Half In Half Out: Prime Ministers on Europe by Andrew Adonis

Here is a book which helps to explain why the EU referendum, far from ending the argument about Britain’s relations with the Continent, has instead made it more bitter. Our membership of the EU turns out to be a Gordian knot, tied with enormous difficulty by Edward Heath, and harder to cut than it looks.

Andrew Adonis had the bright idea of commissioning essays by different hands on how all 14 Prime Ministers since Churchill have tackled the European problem. Each of these 12 men, and two women, attempted to form a sustainable consensus about Britain’s relations with our nearest neighbours, and each of them found this easier said than done.

Nothing is simpler than to strike attitudes about Europe. Margaret Thatcher did so during the 1975 referendum, when she campaigned for us to stay in, and was pictured wearing a pullover adorned with European flags. As Charles Powell, who contributes an illuminating account of how her policy evolved, writes here, when shown this photograph later in life, “She used to shudder at the sight of it…though whether more on grounds of policy or fashion I am not sure.”

Powell observes that the British approach was beset by “irreconcilable contradictions”, including “the basic philosophical divide between intergovernmentalists and integrationists”. These problems could not be solved, they “could only be managed”, but this she managed to do in such a manner as to score “significant victories for British interests along the way”.

So Thatcher got the British rebate by making a tremendous nuisance of herself at European summits. Powell asks the obvious question:

“Would a more communautaire approach have secured us even more? It may have made us more likeable but I see no evidence that our concrete interests would have been better served. I developed a habit of slipping into European heads of government meetings in the late afternoon, when I sensed Margaret Thatcher might be flagging, taking her a whisky. Chancellor Kohl once beckoned me over when he was in the chair and begged me not to do it: ‘You are making her worse,’ he said. ‘That’s the whole point, Herr Bundeskanzler,’ I replied.”

She also provided the impetus needed to complete the single market in Europe, a reform against which, in the British press, only The Spectator, under the editorship of Charles Moore, had the wit to protest. For as Powell admits, “A price had to be paid for the benefits of the single market in terms of increased qualified majority voting – without which the single market itself could never have been achieved – and a reiterated commitment to economic and monetary union that seemed pie in the sky at the time.”

By being so aggressive about the rebate, Thatcher rendered herself immune to the charge that she was selling out British interests. It was instead because she was too intransigeant in defence of her conception of our interests that Geoffrey Howe and other ministers decided she had become insufferable.

Powell reminds us that in the Bruges speech in 1988, she said Britain’s “destiny is in Europe as part of the Community”, while also warning: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

Churchill in the late 1940s voiced tremendous support for European unity. But when he came back into power in 1951, he did nothing to realise this rhetoric, and when asked why, he replied: “Well, I really meant it for them and not for us.”

That remark is quoted in David Faber’s account of his grandfather, Harold Macmillan, which opens with this anecdote:

“In later life, in the course of a long retirement at his Sussex home Birch Grove, Harold Macmillan was fond of taking visitors to an outbuilding when giving a tour of the house. Rusting away in a corner, there still remained the specially purchased fridge, where supplies of President de Gaulle’s rare blood group had been stored during his stay in November 1961. Unsurprisingly, the Macmillans’ cook had baulked at the idea of the blood being stored in her own kitchen fridge.”

De Gaulle believed, more reasonably than Faber allows, that he might suffer an assassination attempt, which was why blood reserves had to be on hand. Unfortunately for Macmillan, de Gaulle killed off Britain’s application to join the European Economic Community, as it was then known.

David Dutton points out, in his essay on Anthony Eden, that only five years earlier, at Suez, the British had cut and run without consulting the French – an example of Perfidious Albion which was bitterly resented in Paris. So although Dutton mounts a convincing defence of Eden against the charge of being more to blame than any other Prime Minister for Britain holding aloof from the first steps towards the European Union, he also admits that Eden helped persuade France “to abandon earlier hesitations and commit to a European destiny”.

Adonis himself takes on the task of writing about Harold Wilson, and does so in an uncommonly admiring tone:

“Harold Wilson performed more somersaults on Europe than an Olympic gymnast. But he ended up with gold. By the time he had finished his twelve-year performance, from becoming Labour leader in 1963 to the ‘common market’ referendum of 1975, he had achieved a triumph remarkable in its own right – a two-to-one popular majority for membership – and one utterly amazing in light of David Cameron’s failure in 2016.”

While the somersault has its place in politics, one cannot help feeling that a cause which needed to be defended by turning quite so many of them was never as safe as that referendum result suggested.

Chris Patten mounts a defence of his friend John Major:

“At Maastricht, Major got everything Britain wanted and it underpinned the extent to which we achieved membership of the European Union on the terms that best suited us. We had the single market and enlargement without the Social Chapter and any commitment to signing up to monetary union. We were in due course to secure opt-outs from the Schengen Agreement in the Amsterdam Treaty during the Blair premiership.”

Major’s compromise proved defensible, but at a heavy price in terms of Tory division. Adonis goes on to consider the record of Blair, to whom he acted as an adviser, and finds much to criticise:

“First, New Labour normalised referendums and opened the way to anti-European populism. At the time we thought referendums were a good idea. I wrote a Demos pamphlet with Geoff Mulgan entitled ‘Back to Greece: the case for Direct Democracy’. It was full of juvenile, simplistic arguments of which I am now ashamed.”

Blair’s theoretical views were contradicted by what he actually did. He considered himself to be pro-European, and wanted Britain to join the Euro, but never managed to create the conditions in which this might have been feasible, and generally devoted more effort to getting on with American presidents than with European leaders. His decision to participate in the Iraq War was taken in direct opposition to the French and Germans.

Adonis likens the task of keeping Britain in Europe to carrying a Ming vase across a slippery floor – again an analogy which suggests fragility.

Sir Ivan Rogers, who served as Britain’s Permanent Representative to the EU from 2013-17, offers an illuminating account of David Cameron’s handling of the EU issue. He describes how difficult, indeed often impossible, it is to get “permanent, legally binding change” on anything when negotiating with the EU – a problem which now besets Theresa May.

It was also very difficult to explain what Cameron had achieved in his negotiations, and, as Sir Ivan remarks, “when you are explaining, you’re losing” – another problem for May.

Once we have left the EU, we shall want, in her unresounding phrase, “as frictionless trade as possible”. But that depends on negotiations with an organisation whose processes are likely at every turn to thwart what to British eyes seems reasonable.

So do we just go for unilateral free trade? Is that how the Gordian knot can be cut? Adonis and most of his authors would be appalled if we found ourselves with a leader who, in the manner of Trump, just declared, at least as a negotiating tactic, that this is what will happen. And perhaps May needs to persist for a bit longer with her attempts at reaching a compromise settlement, until with great difficulty she gets her plan through, or else the nation rejects in disgust her whole approach.

The role of the Prime Minister is to serve as scapegoat for national failure, or so I concluded while writing my own volume of brief lives of all 54 of them from Walpole to May: “We give them an impossible job and blame them when they fail to perform it.”

Lord North, Chamberlain, Eden, Blair and Cameron are among the Prime Ministers who have played this role, for which May is now auditioning so capably.