Half In, Half Out: British Leadership In Europe
On Saturday, I visited the historic town of Petworth for its annual literary festival. I attended a talk by Lord Andrew Adonis titled “Half In, Half Out: Prime Ministers On Europe.” This week, I’ve been reading his book of the same title. The book is a collection of essays written by prominent political figures who are well-positioned to provide revealing portraits of Britain’s leaders since WW2.
Having listened to Lord Adonis’ talk and read “Half In, Half Out," what struck me most is how very different current European policy would be now had Britain had different leadership. And how different current Brexit negotiations would be under a better informed and less over-confident leader.
The European policy of each of the fourteen Prime Ministers since 1945 can best be summed up as ‘half in, half out.’ While Prime Ministers have been marginally more pro- or anti-European than each other, in policy terms the degree of difference between them has been relatively small. While their policy has been largely contingent on their individual prejudices and preferences, it’s also been influenced by the strength of the opposition they encountered.
This is a very brief overview of Britain's 'half in, half out' stance which has caused so much difficulty and led us to the current point where Britain is on the cusp of leaving the EU. I hope you will find this article helpful in providing context for where we find ourselves, especially if, like me, you’re not a historian:
Churchill said: “When the Nazi power was broken, I asked myself what was the best advice I could give to my fellow citizens here in this island and across the channel in our ravaged continent. There was no difficulty in answering the question. My counsel to Europe can be given in a single word: Unite!” Despite Churchill’s pro-Europe stance, the principal reason Britain didn’t go into Europe in the 1940’s and 1950’s was the deep Euroscepticism of Clement Attlee and Anthony Eden, and their preference for the Commonwealth as an ally.
European co-operation flowered during the 1950’s without Britain’s involvement because Attlee decided Britain should stand apart from the European Coal and Steel Community (which came about as a result of the 1951 Paris Treaty).
Harold MacMillan and Harold Wilson led strongly in favour of British integration with European, to be thwarted at every turn by the French President, General de Gaulle who was determined to keep Britain out of Europe.
Wilson, despite hostile opposition from within the Labour party, performed more somersaults than an Olympic gymnast to manoeuvre successfully for a ‘common market’ referendum in 1975 which he won in a two-to-one popular majority in favour.
Margaret Thatcher launched modern Euroscepticism, while her successors, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron largely sought to maintain the status quo (except on the Social Chapter and enlargement of the EU to central and Eastern Europe).
Cameron led an in/ out referendum in 2016, a leadership gamble to face down the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party which went disastrously wrong. Now Theresa May, despite the complexities of our relationship with Europe, is stubbornly attempting to pull off a ‘hard Brexit,’ although neither she nor the public is clear what a ‘hard Brexit’ means in reality.
Every Conservative leader since Thatcher has fallen over Europe. There is no doubt Theresa May’s task is tougher than that of any of her predecessors. Having adopted a rigid stance on Brexit at the start of her premiership, now with little time to go before her self-imposed deadline of March 2019, her policy is in tatters.
In as much as the Government has a negotiating strategy, May has been so vague about it that public trust and confidence is eroding fast. Backstop to the backstop to the backstop anyone? It’s of no surprise that public opinion is moving in favour of a People’s Vote, with the People’s Vote campaign now the largest political movement in the UK with momentum on its side.
The timing of Britain leaving the EU could hardly be worse, given how the rules-based international order, which we and our European allies have worked so hard to build, is under greater threat than at any point in recent history.
On the week in which centenary events have been organised to mark the end of WW1, a disastrously destructive and catastrophic war between Europe’s leading nation states, I explore this theme further in Lest We Forget; The EU Has Brought Peace To Europe.
Question: What are your thoughts on Britain leaving the EU at this time? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to tell me in the comments box below.
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