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Jim's lessons

If the Prime Minister is to survive, he has to crush the cabals and replace cabinet "goblins" with h

Commentators are today understandably drawing comparisons between Gordon Brown's current predicament and the experience of James Callaghan's government, especially with reference to the "Winter of Discontent" in 1978-79. Having served with Callaghan in No 10 as head of his policy unit (as I did previously under Harold Wilson), I agree that there are some parallels.

Between 1976 and 1979 we had, as now, a new nonconformist prime minister who was politically very experienced, a strong party man who was a former chancellor of the exchequer and had succeeded a brilliant, if controversial predecessor who had won several general elections. Callaghan, like Brown, inherited the tail end of a series of Labour governments, by which time the electorate and the media were getting tired of Labour and ready for a change. Also like Brown, he was handed the premiership by the party and ducked the much-touted opportunity of getting an electoral mandate from an early general election (which he might or might not have won). Scotland similarly presented difficulties for Cal laghan - and finally brought him down in a Commons defeat. Above all, again like Brown, he faced a daunting economic climate with an energy crisis, threatening inflation and foolishly rebellious trade unions.

However, I am also struck by the differences between then and now. The 1970s were, after all, a generation ago and it was a very different age, dismal in many ways.

The economic climate facing Jim Callaghan was far worse than anything that confronts Brown or the Chancellor, Alistair Darling (when the latter finds time to read the economic history of the 1970s and early 1980s he will want to revise his curious claim that today's is the worst economic situation for 60 years). Inflation peaked around 30 per cent just before Callaghan took over, and was usually in double figures. Most other economic indicators were worse than today's, with growth and productivity very poor over a long period and strikes continually disrupting industry. Not for nothing was Britain then known as "the sick man of Europe".

Politically, the challenges facing Callaghan were daunting. Labour was in a Commons minority throughout his premiership (he skilfully cobbled together small majorities through pacts with the Liberals and the Ulstermen). Labour itself was riven by deep ideological differences of a kind and on a scale unknown today, with the strong left wing consistently on the edge of rebellion and limiting the policy options available to the government. The unions and activists facing Brown at this month's conferences are mere pussies compared to the wild men fighting Callaghan.

The parliamentary opposition facing Calla ghan, led by the formidable Margaret Thatcher, was much more threatening than that operating today, which has few figures of stature and even fewer alternative policies on offer. They have nobody to compare with Thatcher, Michael Heseltine, Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson, Nicholas Ridley, Jim Prior and Keith Joseph. They have no policy programme comparable to Thatcher's liberating, if to some frightening, proposals for free markets, big tax cuts and reducing the monopoly power of our deeply unpopular trade unions.

Today the main opposition is the media, most of which have decided to try to destroy the Labour government and its prime minister, misrepresenting everything it attempts to do as foolish and a failure. The media are more powerful than in the 1970s. But the people will not be electing a cabinet of newspaper editors and Today programme egotists to run the country. A government can see off the media if it demonstrates that it is governing well.

Governing, not surviving

Yet, despite these daunting political and econo mic problems, Callaghan's government survived for three years. And it did more than just survive. For much of that time it governed impressively. Until the final shambles of the Winter of Discontent, when irresponsible trade union behaviour made Thatcher appear to many as the only way out of chaos, Callaghan's government won public approval. In the autumn of 1978 it was ahead of the Tories in the polls and won a key by-election. Callaghan ran well ahead of Thatcher and always dominated her in the Commons until those final months. Inflation was brought down into high single figures. Jim turned the 1976 IMF loan saga into a triumph of cabinet management. The first key steps were taken towards reforming our education system and bringing monetary policy under control.

Although we lost the 1979 election, the Tory lead was cut down from more than 20 per cent at the start of the campaign to 7 per cent on polling day and the defeat was by a modest 40-odd seats - not by the landslide that had appeared inevitable in the months before polling day (and which Charles Clarke fears now faces Labour).

Of course, we were defeated and the Tories were given 18 years of power blessed with North Sea oil. The Winter of Discontent was a gruesome experience for the country, a dreadful failure by the Labour government and by those trade unionists (not all) and the few marsh mallow ministers who inflicted the damage on their own movement and so gave Thatcher the opportunity to carry out her revolution and wreak revenge on the unions. Those 1976-79 years were not a time of proud Labour glory, but they contained many achievements against immense economic and political odds.

Politically, the main lessons were that a prime minister with national values, courage and leadership skills, working collegiately with a strong and loyal cabinet, keeping close to his parliamentary colleagues and remaining connected with the concerns of the public and party rank and file, can overcome most obstacles.

Callaghan had most of those values and skills. He trusted his cabinet colleagues (except perhaps Tony Benn, who behaved as if he was not part of the government, though Callaghan always showed him courtesy, which Benn commendably returned) and his cabinet colleagues trusted him. This collegiate atmosphere made for a relatively coherent government (given the doctrinal divisions) and presented to the nation from No 10 a sense of unity and purpose that is not always apparent today.

Callaghan did not usually - education was an understandable exception - interfere in the micro-details of departmental affairs. But he showed a close interest in his ministers' objectives, holding regular meetings with them individually in the No 10 study, discussing their policy programmes and always encouraging them. In the key Treasury area, he and my policy unit monitored economic policies closely and he held regular meetings with his admirable chancellor, Denis Healey. They had disagreements, but always in private. Callaghan, having expressed his views, then always backed his chancellor in cabinet and in public. His conduct of the 1976 IMF crisis, with seven tense cabinets in which he gave all sides every chance to argue their views and worked with his chancellor throughout, was a good example of how to conduct cabinet and was perhaps the last supreme example of British cabinet government before Thatcher and Tony Blair brought the institution into sad decline.

Gordon Brown (or any successor) could benefit from studying those events: Ken Morgan's biography of Callaghan and my recently published Downing Street Diary of the Callaghan years might be a helpful start. He would see that, even in an age of so-called presidential government, having a strong cabinet is a great asset. Certainly it is hard to be a strong and successful prime minister with a weak cabinet. Callaghan's cabinet - with Healey, John Smith, Merlyn Rees, Roy Hattersley, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers, Benn, David Owen and Harold Lever, to name but nine - was clearly stronger than Brown's today.

But it could have been even better and was not as impressive as Wilson's previous cabinet. Cal laghan sadly lost Tony Crosland due to death. He dropped Barbara Castle and did not discourage Roy Jenkins from leaving for Brussels (he almost encouraged him). The latter two were political heavyweights. I could understand Jim's personal feelings against Castle but he would have benefited from her experience and clout. Jenkins seemed semi-detached but he was a great loss and might have been persuaded to stay. When suffering the crunch of the Winter of Discontent Cal laghan might have been better placed with these giants beside him than with mediocrities such as David Ennals, John Silkin and Bruce Millan.

Brown could learn from that earlier experience. His own cabinet - with some commendable young exceptions - seems lightweight compared to Callaghan's and especially relative to the challenges that face it. Some of the biggest current Labour beasts are sadly (and, in my view, unnecessarily) outside the cabinet and if included would add weight and experience. John Reid, Charles Clarke, Alan Milburn and David Blunkett should, if they could be persuaded, be inside in senior positions.

Of course, they have had their problems with the Prime Minister in the past - and he with them. They may initially prefer the comfort of the back benches. The Prime Minister may personally like neither them, nor the way they have criticised him. But he should swallow his animosities and try to persuade them to join the team. Clarke will have offended some with his comments but he would add great weight to the cabinet and would be better occupied fighting the enemy from inside than trumpeting outside the castle walls. Certainly, such a cabinet of heavy hitters would outpunch David Cameron's team of Notting Hill Gate lightweights.

Once, in 1975, when Wilson had promoted a critic in a reshuffle, I protested, "Harold, have you seen what he has said about you?" He replied, "Bernard, that is not the point. My job is to construct the best possible Labour cabinet." That is Gordon Brown's job, too.

Journalists will sneer that these are "yesterday's men". So what? They are at least yesterday's big and experienced men. We need them for the next 18 months. Does anybody believe it would not be better to listen to one of them chewing up John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman in defence of our government than some of the goblins who now appear?

The Prime Minister might also note that mutual loyalty is a political asset in government. Callaghan backed his ministers and encouraged them to back one another. Admittedly, the left wing plotted over weekend dinners in Hampstead, but Michael Foot continued to preach loyalty. Callaghan discouraged cabals and would not have allowed his deputy whip to plot against his chief whip. He certainly did not encourage No 10 to brief the media against ministerial colleagues. Loyalty is a kind of political cement and is very useful in stormy weather. If the present prime minister has not always demonstrated loyalty in the past, that makes it harder for him to expect loyalty now. But he could learn from Callaghan, who was himself not always loyal to Wilson earlier on but told me that when he suffered prostate cancer in 1972 he swore to reform. Wilson returned the feelings, to the benefit of them both in the crises of 1974-76.

The days of cabals are over

All the above is about the conduct of the job of prime minister, especially the handling of people, where personality is very important and not easy to change. Being prime minister is a uniquely difficult job and it is impossible to know if somebody can do it until they try. Callaghan showed he could do the job in No 10 - better than he ran the exchequer. Gordon Brown has not so far completely managed that, but he is a highly intelligent and experienced professional politician with strong Labour values and, given time, might learn to become a successful prime minister. As a lifelong Labour man, I (of course) hope he can learn, but I cannot be certain that he will. What I know is that he does not have much time.

I am sure he could learn from Jim Callaghan how to handle policy. He needs to focus the government's policy programme in such a way that it gives Labour a fair chance of winning the next election. Callaghan did not dabble in a wide range of policies. He left that to ministers. He did not launch an endless flow of policy initiatives to catch the froth of morning media headlines, which the public ignores or soon forgets. He prioritised a few key areas that mattered to ordinary people: especially controlling prices, sustaining jobs and improving education. In the end he failed on inflation. But he made a good fist of achieving these priorities and they gave his government a policy coherence and a clear political identity and purpose. The public knew what Jim Callaghan and his government were about.

Brown has not yet conveyed (as he did successfully with "prudence" in his early days at the Treasury) a clear sense of purpose. Hence his government appears to lack coherence, purpose and identity. It will not be easy for him to correct that while the media are bent on diminishing and destroying him. But he must try - or else Charles Clarke's stark warnings will be fulfilled.

What should he do? The answer is not easy and anybody who is off the pitch, such as myself, should be wary of advising the present team how to play. But I believe some things can be done quickly. The Prime Minister might, for example, do three things.

First, he should strengthen his cabinet by persuading some big beasts back inside in senior positions - one of them at the Treasury. Labour needs him to try sincerely, and them to agree.

Second, he should overtly try to create trust within his government by giving genuinely full support to his chosen ministers and making it clear that the days of cabals are over (he might wish to acknowledge the past sins of his own entourage in this area and the so-called Blairites could do the same).

Third, and above all, he should abandon micro-tinkering with a wide range of policies and focus on two or three major policy areas where he means to make progress in ways that matter to the mass of ordinary people. He should realise that Labour's legislative programmes in recent years have contained little political potency. I have read the Queen's Speeches in dismay and wondered, "Where are the votes in this?" They are usually full of administrative management and politically correct claptrap. We need a few policy initiatives on a dramatic scale if we are to change the current public mood - which is that it has made up its mind and wants change (Cal laghan told me in 1979 that "there is a sea change in the public mood and it is for That cher"). If that is the case now, we must still try to change it.

My own suggestion would be to take four million of the lowest-paid workers out of the tax net by the time of the next election. That would have an impact on millions of people who are our natural supporters and would offer desirable redistribution of income.

Trimming the fat

How could the £20bn-plus that it would cost be paid? It could be found not by further borrowing, but by cuts in public expenditure, where there is plenty of fat. We could abolish all consultancy in Whitehall (a useless exercise of buck-passing currently costing many billions). Various bureaucratic extravagances, such as "regional development", could be abolished and others, such as "health and safety", seriously trimmed. They were created for symbolic reasons, are costly and often offer little to the public good. The bureaucracy in the NHS might benefit likewise. Abolishing future child benefit beyond the third child (I had four) would save more than £1bn in the next six years.

The Prime Minister should urgently conduct some cabinets to cut bloated expenditure by the required amount. Jim Callaghan did that in 1976-78 and the resulting savings of more than £6bn would, in today's money, produce much of the revenue required.

Concentrating on a few major issues need not mean ignoring particular reforms, provided they matter practically to ordinary citizens. Harold Wilson asked us in 1974 to produce a list of "little things that mean a lot" (and did not cost too much). We did (for example, free TV for the elderly and rescuing the pint measure from Brus sels). Similarly, we could look at the closing of post offices, our appalling rubbish collections and recent proposals to cap or balance net immigration - issues that matter to people of all parties. The central point is that the government must reconnect with the concerns of ordinary people.

Executing such an exercise would require strong leadership and a courageous approach from the top. It would offend some interests, though not the mass of the people. However, the danger is that, without strengthening the cabinet and introducing a few bold policies that have a major impact on the public mood, the government will drift towards electoral defeat. It may be that the public mood is too hostile to change, but at least the effort should be made.

Certainly, Gordon Brown does not, as Jim Cal laghan did, face outwardly a formidable opposition nor (yet) suicidal trade unions inside our tent. The next election is not yet lost for Labour. But it will need a change of leadership style, improved ministerial performance and more politically attractive policies if the public mood is to be shifted. Learning lessons from Callaghan might achieve that.

Lord Donoughue's "Downing Street Diary: Volume 2 - With James Callaghan in No 10" is published this month by Jonathan Cape (£30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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