if I received 100 names, some officers would have submitted ten or 15, while in the main they were one-off identifications.”

At first, Neville assumed that the prolific officers simply knew more criminals than the rest. Then he realised that it had more to do with their ability to remember faces: the best identifiers could spot a suspect they had never met merely after viewing a photograph of them.

In early 2011, he discussed his findings at a conference attended by Josh Davis, a psychologist at the University of Greenwich. For his PhD, Davis had studied the use of CCTV identification in court proceedings. “Most of my research had shown that people were not very good at face-matching,” Davis told me one recent morning when we met at a cafeteria on campus. “So I was suspicious of the police claims.”

He agreed to test the facial recognition skills of 20 officers who excelled at Caught on Camera identifications. To Davis’s surprise, most of them scored much better than the norm, and a few were exceptional.

That August, the London riots broke out. Met officers trawled through tens of thousands of hours of CCTV footage, ­identifying 609 suspects responsible for looting, arson and other criminal acts. One officer, PC Gary Collins, made 180 identifications, including that of one of the most high-profile suspects, who had thrown petrol bombs at police and set cars on fire. During the riots, the man covered his mouth and nose with a bandana and pulled a beanie low over his forehead. Collins recognised him as a criminal whom he had last seen several years earlier. The man was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.

Now convinced of the super-recogniser theory, Neville assembled a standby team of 150 officers who excelled at identification. Over the next few years, as McNulty was slipping jewels into his pockets and stuffing luxury shoes into his trousers, the officers were deployed in high-profile investigations, including the Hillsborough inquest and the Alice Gross murder.

Gross, a 14-year-old girl from west London, went missing as she walked along a canal towpath in August 2014. The Met operation to find her was the biggest since the London 7 July 2005 bombings. But it was only after ten of Neville’s super-recognisers were brought in to the investigation that her body was discovered in the River Brent.

The team zeroed in on one of the suspects, a Latvian construction worker called Arnis Zalkalns, whose wife had reported him missing a few days after Gross disappeared. A CCTV clip showed Zalkalns cycling along the canal 12 minutes behind Gross. In footage from an off-licence later in the day, the officers recognised Zalkalns, who was buying a few Carlsbergs, and council cameras captured him cycling back to a particular spot on the River Brent at dusk. At his next sighting in a shop, later in the evening, he was wearing fresh clothes. The super-recognisers suspected that Zalkalns had changed because he had been back to the crime scene. They informed the officer in charge, who ordered a fresh search of the stretch of river­bank where they had seen Zalkalns – and Gross’s carefully concealed body was found.

***

On May 2015, the Super-Recogniser Unit was established at New Scotland Yard, the first – and still the only – dedicated team of its kind in the world. Initially it comprised four officers whose skills had been tested by Josh Davis and who were seconded from elsewhere in the force. (The unit now has six men and one woman.)

Detective Sergeant Eliot Porritt, who had worked on the Alice Gross murder, was the most senior recruit. A 36-year-old former plain-clothes officer from north London, Porritt had been largely unaware of his superior face recognition skills until a few years ago. “As a boy, I watched The Terminator and Aliens with my father, who worked for Billboard and Hollywood Reporter magazines. I now remember him being amazed when I noticed that an actor – Bill Paxton – was in both films, even though he looked different in each role,” Porritt told me. “But I didn’t think too much of it at the time. I assumed everybody saw what I saw.”

The main function of the super-recogniser officers was to attend large events, such as music concerts and the Notting Hill Carnival, and spot criminals there. In their downtime, they were tasked with trawling through the Met’s forensic image database, which holds more than 100,000 stills of unidentified suspects captured on CCTV camera or on mobile phones in London since 2011. Each picture is linked to an unsolved crime – in essence, a cold case – and is tagged with the date, location and type of offence, along with the suspect’s distinguishing features, such as race and hairstyle.

As they scrolled through the images, the officers first checked whether they recognised anyone from their time on the streets or previous Caught on Camera appeals. The next challenge was to link suspects involved in multiple crimes, using their powers of recall and recognition to match images – a process they called “snapping”.

“Basically we’re saying, ‘This guy and that guy in those two pictures are the same person – snap!’” Porritt told me when I visited the Super-Recogniser Unit one after­noon. “And you’ve got two strands to it: the people we already know and who we try to link with as many crimes as possible; and people who we don’t know but who we still link and then try to identify.”

It was difficult, painstaking work: the images were often grainy, the lighting poor and camera angles awkward. Furthermore, a criminal’s appearance could change over time. But if snapping led to an arrest it would be worth it: a person charged with multiple crimes was likely to be sent to prison rather than receiving a suspended sentence and being left free to reoffend.

In early August 2015 one of Porritt’s junior colleagues (who asked for his name to be withheld) was looking at CCTV images from the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where he had worked as a beat cop. The officer noticed the same, smartly dressed thief – the man the team later nicknamed McNulty – in two stills taken in upmarket shops. Snap. Then another, and another – snap, snap. As he broadened his search to other affluent boroughs of London, the officer kept seeing the same face. He printed out the images of the serial shoplifter and tacked them to a wall in the office. He told me: “When I had 13 or 14 crimes, I said to Eliot, ‘There’s £35,000 worth of goods stolen by this guy. We need to do something.’”

They downloaded the CCTV clips from where the stills had been taken. McNulty’s hands were so fast that in some cases the officers had to slow the footage down to ascertain exactly when the theft had occurred.

“I hate using the words ‘talented’ or ‘good’ for a criminal, when they could be so many better things, like a street magician or a dextrous watchmaker,” said Porritt. “But when we watched him [McNulty], it was like: ‘That’s good.’”

Porritt sent out a media appeal and the London Evening Standard published a story about the “sleight-of-hand thief”. Through tip-offs, the police learned that the man’s first name was Austin. Porritt’s colleague keyed the name in to the Met’s custody image database, which stores mugshots of everyone arrested in the capital. There were 73 Austins. Number 14 looked familiar. “I think I’ve got him!” the officer shouted.

Jimmy McNulty was Austin Caballero, a born-and-bred Londoner. He was on the arrests database because he had been caught stealing an expensive rug in January 2015, but the police, unaware of his other crimes, had freed him on bail. He skipped his court hearing. There was a bail address but when Porritt and his colleague knocked on the door, there was no sign of the thief. Caballero was on the run.

By then, it was clear that the task of searching the database should be the primary focus of the Super-Recogniser Unit, not just something to do in quiet times. The team had identified, apprehended and charged dozens of suspects, from shoplifters to commercial burglars and perpetrators of assaults. (Three in every four of the unit’s completed cases have resulted in a suspect being charged in court – against fewer than one in five cases in the wider Met force.)

The super-recognisers had also assisted other units struggling to close cases. Police in north London had obtained CCTV images of a man accused of sexually assaulting women on buses but were unable to identify him. Porritt and his colleague Alison Young used Oyster card data to map out the suspect’s travel patterns and noticed that he often began his journey at Camden Road Overground station. One afternoon, they went there to make inquiries. While on the concourse, Young, by chance, spotted the suspect – whom she had only seen in CCTV stills – passing through. “Oh, my God, Porritt, that’s him,” she exclaimed. They ran ­after the man and slapped on handcuffs. (The sexual offender pleaded guilty in court and was convicted.)

By the end of 2015, the team had much to celebrate. Yet there was frustration, too: the unit’s most high-profile target was still at large. The tally of offences linked to Caballero, rising by the week, stood at 42.

***

At 2am on New Year’s Day, Caballero ordered a taxi. He was out of cigarettes and did not feel like walking to the shop. On the way home, he tried to jump out of the cab to avoid paying the £5 fare. When the driver locked the doors, Caballero hit him with his shoe. The driver called the police, who arrested Caballero and took him to Holborn Police Station. “New Year’s Day is the worst shift you can possibly work,” Porritt said. “Holborn was absolutely manic, with prisoners all over the place, chaos.”

Caballero gave his name as Jack Donaghy and claimed never to have been arrested before. He was charged for the assault and bailed. One of London’s most wanted men in terms of numbers of crimes – involving stolen goods worth more than £100,000 – was about to walk free.

Just before he could do so, the custody sergeant noticed the red hand that appears on the police computer screen when the person booked has not been fingerprinted. Caballero tried one last ruse, saying that he had to rush home to be with his children. It failed. When his prints were scanned, his real identity was revealed.

At 10am that morning the super-recog­niser team was notified. Porritt drove straight to New Scotland Yard to write up the case summary for the police lawyer. “It was longer than my dissertation at university!” he told me. Meanwhile, in the interview room at Holborn Police Station, his super-recogniser colleague James Rabbett showed the suspect the poster that the unit had made using CCTV images of his crimes. “Caballero was gobsmacked,” Rabbett told me. “He then got a bit arsey, saying, ‘I’m not speaking to you until I’ve had a cigarette, I’m getting out of here, you can’t do this to me.’ And then it was: ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be a full hands-up. Let’s get it done.’”

When formal questioning started, Caballero gave his name and date of birth, then smiled, put his head on the desk, and refused to talk. Based on Porritt’s evidence, the police lawyer agreed that Caballero should be charged with 42 crimes.

Word of the Super-Recogniser Unit’s success was spreading. In January, Porritt flew to Cologne to advise German police investigating the mass sexual assaults that had occurred in the city on New Year’s Eve. Enforcement agencies as far afield as India, Australia and the United States – as well as other parts of the UK – visited the unit or ­requested information on its methods.

One of the most common questions asked of the team is whether computers will put the super-recognisers out of a job. After all, some countries, including the UK, already use facial recognition technology at passport control. Porritt’s unit has its own software but this has been responsible for only one of the 2,010 identifications made since May 2015. DCI Mick Neville reckons that it will be ten to 20 years before software is advanced enough to be a useful tool, and even then super-recognisers will still be needed to analyse the results and identify the suspects.

Josh Davis, the University of Greenwich lecturer, agrees. “Algorithms will get better and we will be able to build 3D representations of faces. But people change appearance and we as humans are primed to see through those changes.”

Meanwhile, studies into the science ­behind super-recognition continue. Anna Bobak, a research fellow of the Centre for Face Processing Disorders at Bournemouth University, said that the exceptional ability to identify faces has a strong genetic component and that efforts to train people to be better recognisers had yielded mixed results.

In her experiments, Bobak found that whereas most people concentrate on a person’s eye region when looking at them, super-recognisers often focus on the centre of the face, around the nose. “That’s not to say that the nose is important, but more that people can perceive the whole face better,” Bobak told me.

***

On 1 April, Austin Caballero appeared at Blackfriars Crown Court and pleaded guilty to 42 charges. He was convicted and sentenced to three years and nine months in prison. Weeks later, his name still featured in the whiteboard list of “top ten serial offenders” in room 901 at Scotland Yard – and the number of his crimes was rising. For even though Caballero was now behind bars, his old thefts, caught on camera, were still being solved. 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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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