Jill Rutter

Boulevard to Brexit

Half In, Half Out: Prime Ministers on Europe

By

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Andrew Adonis recently tweeted that he has started another book on Britain and Europe, having just published two – the first entitled Saving Britain and this one, a series of essays on postwar British prime ministers and Europe. He has fitted all that in while campaigning vigorously for a people’s vote on the UK’s final deal with the EU, taking the BBC to task over its Brexit coverage, championing HS2 and leading the assault on university vice-chancellors’ pay. This is multitasking on a heroic scale. Clearly Adonis writes at the speed normal people read.

Half In, Half Out originated as a set of Oxford lectures. Adonis himself contributes three pieces – one, written with Nicholas Soames, on the latter’s grandfather Winston Churchill, one on Harold Wilson (refracted through the lens of his work as Roy Jenkins’s biographer) and one on Tony Blair, during whose premiership he had a ringside seat as a member of the No 10 Policy Unit. To cover other recent PMs, he has recruited individuals who served in their governments (David Owen on Jim Callaghan, Chris Patten on John Major) or worked under them (Charles Powell on Margaret Thatcher, Stewart Wood on Gordon Brown, Ivan Rogers on David Cameron). Historians and the Labour MP Rachel Reeves contribute essays on earlier PMs, with the journalist Steve Richards picking the short straw of having to write a real-time commentary on Theresa May and Europe.

The range of authors leads to variability of insight. The essays by Owen and Patten are the least interesting – too much about the authors, too much space given over to fighting current battles over Brexit, nothing much new about the respective protagonists. The contributions on earlier prime ministers are based far more on historical research than personal memories, but they offer fascinating examples of how diverging attitudes to Europe (the Euroscepticism of Attlee and Eden; Macmillan’s support for British membership of the Common Market) foreshadowed debates to come. The 1950s were dominated by the agonies born from the geographical pull of Europe coming up against the historical ties of the Commonwealth and the geopolitical desire to stay close to the United States. Many of the sentiments expressed then could have come from the mouths of the leading lights of the European Research Group today. The essays on Macmillan and Wilson retell the familiar tale of the UK’s failed applications to join the Common Market. Michael McManus’s contribution on Edward Heath shows how well the prime minister appreciated the fact that the EEC was more than just an economic project. One subject that Adonis and McManus disagree on is whether Wilson was more concerned with supporting Britain’s membership of the Common Market or seeking to keep the Labour Party united.

Both Powell and Adonis agree that the turning point in the UK’s relationship with Europe was Jacques Delors’s appearance at the Labour Party conference in 1988. His stress on the social dimension of the EEC won over most of the Labour Party from its instinctive suspicion of the organisation as a capitalist conspiracy. Conversely, his vision of a social Europe propelled Margaret Thatcher towards her Bruges speech and engendered the rebirth of Conservative Euroscepticism.

Inevitably, this book will become a source for future politics and history undergraduates writing essays on the causes of Brexit. It is by shining light on this subject that the later chapters come into their own. Adonis documents how the Blair government was preoccupied with discussing the euro and gave barely any attention to immigration. The choice not to control migration from new EU member states in the 2000s is presented as a pact between Blair and Brown (and Bank of England governor Mervyn King, a big advocate of anything that might put downward pressure on wages), intended to expand the economy and pay for a boost to public services. Stewart Wood shows how Brown as PM, buoyed by an early triumph resisting corporate tax harmonisation, became convinced of his own ability to deliver benefits for Britain through ‘muscular intergovernmentalism’: ‘his style was to work out the example to a problem and then present fellow leaders with the solution as a fait accompli, relying on the brute force of reason to get them to agree.’ But he ended up framing every visit to Brussels as a battle won by him against the Eurocrats.

Ivan Rogers draws attention to Cameron’s alienation of Angela Merkel through the decision early in his premiership to pull the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party. He describes Cameron’s growing conviction that the UK needed governance guarantees to prevent the domination of the EU by the Eurozone caucus – a baked-in qualified majority on the Council of Ministers that threatened to leave non-Eurozone members isolated. One interesting additional feature of Cameron’s tenure comes out: the growing UK net contribution to the EU budget, a consequence of EU enlargement in 2004 and Blair’s agreement that the UK rebate should not apply to structural funds for the new accession countries. That repoliticised the issue of the UK’s budget contribution, which eventually ended up on the side of the bus.

Something that does not emerge as clearly as it might is the fact that for years the British were active champions of enlargement as a way of securing democracy in states emerging from communism and dictatorship, with the ulterior motive of slowing or preventing further deepening of the EU. But the leaders of the EU did not believe that it was necessary to choose between the two: they widened and they deepened. That transformed the EU from a bloc in which a lukewarm member such as Britain with a transactional approach could feel comfortable into a project to which perhaps only Blair of recent prime ministers (and only Heath of his predecessors) could subscribe.

The failure to understand how ‘Europe’ works is the big theme of this book. It is a failure that unites most British politicians, whatever their personal views on Europe. It is also, arguably, the major cause of Brexit. Rather than Half In, Half Out, a title about which Adonis himself seems to have had doubts, this book might be better summed up as ‘Seven Decades of Not Getting Europe’.

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