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Old wound, same pain

The conquest of the Wild West left North America’s first inhabitants scattered, diseased and broken.

The past is not well buried at Wounded Knee. The bodies themselves are long gone, and little more than a sheet-metal sign covered in scrawled, bleached-out graffiti commemorates the events of a bitter winter’s day in 1890. But for the Oglala Sioux, who inhabit the squalid trailers and drafty bungalows scattered across the grassland around the battle site, old memories are preserved in the people’s present-day suffering.

It is nearly 119 years since the Hotchkiss guns of the US 7th Cavalry massacred hundreds of their ancestors, ending the Indian Wars and leaving Chief Big Foot sprawled dead in the South Dakota snow, and with him the dream of native resistance to the white man’s westward expansion. Yet today on Pine Ridge, the tribe’s reservation close to the state line with Nebraska, life expectancy is still the lowest in the United States: the men of the Sioux live on average only to the age of 56.

The story of how the native inhabitants of North America have fared since the arrival of the first European settlers is a sad one. Their numbers depleted by foreign diseases to which they had scant resistance, they were cheated and defrauded out of their lands, and then stereotyped as tomahawk-wielding savages by Hollywood. Recently, however, much has changed; while some tribes such as the Oglala Sioux remain in desperate straits, others have begun to find new ways to make livelihoods for themselves in a modern world. And in this pivotal year for race relations in the US – with a black man in the Oval Office for the first time – it seems timely to investigate where the continent’s first oppressed people find themselves today. What does it mean to be a Native American in the age of Obama?

Fittingly, my first encounter with Native American culture was in Washington, DC in January, during the heady few days around the presidential inauguration, the city packed to the gills, the grass on the National Mall trampled and chunky Humvees crowding the street corners. I was there to speak with members of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the body that represents native interests to DC lawmakers and Capitol Hill politicos.

My arrival coincided with a tribal leaders’ meeting in Crystal City, a suburb across the Potomac River in northern Virginia. There, the Hyatt hotel was packed with delegates: downstairs in a subterranean chamber were dancers in magnificent feathered headdresses; upstairs in the conference chamber, the talk was of the new administration and the president’s promise of help to Native American communities through the economic stimulus package, a fund that would eventually amount to more than $2bn.

Yet when I spoke to Jacqueline Johnson Pata, a Tlinglit Native American from Alaska and chairwoman of the NCAI, she explained that, for some native communities today, the most important economic support is not through handouts from Washington, but in fact the money generated by these communities’ own casino operations. US law treats Native American tribes as sovereign entities, in a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government, and since the 1970s various tribes have exploited this status to run gaming operations that remain outside direct state control.

“Casinos build schools, build bridges,” Johnson Pata said. “Gaming has been the one economic opportunity that’s actually benefited . . . Gaming has made some tribes have some revenues that have helped them build their communities, send their kids to school, provided college, diversification for other businesses.”

Just how much money some tribes have made from gaming became apparent months later when, at the newly opened New York Yankees baseball stadium in the South Bronx, Mitchell Cypress, chairman of the Seminole tribe in Florida, smashed a Fender guitar to open the ballpark’s outpost of the Hard Rock Cafe. The Seminole, flush with gaming wealth, bought the entire Hard Rock chain for $965m in 2006, in the largest ever purchase of a corporation by an indigenous people.

But even in January, it was clear that gaming was key to understanding the contemporary Native American experience and both ends of the wealth spectrum it had created. The apparatchiks in DC had insisted that while a few tribes had been able to make substantial profits from their casinos, many others, despite having gaming operations, were still mired in poverty.

A few weeks later, I made my way to south-eastern Connecticut and the reservation of the Mashantucket Pequots, a tribe massacred by European settlers in 1637, now owners of the largest casino in North America. Their operation, Foxwoods, began life as a bingo hall in 1986; a cash injection from a Chinese-Malaysian businessman, Lim Goh Tong, underwrote a huge programme of expansion. Today it boasts 340,000 square feet of gaming areas, 7,200 slot machines and six separate casinos. The vast concrete-and-mirrored-glass complex towers above the treetops, amid concentric rings of parking lots and hotels.

Yet when I spoke to Michael Thomas, chairman of the Pequots, he explained that the crucial factor that allowed his tribe to profit from gaming in such a spectacular fashion was its location, close to major population centres. “We have 26 million people within two and a half hours’ drive of the reservation,” he said, agreeing that the spoils of Native American gaming were not equally distributed across the United States. “For a select number of tribes, like mine, that still reside in heavily populated areas, it has been an economic blessing. The vast majority of the tribes continue to be mired in poverty.”

In some respects, Foxwoods seems an extraordinary success story. With its themed restaurants and leisurewear-clad punters, it may be no Monte Carlo, but it is still a brash reversal of centuries of oppression. However, in other ways the Pequots also embody many of the controversies attached to this new form of native enterprise – in particular the vexed issue of tribal membership.

Although the gleaming museum that the tribe has built with casino revenue is full of dugout canoes and mannequins in traditional dress, the idea that the 870 current members represent an unsullied heritage is disputable. Like most Native American peoples, the Pequots were severely weakened by the white man’s diseases, to which they had little resistance. Yet their lineage is more fraught than most. By the 1970s and before the rise of gaming wealth, there were only two tribe members still living on the reservation. Others returned subsequently, but still today most of those who profit from Foxwoods are of only fractional native descent. And unlike some other tribes, the Pequots do not enforce a blood quantum – a minimum amount of Native American ancestry – as a requirement for membership. Instead, anyone who can prove lineal descent from two censuses, completed in 1900 and 1910, is eligible to join.

Lori Potter, a member who now works for the casino, argued that it was irrelevant to question the present Pequots’ ancestry. “We determine that it is not necessarily how much blood you have, but it’s your ties to the community and to the land, and to the culture and heritage here,” she said. “Just like Britain doesn’t use a blood quantum to define a Briton.” Potter herself, who moved back to the reservation in 1996, is one-eighth Native American.

Foxwoods provides an extraordinary insight into how some of the tribes have transformed their way of life, but the gilded trustafarians of the Mashantuckets are far from typical Native Americans. To travel to South Dakota and the Pine Ridge reservation of the Oglala Sioux, however, is to see how the other half lives. Located out on the vast prairies that dominate the state, it is the poorest tribal homeland in the country, and has become a byword for Native American social deprivation.

The contrast between Prairie Wind Casino, the Oglalas’ own venture into gaming, and Foxwoods back in Connecticut could not be more complete. Under a great sky squatted a low brick-and-steel building, an island far out in the endless grassland. In a parking lot smeared with windblown snow stood muscular pick-up trucks, bearing licence plates from neighbouring Nebraska and Wyoming as well as South Dakota. Inside the casino itself was a compact gaming floor where slot machines buzzed beneath a replica wigwam.

In a partitioned back office, I spoke to Pam Giago, a tribe member and the casino’s general manager. She explained how Prairie Wind laid on transportation to bring in customers to the remote casino. “We do busing from the various locations,” she said. “Sometimes we have buses that come in just for the day; other buses bring customers for night stay. We have slow days and we have good days.”

Nevertheless, it was clear, given the Oglalas’ isolated location, that a Foxwoods-style gaming operation was never going to be an option for them. Their casino provides 288 much-needed jobs for local people and, according to Theresa Two Bulls, the tribe’s chairwoman, contributed $125,000 per month to the community. On Pine Ridge, however, a reservation with a population of 40,000-plus and an area larger than the entire state of Connecticut, that is not nearly enough to lift the Sioux out of poverty.

Some poverty it is, too. Keen to see conditions on the reservation first-hand, I drove across the prairie to Wounded Knee, the old battleground synonymous with the Native American plight in the United States. There, a stone’s throw from the massacre site, I met Emerson Elk, one of the few remaining speakers of the Lakota language, whose 100 per cent native ancestry makes him a “full-blood” member of the Oglala Sioux. He lives with his wife and sons in a bungalow streaked with mould and surrounded by a bone yard of cannibalised cars and a van full of animal hides and pelts. Lifting a stone-bladed tomahawk axe from beneath the table, Elk explained how, in the 19th century, the US government reneged on its treaty obligations to the Sioux, confining them to a shrinking area as their ancestral lands were annexed for settlement by the white man. Elk, 52, was grimly matter-of-fact about the present conditions on the reservation, too.

“We, the people, are living in extreme poverty,” he said. “It’s very bleak here. It’s very hard being Lakota. We have government housing: [there’s] a cookie-cutter effect, all the houses are the same. The insulation, it’s not very good. It’s not doing its job in the wintertime. We can’t even have a wood stove in these houses. In 1890 our people were being exterminated, and that mentality is still here today. Under the US government we’re barely surviving. We have treaties that are not doing their obligations – to health, education and welfare. By the time the money trickles down to the Lakota people, it’s zero.”

That afternoon Elk, whose Lakota name Sai-Moto translates as “Bad Bear”, took me out to see the manner in which his tribe now lives. As he directed from the passenger seat, I drove up a rutted track of ice and mud to the mass grave where the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre were buried, and there he spoke to his ancestors in the clipped tones of the indigenous language. Then we traversed the reservation, passing battered trailer homes with no indoor sanitation; in some cases, their desperate inhabitants had stripped the aluminium coverings to sell, leaving their trailers naked and looking like husks.

Ninety miles from Wounded Knee, in the eastern part of Pine Ridge, we visited the hamlet of Wanblee, where I saw a tiny, four-bedroom bungalow awash with dark-eyed children. Twelve people call it home. Seeing the scant insulation and propane heating, I asked Elk just how cold it could get in a hard winter.“Sometimes you can saw a gallon of antifreeze in half,” he replied. “When the wind blows, it gets right through the wall.”

A vast divide exists at Pine Ridge between the full-blood members of the tribe and those with lesser native ancestry, who dominate the local administration and business community. In Wanblee, I spoke to Fred Sitting Up, a full-blood who had lost much of his vision to diabetes, which is endemic to the reservation.“The federal government allowed the Bureau of Indian Affairs to enrol anyone in our tribe,” claimed the 55-year-old. “They assumed more leadership roles. They get in by saying, ‘My great-great-great-grandmother was Indian.’ They want our land base. Right now they’re trying to dig for uranium. They’re all non-Indian. They’re not doing anything to protect our people, our land. Three-quarters of the reservation is owned by non-Indians. They don’t like us.”

Elk added: “When I die, I don’t want to see no half-breeds.” It was clear then that even though the Oglalas were a world away from the Mashantuckets (far from their casino’s money being sufficient to fund the education of the tribe’s children, some tribespeople claimed they received just $10 per child) they were still negotiating the same identity issues as their eastern counterparts.

My visit to South Dakota also helped to put my earlier experiences in Washington into perspective. Much had baffled me during Obama’s investiture, when I had attended the Native American inaugural ball at the Hyatt in Crystal City, and the ballroom shook late into that historic night. In particular, I was puzzled by the dress code of ornate feathered headdresses worn over jeans and tuxedos laced with beads. But after I’d witnessed the residents of Mashantucket and Pine Ridge thrashing out their identity politics at both ends of the Native American socio-economic spectrum, that sartorial melange seemed more appropriate.

I understood the real irony that underpinned the night of the ball. For the United States had just inaugurated its first black president, yet the system of tribal sovereignty that governs Native American affairs – and indeed underpins the gaming enterprises that have brought great wealth to some communities – remains a riff on the “separate but equal” doctrine of institutional inequality that the civil rights movement fought so hard to dismantle.

And so, on that frigid but joyful evening of the ball on the Potomac River, as Barack Obama was on his way to the White House, most of the revellers would be returning, sooner or later, to their American bantustans.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

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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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