The Long and Twisting Path to Brexit

Romance and Courtship
Winston Churchill, in the years immediately following World War II, out of office but still hugely influential, sometimes then sounded like the herald of a ‘United States of Europe’, at least of its non-Communist components. But when he returned to power in the early 1950s, he never entered into any practical negotiations with the original six-member European Economic Community, and his successor, Anthony Eden, showed no enthusiasm for doing so.

However, when I was living in London in 1960-61, it looked as if Harold Macmillan’s Conservative Government was going to take the U. K. into the EEC. I was in favour, i nfluenced by persuasive arguments I was reading in the literate political monthly, Encounter. I was unimpressed by the opposing populist views (‘Empire Free Trade!’)regularly thundered by Max Beaverbrook and his minions in the Daily Express, which had over four million readers in those days. I was also little moved by hostile fulminations I heard from radical orators in Hyde Park.

As a mathematics student at Queen’s, I had not been very interested in politics of any kind, but Britain rapidly drew me in. I began, like many of my generation, with an illusory enthusiasm for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which I imagined as having far greater importance than the European economic question. I was unconvinced of the necessity of nuclear weapons for Britain or Canada, and I attended numerous CND rallies, listening attentively to Bertrand Russell. But I soon acquired doubts. ‘Unilateralism’ looked to me too much like a dangerous unreciprocated favour to the Soviets, and the more I read about atomic weapons, the more I understood the grim logic of maintaining them. In any case, the CND Trafalgar Square crowds were having little impact on the House of Commons. Like the Conservatives, the Hugh Gaitskell-led Labour opposition supported strategic deterrence, more divided about joining the EEC.

Europe had already largely recovered from the grim decade immediately following World War II. British living standards had greatly improved in the 1950s. West Germany, had achieved an even more spectacular economic recovery, although not yet the powerhouse it would be by the 1970s. All of Western Europe, rebuilt with Marshall Plan aid, was effectively unified in opposition to Soviet Communism, and collectively defended by NATO. Britain in the EEC looked sensible.

Courtship Spurned
The European non-conformist in those days was France, much changed with the return to power of Charles DeGaulle in 1958. His ‘Fifth Republic’ concentrated power in his presidential office, and he eventually extricated the country from the terrible war in Algeria, reformed the currency, increased Franco-German co-operation, and launched his ‘politique de grandeur’, which allowed no opening to Britain. He would continue to veto every entry project to the end of his career in 1969. His continuing opposition was the despair of Harold Macmillan. Bucking substantial opposition in his own party, he staked his political career on achieving EEC entry, driving his party forward, and getting support from part of the Labour front bench as well. But DeGaulle just kept saying ‘No’. In 1962, Macmillan, by then also coping with the ludicrous Profumo sex scandal, left office disillusioned and exhausted, his intended signature accomplishment in ruins.

Wedding At Last
“Joining Europe” continued to be an uncertain prospect under both Conservative and Labour governments for the next decade. But by the time I was back in England in the early 1970s, DeGaulle was dead, Edward Heath, a lifelong Europhile, was Prime Minister, and he succeeded in gaining entry. I was becoming more impressed by articulate opponents, like the journalist-historian, Paul Johnson, who entitled his 1971 ‘better alone’ history of England The Offshore Islanders. But Harold Wilson, back in power by 1975, confirmed the deal with a referendum, won by a large majority for EEC membership; it looked as if the matter had been closed.

The Break-up Begins
But the ground shifted again in the 1990s. The collapse of Communism weakened the concept of necessary defensive Western unity, and also meant that a dozen post-Communist states might join the growing Brussels-directed conglomerate. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty formally initiated a grander ‘European Union’, with the Euro single currency, a Parliament, a Court of Justice, and a Brussels bureaucracy, laying down rules about proper ‘European’ practices. This was all highly unpopular in Britain, even among those reluctantly supporting continued membership. Intellectual hostility now came not only from conservative journalists and historians, but from some economists. Bernard Connolly, once himself a senior economist at the European Commission, called his 1997 book on the fracturing monetary union, The Rotten Heart of Europe.

The intensifying dispute had durable foundations. British Europhilia has always largely come from an alliance of market-pursuing businesspeople and leftish cultural cosmopolitans. Opposition has come from a patriotic, historically-minded, and deeply conservative individualism. It grew steadily stronger from the 1990s, as the claims of economic advantage from conglomerate membership grew weaker. The EC as a whole in recent years has shown almost zero job creation, and the chaotic consequences of imposing a monetary union on very different political societies and cultures.

The Divorce
From 1945 on, the British attitude to Europe has been shaped by the contending efforts of a small number of articulate and determined individuals, not necessarily those holding high public office. There had been past conflicts over foreign policy between, among others, Francophiles and Francophobes, but Churchill post-1945 was arguably the first ‘Europhile’, even if only rhetorically, while Anthony Eden could be called an early ‘Eurosceptic’. Harold Macmillan tried to make Europhilia practical policy, overcoming most resistance in his party, in the Commons, and the country, but was defeated completely by Le grand Charles across the Channel.

His quest was re-engaged by Edward Heath, at last with success, reinforced by Harold Wilson, but Eurosceptics like Paul Johnson on the literary right, Michael Foot and Tony Benn on the parliamentary Labour left, continued to be heard through the decades.. Ukip, the ‘U. K. Independence Party’, was a weak affair up to a few years ago, but has risen through the entertaining efforts of Nigel Farage. Dissident Conservatives rallied round the equally colourful Boris Johnson. They have now made Brexit prevail. The overall consequences remain in doubt. But at a minimum, the bold defenders of ‘Britain alone’ have shown that it is possible to take on all the forces of established economic and political, power and win. Many of the young may despair at this result, but they may eventually learn something from it of great value.

(Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer, historian and Discourse Online contributor. This essay was first posted by the Prince Arthur Herald in Montreal.)