Britain and Europe (1): These Old Men and a ‘Non’


So, we have a referendum coming. So, time to take a long look at the never straightforward relationship between Britain and what we usually call Europe (meaning the EEC, and the ECSC that preceded it, and the European Union we are now debating about whether to remain in or not).

Thinking of out, it might be worth going back when Britain was out, at first of its own volition. That s, when Britain failed to engage in the creation of the EEC in the Treaty of Rome of 1957, and tried but failed to remedy that fact.


The origins of that treaty lay in Europe’s recent history. Above all else, it was born in the aftermath of war, and the desire to avoid another European war gave a great impulse to the ideal of greater European integration. Such idealism was also often found in western European resistance movements, or in the politicians who had opposed collaboration. Similarly, the origins of that war, as well as many of the problems of inter-war Europe, were seen to have come from the narrow nationalism that dominated it. Furthermore, the economic stagnation of inter-war Europe was also blamed upon the effects of tariffs and a narrow economic nationalism. There was, for many, a powerful logic to closer European integration.

Such beliefs were a commonplace in the post-war world. Among western European powers, the post-war generation of leaders and a group of closely connected ideologues looked to integration, to greater European unity and to the creation of European institutions to which national governments would cede some authority: what was called supra-nationalism. The Christian Democrats who largely dominated post-war politics, such as di Gasperi in Italy, or Adenauer in West Germany, or Spaak in Belgium, were broadly sympathetic to the integrationist enthusiasm of the likes of Jean Monnet (the man with the best claim to be the founding father of the EEC). Churchill was (to an extent) a supporter of greater European union: he had proposed a union with France in the desperate days of 1940, he publicly supported the idea of a United States of Europe, notably when he made the keynote speech at the Hague Congress that created the Council of Europe in 1948 (below).


No less enthusiastic about integrationist initiatives were the Americans. The first post-war pan-European body, the OEEC (created by the Marshal Plan) was borne of American pressure. NATO had, and has, supra-national structures and obligations.

It is often asserted that Britain stood aloof from pan-European initiatives after World War Two; that assertion is perhaps less than half the truth. To understand the position of those post-war governments, we need to look at Britain’s geopolitical position after the war. Before Suez, Britain still saw itself as a world power, even if not now the equal of the superpowers. Bevin aspired to the ‘third force’, Churchill to tri-partite summitry; all saw the Commonwealth (and thus empire) as still very much viable. The key figures in post-war foreign policy, Attlee, Bevin, Churchill and Eden, were all wedded to this view. It is also tempting to aver that all four were also happy to wallow in a mixture of imperial nostalgia and patriotic wishful thinking (think the Festival of Britain, or the much vaunted new Elizabethan age that came with the coronation in 1953). The happy illusion of Britain’s third power status seemed to shine still, however intermittently, until the brutal light of the Suez Crisis revealed the somewhat less happy truth. If Suez revealed Britain’s reduced status, and its dependence upon its American ally, it was no less true that her economic foundations were weakened. Britain’s economic and financial position had been undermined after the war, and this saw British withdrawals from India, Palestine and Greece in 1947. However, recovery from that position seemed to have been achieved in 1949: Britain accounted for 25% of the world’s manufactured exports and was able to forswear further Marshall Aid shortly after. However, economic weaknesses and the precarious position of Sterlng proved to be recurrent problems. Thus, whilst it may have been less evident at the time, it is tempting to assert that the fundamental reasons for the British membership of the EEC already applied: Britain’s relative economic and actual geopolitical decline left Europe, as Macmillan later asserted, as the only viable alternative: it’s just that almost nobody saw that clearly at the time.

That Britain did to some extent stay aloof seems undeniable. True, Churchill had publicly supported the idea of a United States of Europe, though whether he ever envisaged Britain being part of any union is very doubtful. Certainly, he was far less sympathetic to the idea of union by the time he had returned to power in 1951. Labour (bar a few) was never sympathetic to any moves towards union that might cede sovereignty in any form. Bevin had some sympathy for the idea of a European customs union of some sort (an idea strongly favoured by Washington), but had been worn down by resistance from the Treasury and the Board of Trade. In any case, measures towards political union in any form aroused him to splenetic rejection. ‘I don’t like it. I don’t like it,’ he famously said of the idea of the Council of Europe; ‘When you open that Pandora’s Box you’ll find it’s full of Trojan horses.’ The romantic nationalism which lay behind Gaitskell’s later opposition to EEC membership with was very much shared by Attlee and Bevin, and the wider party (Attlee’s favourite historian was the uber-patriot Sir Arthur Bryant). More tellingly still, the trade unions and the wider Labour movement feared any such measures that would open up British workers to greater foreign competition. In rejecting the Schuman Plan, Bevin famously remarked that the Durham miners would never wear it. Even Conservatives who looked favourably upon greater European cooperation (such as Macmillan) were usually antipathetic to ideas of supra-nationalism. Thus, in the years before the creation of the EEC, both parties were broadly hostile to British participation in and thus leadership of any European initiatives which came with any elements of supra-nationalism attached.

The irony is that Britain certainly had the opportunity to be the de facto leader of Western Europe after the war. Britain was the leading power in what became Western Europe (and one with immense moral credit after the war). Its allies looked to Britain for leadership, which it provided in the creation of both the Marshall Plan and NATO. The sticking point for Bevin was supra-nationalism. Hence the OEEC was allowed not even the slightest hint of supra-national powers; similarly, the Council of Europe was neutered and at heart inter-governmental, national governments having the ultimate authority in the form of a veto. In one sense, Britain opted out.

It was frustration with this led the governments of the Six who would create the EEC to look elsewhere for leadership, and to the idea of functionalism. Grand plans like the Council of Europe had floundered. Instead, the first moves towards greater unity would most easily be achieved where it would serve a particular purpose. The problems of Europe’s coal and steel industries provided that opportunity. The Schuman Plan led to the creation of the ECSC (the European Coal and Steel Community, very much the forerunner of the EEC) in 1950. This process was very much led by France and West Germany and joined by the Six. Britain remained entirely aloof. There were some sound economic reasons for Britain’s refusal to participate, but there was also the Labour tribalism we saw above; likewise, there was a part of political principle. There was also politics: the Schuman Plan’s main proponents, Schuman and Monnet, having floated the idea to a reluctant Bevin, went ahead without him and announced it without consulting him. Bevin was furious (America’s Dean Acheson knew about it before him). Arguably, Labour missed the first European boat just as the Schuman Plan came to life what is now Europe day (May 9th, 1950): below, Schuman signing it.


The 1950s saw two major European initiatives: the first failed, and it was Britain that picked up the pieces. The Pleven Plan envisaged a European Army and a European Defence Community, essentially to rein in a West Germany that the Americans wanted to rearm. When this collapsed (a new French government rejected the plan their predecessors had proposed), Eden picked up the pieces and led the creation of the inter-governmental Western European Union: in essence, an agreement guaranteeing the permanent presence of substantial British forces in West Germany.

Photo_of_Russell_Frederick_BrethertonThis perhaps informed Eden and Britain’s very lukewarm reaction to the talks at which began at Messina in 1955, and the move for the Six to create a common market that followed. The Board of Trade official (not, note, the senior ministers the Six sent) representing Britain on the Spaak Committee, Russell Bretherton (left), believed progress was slow and France would likely as not reject any supra-national element as it had over the EDC.  In any case, both Eden and Macmillan were hostile to a full-blown customs union, in part for fear of its impact upon British and Commonwealth agriculture. Thus, they effectively withdrew from the process that led to the creation of the EEC; instead, they promoted an alternative. EFTA (the European Free Trade Association, known in Whitehall as Plan G), was in part borne of the expectation that the French would scupper a proposed EEC, just as they had finished off the EDC. In that circumstance, EFTA (which would promote more limited free trade and specifically exclude food) would pick up the pieces; furthermore, the proposed creation of EFTA might well help push the French towards dropping the EEC anyway. It proved a crass miscalculation. Of course, British politics in 1956 was dominated by Suez too. In truth, the British eye was off the European ball, and contrary to expectations the Messina process moved to Brussels and made rapid process. When the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, Britain had been caught by surprise and was effectively side-lined. To make matters worse, the fundamental structures of the EEC were now set in such a way that would make Britain’s entry painful to negotiate and, arguably, more damaging than it would have been had Britain been part of the process of the EEC’s creation in the first place.

From that point on, Britain was always chasing an already rolling European ball and by the time Harold Macmillan made the decision to apply the EEC was a functioning institution. Whilst these were the Never Had it so Good years, of rising living standards and a consumer boom, in reality Britain was beset by serious economic problems: relatively slow growth, balance of trade and payments problems, and a lack of competitiveness that saw Britain’s share of world export markets falling. Some began to see the EEC as an economic panacea, a cure all for the British disease. At the very same time the Six saw faster growth just when the terms of trade had moved decisively in favour of first world manufactures: Italian and West German growth rates were double that of Britain’s, the French were not far off. The only western European economy with lower gRoth rates than Britain was the Republic of Ireland (a geunuine economic basket case in the ’50s).  It was in that light that Macmillan concluded that there was a strong economic case for applying to enter the EEC. However, as ever with Supermac, the economic motive was rob ably secondary; it served useful political purposes too. In the first place it was good politics, in that a seemingly unanswerable economic case would help win cabinet and backbench support in a Conservative party within which there was considerable unease about the idea of entering the EEC. Secondly, and more contentiously, it enabled Macmillan to portray EEC entry as an economic cure all to the economic problems he acknowledged, but was not overly enthusiastic (or courageous enough) to tackle there and then by being what Sir Humphrey would call courageous. Macmillan was not one for cutting spending. In addition to this, EFTA had proved a sickly and disappointing child. Apart from Ireland, its members were peripheral trading partners to begin with and, in truth, politically peripheral too. Even worse, EFTA was formally isolated from the EEC when the French barred cooperation. Once de Gaulle returned to power, he was determined to ensure the viability of the Six and France’s leading role within it; EFTA was marginal. The economic growth in Europe was to be found in the Six, as were the export markets (over 170 million people): Britain was economically isolated.

For Macmillan, as always, politics mattered above all; the more significant motive behind Macmillan’s volte-face was political. Britain was politically isolated too. After Suez, to paraphrase Acheson, Britain was losing an empire and failing to find a role. It was all very well repairing the damaged special relationship (being Greece to America’s Rome), but Washington valued Britain primarily as a western European power in a bi-polar world. As such, the Kennedy administration was very strongly behind British membership of the EEC, and told London as much. The Commonwealth mattered, but Europe mattered much more, geopolitically and economically. In one sense, the EEC was the only game in town left for a Britain adjusting itself to relative economic and actual geopolitical decline. Ironically, as it would turn out, they appeared to have an ally in de Gaulle who was determinedly trying to steer the EEC away from supra-nationalism towards a Europe of nations, to be an inter-governmental customs union. Perhaps most of all, EEC entry offered a fresh political direction for a Conservative government that was, by 1961, floundering: as we would say today, a new narrative, something fresh on the political menu. The time seemed ripe politically and, as ever for Supermac, the political motive trumped the rest.

In 1961, Macmillan decided to apply. That he got the application for membership off the ground represented a political triumph for Macmillan as a manager of cabinet and party. The cabinet agreed unanimously to apply for EEC membership: Macmillan’s successful persuasion of the doubters meant that backbench unease or opposition lacked leadership or focus; given that the doubters included heavyweights such as Rab Butler, that mattered. Broadly, the Conservatives were won over to the EEC (especially big business). Substantial unease was successfully contained, though 29 backbenchers abstained and one, Antony Fell, voted against. Most Conservative unease was associated with agriculture, there was a small Anti-Common Market League. The main opposition, instead, came from Labour, seeing the EEC as a ‘capitalist club’ or, rather more melodramatically, in Gaitskell’s words as the ‘end of a thousand years of history’. Nonetheless, Macmillan’s substantial majority held, and his political hold over his cabinet and party was as sure-footed as ever: Britain applied, and the EEC was on the menu.


Famously, EEC entry was scuppered by de Gaulle; in hindsight, it was always going to be. This was despite the heroic efforts of Ted Heath, the man put in charge of negotiations and a fervent Europhile, and of Macmillan himself, whose visits to Paris and Bonn, and fraught hosting of de Gaulle were to no avail. De Gaulle’s non prevailed. His reasons were, characteristically, both far reaching and nit-picking. French leadership of the EEC would, he feared, be undermined by British entry and the probable wider extension of EEC membership thereafter. Another underlying fear was his belief that Britain was an American Trojan horse. Furthermore, the desire to protect French agriculture (and exclude the Commonwealth) proved difficult obstacles in negotiations as, somewhat bizarrely, did de Gaulle’s desire for an independent nuclear deterrent. Following the British purchase of Polaris, de Gaulle looked to Britain to support French aspirations to persuade the Americans to offer him Polaris too. When Macmillan refused such support, and the Americans offered de Gaulle Polaris sans nuclear warheads, little good was done to the British bid. In truth, de Gaulle would probably have said no anyway; he would do the same to Labour’s application and it was his only fall from power in 1968 that made Heath’s successful application possible.


The French veto was a grievous political blow to Macmillan personally; it was an even greater one to Heath. It was also a serious political blow to the government, and Conservative reaction to that blow perhaps sheds most light of all on the real political motives behind the application in the first place. Rab Butler, as indiscreet as ever, told one journalist that ‘the engine had fallen out of the entire government strategy’; he told the young Antony Wedgwood Benn that it was ‘a much bigger shock for us than you chaps realised.’ The Conservative journalist Patrick Cosgrave acknowledged that Britain and Macmillan had been ‘humiliated in the eyes of the world’; worse still, the EEC application ‘represented Macmillan’s only hope of breaking out of a cycle of decline at home’. It is worth quoting the views of Michael Fraser, the head of the Conservative Research Department, as given with hindsight:

Europe was to be our deus ex machina. It was to create a new contemporary political argument with insular socialism, dish the Liberals by stealing their clothes; give us something new after12-13 years; act as the catalyst of modernisation; give us a new place in the international sun. It was Macmillan’s ace, and de Gaulle trumped it. The Conservatives never really recovered.

To put it simply, EEC entry was primarily about Macmillan, and the Conservatives; about their political position at a time when the opinion polls and, they feared, the political tide was turning against them.

It is tempting to aver that Britain deserved what it got. Bevin, Churchill and Eden had been complacent about its continued world power status after the war. That Britain would have done better to have played a more constructive part in the Spaak Committee seems undeniable, as does the notion that it could have taken the leading role in moves towards European integration under Bevin. There was, Ted Heath excepted, something half-hearted about the Conservative volte-face in 1961 that reflects Britain’s diminished position, as well as something of the weariness that was the hallmark of Supermac’s declining years. Perhaps it is true to assert that the post-war rulers of Britain took too long to face post-war realities and that when they finally did they either buried their heads in the ideological and romantic sands like Gaitskell, or lacked the will to do much about it; Macmillan was, as ever, willing to acknowledge Britain’s difficulties, but unwilling to take the difficult (and electorally risky) decisions to try and tackle them. Europe was adopted as the panacea, but adopted with the enthusiasm a patient accepts a course of not particularly pleasant or welcome treatment. It may simply be that Britain’s European fate, having been sealed by inaction in 1950 and 1957, was sealed again when Charles de Gaulle returned from the wilderness in 1958 and waited, at such length, to say non. To quote Flanders and Swann, as This Old Man (de Gaulle):

This old man, he played six,
France and England, they don’t mix.
Eytie, Benelux, Germany, and Me:
that’s my market recipe!

Britain would be kept waiting.


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