This Blessed Plot: Britain And Europe From Churchill To Blair by Hugo Young - review by Matthew Parris

Matthew Parris

Fairest And Best

This Blessed Plot: Britain And Europe From Churchill To Blair


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‘This going into Europe’, remarked E P Thompson in The Sunday Times a quarter of a century ago, ‘will not turn out to be the thrilling mutual exchange supposed. It is more like nine middle-aged couples with failing marriages meeting in a darkened bedroom in a Brussels hotel for a Group Grope.’

Hugo Young sees it differently. He does acknowledge the exploratory element, but for him the venture is more in the nature of an expedition: a daring Saga holiday for a group of greying nation states, to a new and unknown place.

Of course, you are either on an expedition or you are not. Young’s indictment of the British approach – and This Blessed Plot is half a thousand pages of elegant indictment, the use of ‘Blessed’ soon acquiring its exasperated second meaning – is no more or less than a scholarly fleshing out of the venerable Continental complaint about Britain: that we keep trying to be half on board, it won’t do, and we should bloody well make up our minds.

I am almost persuaded, which is to say not quite. Young traces the early doubts and plans, the false starts, the brilliantly subversive interventions of Charles de Gaulle (an arresting chapter), and the final climbing aboard, with Mr Heath. He goes on to examine Heath’s failure to win, and his successors’ reluctance to engage, the argument for membership, having won the battle to join. With an attention all too rare among Westminster hacks, he scrutinises Whitehall ‘s role throughout this half-century, bringing to life an often overlooked feature of our administrative landscape: the personal qualities of individual public servants. In Young’s account, real, flesh-and-blood officials – men with opinions, strengths, weaknesses, prejudices, and careers of their own – made a difference, perhaps a critical difference.

He chronicles a climate change at the Foreign Office, from imperio-centric Euroscepticism, to a warming towards Brussels, as career paths and perhaps convictions converged there.

I joined the FCO in 1974, when the glaciers had already melted. I was sent to Brussels on a training week under the tutelage of our British mission. In that short time I acquired the most extraordinary loathing for everything to do with the enterprise, a loathing I have struggled to shake off ever since.

I cannot quite account for it – it had as much to do with instinct as with intellect – but I think it was a reaction to what seemed a suffocating respect for questions of process combined with a carefree disregard for questions of substance. They kept telling me how a policy was steered into being. I kept wanting to know whether the policy was any good. They looked at me as though I was missing the point. My nostrils caught the whiff- they catch it still – of disregard for the merits of an idea or case. People with that attitude could walk blithely over a cliff together.

Disregard, too, of popular opinion. There was an assumption (stated quite merrily) that the people will do what they are told. l hated this. Soon after, I remember the reaction of Roy Hattersley, then a minister for Europe, to a proposal to assist the Norwegians in holding a referendum on European entry: ‘So long as the ballot papers have only a YES-box to tick.’ All thought this very amusing and civilised. Near the beginning of this book, Young, with the disarming candour which distinguishes him, alludes to a Catholic childhood in which his religion was somehow foreign and therefore suspect:

I was taught to see myself as a member of God’s elect, whose earthly fate was to be excluded from the mainstream by the ignorant, anti-Catholic majority. My heavenly destiny, however, would be to look down upon these heathens paying for their errors in hell.

This was the attitude of those officials called to the service of our Common European Home. I do just slightly, and very respectfully, wonder whether all residue of the same cast of mind has altogether deserted Hugo’s worldview. ‘The people needed guidance’, he says, halfway through the book. And he means it.

But guidance where? That central metaphor – of a journey, which Britain must make up her mind whether to join or quit – assumes a degree of consensus among the other travellers as to the nature of their project. Young does rather assume it, and falls into the error of talking about ‘Europe’ rather as the Eurosceptics do, seeming to observe a discernible object from the outside – as though it existed, cohered, planned, intended; as though it was an entity; as though it could be treated en bloc, approached as a bloc, cooperated with or thwarted as a bloc; as though it knew what it was and what it was doing. Does it? Is it? I doubt it. He never makes the same mistake when talking about ‘Britain’, which he knows too well to treat as a single beast with a head, legs and a tail.

In his Introduction, Young makes a most important statement, the error of which I think betrays his argument: ‘For Britain … the entry into Europe was a defeat; a fate she had resisted , a necessity she had reluctantly accepted.’ For the founding nations of the enterprise, by contrast, ‘ their creation was a triumph’. It began ‘ to fulfil Victor Hugo’s dream’.

I think not. Look more carefully at the strands which compose the Europeanism of the Continental Europeans. France is escaping her loss of predominance, and Germany. Germany is escaping herself, her past, and her future. Denmark is escaping Scandinavia, and Germany. Holland is escaping Germany. Belgium is escaping civil war. Italy is escaping disintegration and poverty. Luxembourg is escaping oblivion. Spain is escaping fascism. Portugal is escaping Spain. Austria is escaping her past, and the East. Finland is escaping Russia. Ireland is escaping Britain. Sweden is escaping loneliness. Greece is escaping everything, and reality, and Turkey.

I do not assert this as an argument for the impermanence of the enterprise. All the most enduring relationships spring from a failure of nerve. But it makes the European ideal less luminous for me than for the Hugos, Victor and Young; it makes Britain’s quibbling hesitance, foot-dragging and essential ambivalence more assimilable, more sustainable, and perhaps more useful within the association than Young supposes. As the EU drifts, rudderless, towards the disaster which ‘enlargement’ promises, it needs its Eeyores as well as its Tiggers.

On my taking leave of Margaret Thatcher, once, she said, ‘Stay in touch with politics, Matthew. Read Hugo Young. Always interesting. Always has something to say’ – and this from an unforgiving woman of whom he had been critical. But what you never doubt about Young is his good faith. It is quite an achievement to enjoy the friendly confidence of most of the serious players in modern British politics without having compromised yourself’ or cheated your readers. If a certain loftiness of tone sometimes intrudes (I counted four instances of the word ‘apotheosis’, including a creative apotheosis and a bathetic apotheosis: to adapt a remark once made of the Welsh, Hugo Young is so damned Hugo Young-ish that it looks like an affectation), pomposity of the stupid kind never does. A comment, for example, on the sacked Kenneth Baker’s new-found Euroscepticism (‘not for the first time this experience of loss helped ease the machinery of a flexible mind’) is worth ploughing through a page or ten of worthiness to reach.

Young leaves us on a note of optimism as to the European leadership of Tony Blair. Something suspiciously like a love affair is stirring here. I hope he will not be disappointed. No I don’t.

For Young is the fairest writer on politics I know, and a debater of class. He is sometimes inspiring and never less than persuasive. He is meticulous with facts, fastidious with judgements and generous to the opposing argument. Michael Foot once wrote that a fairly clever arguer may win by attacking the weaknesses of the other side, but real intelligence acknowledges the strengths, and answers them. That is Young’s instinct. This Blessed Plot argues for a casting-off of inhibition – but plants the seeds of a different view in the reader’s mind and allows them take root. He does not always then succeed in cutting down what grows, but he enriches his reader.

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