ThinkBooks: A temperate and sage university gives his insight on Britain and Europe

ThinkBooks: A temperate and sage university gives his insight on Britain and Europe

by Tom Gallagher
article from Friday 16, October, 2020

REGRETTABLY, Vernon Bogdanor is currently one of the few British political scientists likely to have a temperate reaction if presented with an essay from a student which vigorously lays out the failings of the EU. The professor of government at King’s College London is a pro-European. He expresses the belief that a revival of idealism about the EU and a reduction of the excessive and often ill-exercised powers of the Brussels Commission can reinvigorate the project. 

This elegant and incisive book on Britain and the European project since 1950 springs from a series of lectures he delivered at Yale University in 2019. What would his American audience have made of his historically-grounded and low-key explanation for why Britain opted for divorce from the EU in 2016? If the polls showing how Americans in the humanities and social sciences overwhelmingly self-identify as advanced liberals or radical leftists, then there may well have been several sharp intakes of breath as he spoke. I suspect there would have been disappointment in the audience that the British professor compared Nigel Farage and the UK independence Party (UKIP) not with Marine Le Pen and the Front National in France but instead with the Norwegian populists who successfully mobilised to prevent Norway joining the European Economic Community in 1972.

Similarly, what would an audience nearly all of whom would have voted for Hillary Clinton of ‘the deplorables’ fame in 2016, have made of the incident in the 2010 British general election when the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an ill-fated stop in the post-industrial town of Rochdale? It led to an encounter with the pensioner Gillian Duffy who Brown described as ‘a bigoted woman, a remark that was picked up by a hot mike and consequently made news for days. Bogdanor had no hesitation in saying that it confirmed “the political class... took little interest in the worries of ordinary people...” [p. 99]

American East Coast educators enjoy unprecedented influence in the US Democratic party and if Joseph Biden becomes the 46th President next January, their pro-EU views could make a lot of trouble for Boris Johnson. The evidence is already accumulating that Biden and those around him are unwilling to help Britain make a go of consolidating its independence outside the EU. Senior figures like Nancy Pelosi offer tendentious interpretations of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to insist that in terms of commerce Northern Ireland should be aligned with the Republic of Ireland and not Great Britain. It would not be a surprise, given how far the Democrats have shifted leftwards, if their stance on Scottish separatism now became ambiguous. It is hardly a great consolation for Britain that the US is likely to be confronted by ongoing domestic political turmoil whoever wins on November 2.

Bogdanor couches the origins and early stages of the European integration project in idealistic terms. The catalyst for it came from pro-democratic Europeans horrified by the excesses to which nationalism had been taken. Not only would its capacity to destroy Europe need to be ended but a concerted effort would be required to revive the best of European civilization. Surprisingly, given the American audience, the crucial role of the United States in backing the fledgling Union is played down, especially that of Republican President Eisenhower in the 1950s. The Soviet threat and the need to rebuild war-ravaged German industry provide much of the explanation. But there were big financial interests behind the project from the outset. The synergy between Wall Street and major German economic concerns in particular was vital. John McCloy, a top New York lawyer, was US high commissioner for Germany after 1945. He was instrumental in releasing from prison Alfred Krupp and eight directors of his steel behemoth, all of whom had been convicted of war crimes. Krupp’s confiscated property was also restored to him. Germany’s coal and steel barons saw the European Coal and Steel Community, as the EU then was, as a heaven-sent opportunity to establish a coal and steel cartel.

Instead of mercantilism, values of peace, democracy and human rights were asserted by the EU’s architects. Much soft power was accrued by the EU acquiring such a progressive image. But it is clear that the EU’s absorption with rebuilding European civilization soon faded. Secular liberals, increasingly prominent in political positions, had no interest in the Christianity which had created a durable sense of Europe. The preference of the EU’s law-makers and image-makers is for the EU to have a global, universalist stance on social and cultural questions. A One-World order based on supposedly progressive and humanistic principles has been at the centre of the EU’s identity for a long time now. It is a poor basis for conveying a sense of solidarity especially when millions of Europeans have been suffering hard times since the 2008 economic crisis. The adherence to metropolitan liberalism in all seasons has only deepened the cleavage between the demos and the clerisy who control the European project. 

Only occasionally does Bogdanor pause to wonder what the soul of the EU, or put another way, its ethical system of values, consists of. Behaviour from its indifference to the explosion of murderous nationalism in the former Yugoslavia to its readiness to inflict cruel terms on Greece in 2010 – reminiscent of what a defeated country would face at the hands of a victorious adversary – suggest that the EU’s ethical DNA is hardly more superior to that of most nation-states.

The main emphasis in this book is on the awkward 70-year relationship between Britain and the ambitious and purposeful post-national entity emerging on the other side of the English Channel. The reader is soon reminded that different foundational experiences meant contrasting reactions to the emerging post-national juggernaut: Britain was a military victor. Moreover, it ‘was the only one of the European combatants which had nether been ruled by a Fascist or Nazi government nor been invaded or occupied...’ [p, 30]

Facing pressure from the Americans to sign up to the new European political unit, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden travelled to the US in 1952 and told an audience at Columbia University:

“if you drive a nation to adopt procedures which run counter to its instincts, you weaken and may destroy the motive force of its action...You will realise that I am speaking of the frequent suggestions that the United Kingdom should join a federation on the continent of Europe. This is something which we know, in our bones, we cannot do.” [p. 16] 

Harold Macmillan was the politician who would first try to take Britain into the European Community after 1961. But a decade earlier he had warned of a weakened Germany ending up stronger than France within twenty years and Britain facing yet another threat to its survival of the kind which had emerged under Louis XIV, Napoleon and Hitler. He was in no doubt that that “it should be our hope that the Schuman Plan...would fail.” [p.50]

If anything, apprehension about continental developments was even greater on the Labour side. Both Clement Attlee and his successor as party leader, Hugh Gaitskell, opposed British involvement. In 1962 Gaitskell warned in a broadcast that British membership “meant the end of the Commonwealth [and] would be a step… for which history would not forgive us.” [p. 57] 

Labour was still far from being a party grounded in cosmopolitan middle-class attitudes. As it struggled to regain office, it knew that joining the Community meant financing continental food imports at the expense of those from the Commonwealth: “money that had previously gone to Australia, Canada and New Zealand would now go to less efficient farmers on the Continent.” [p. 59] Any rise in the cost of living standards would only fuel wage demands and perhaps worsen already high industrial tensions.

It was against the background of years of industrial warfare, a decline in industrial competitiveness, the retreat from empire, and ominous tensions in Ulster that the political establishment suffered a loss of nerve almost comparable to that of continental elites after 1945. A powerful push from the civil service, the media, academia and corporate business enabled Britain to join in 1973. France had dropped its objections having been convinced that Britain would be sufficiently ‘communitaire’. Despite Jean Monnet’s clear intention to create a European state by stealth, from Macmillan to Thatcher, Prime Ministers convinced themselves that they were joining an inter-governmental community. They were reluctant to confront the possibility that the plan of the bureaucratic decision-makers and their Franco-German political allies was to dissolve the state nations of Europe and replace them with a supra-national entity.

Bogdanor himself still remains convinced that ultimately the member states are in the driving seat and ‘will dictate the pace of change.’ Yet it is the rule of the strong which clearly prevails. Supposedly sacrosanct rules based on treaties are casually discarded if they get in the way of the march to a common destiny. This year has seen plans unveiled to establish the EU as a tax-raising entity by introducing a carbon border tax, a plastics tax, a digital services tax and a financial services tax. The direction of travel over many years has been a reinforcement of the powers of an unaccountable centre at the expense of those of member states.

The 1975 referendum decision to remain in the EU was less decisive than it appeared. In its aftermath, one poll showed that 51 per cent, including one-third of those voting for Britain remaining in the European Community, thought that Britain had been wrong to enter. [p. 74] Bogdanor then goes on to show how, unique in the Community a vast segment of the population remained unreconciled to membership and restive about its disruptive effects.

From 1999 to 2015, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, there were only six years in which fewer than 50 per cent favoured either leaving the European Union or else weakening Britain’s ties with it. The European question proved toxic for the cohesion of both parties. It provoked a damaging split in Labour in 1981 and was instrumental in hastening the departure from power of Margaret Thatcher and enfeebling the Tories. Simultaneously, an unofficial Europhile party emerged in middle-class cosmopolitan Britain. Its adherents often benefited directly from the EU’s growing influence over social policy, the environment and a vast raft of legal issues. But they showed no aptitude or skill in evangelizing for Europe above all during the referendum which David Cameron allowed to be held on the issue in 2016. 

He could see that UKIP was eating into the Conservative vote. A Eurosceptic party had taken off helped by one issue in particular, the Blair government’s decision to lift restrictions on entry of workers from East-Central Europe ahead of any other EU state. Unprecedented levels of immigration resulted which brought benefits to Britain but which also had clearly disruptive effects socially and economically. With wages being driven down and Blair’s globalisation fixation overwhelming housing, social services and other amenities in different areas of the country, it wasn’t hard for poorer citizens to conclude that immigration benefited a cosmopolitan elite and not them. 

Bogdanor is in no doubt that the 2016 referendum was a wholesale repudiation of the political class. He discusses the cleavages of geography, culture, education and generation revealed by the result. He argues that for the first time since the 19th century when lots of Tories opposed the extension of the franchise, plenty of well-placed people (who styled themselves liberals) viewed the sovereignty of the people as dangerous and disruptive.  

Interestingly, despite the strength of division as Britain struggles to leave the EU, Bogdanor is more optimistic about Britain’s broader prospects than he is about those of the EU. He is clearly uncomfortable with the way German power is exercised with stances that are supposedly in Europe’s best interest but clearly intended to maximise German advantage. He doesn’t believe in British exceptionalism and thinks it is possible other nations might, before long, try to emulate Britain. (Strangely the deeply dysfunctional Euro is neglected in favour of discussing instead EU security policy.)

It is pity that Bogdanor didn’t offer his American audience his views about how the Irish question has been used by the EU to prevent any serious attempt by Britain to extricate itself from the restrictive club. But this is a cool-headed, fair, and judicious analysis of Britain and the EU at a decisive period in history. Lucky is the student of politics who is offered it as a basic text in the years to come.

Vernon Bogdanor, Britain and Europe in a Troubled world, London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020, xii + 162 pages, ISBN 978-0-300-24561-5 (available here)

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. His latest book is Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die, Hurst Publishers 2020 (available here) and his twitter account is @cultfree54

Photo of Professor Vernon Bogdanor by Gresham College: https://www.flickr.com/photos/greshamcollege/21647631936/, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51685147 

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