Britain and Europe: A Short History by Jeremy Black

“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Keynes’s insight applies with equal force to the European issue. Practical politicians who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct theorist or historian.

Jeremy Black is not defunct. He is the author of over a hundred works of history. Here is a scholar unafraid to range with breezy confidence across the centuries.

In 210 pages he covers Britain’s relationship with Europe from Roman times to the present day. In the medieval period, he reminds us, “the Church ensured that there was an international European dimension to everything”. William the Conqueror flew a papal banner at the Battle of Hastings.

Five of our kings – William I, Henry I, Henry II, Richard I and Henry V – died in France. Henry VIII broke with the papacy: as Black says, “defiance of Continental authority and power rings clearly from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries”.

The English and then the British were formed as a Protestant culture, upheld by a national Church and Parliament. This did not, however, mean England (and from 1707 Britain) were cut off from Europe. Foreign monarchs – William III, George I – were welcome so long as they were Protestant, so could be relied on to defend liberty,

The Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 was seen, Black observes, “by most British and many foreign commentators as clearly separating Britain from the general pattern of Continental development”.

Black touches on Macaulay as an exponent of “the Whig interpretation of history”, with “a phenomenal world readership”. But he does not mention that Macaulay gained those readers by writing in an extraordinarily lucid, witty and trenchant manner, successfully aspiring to make his History of England as entertaining as the latest fashionable novel.

Today’s novelists have little to fear from Black. His style is quite often unbelievably clumsy. The three sentences which he devotes to his illustrious predecessor end with the words: “Macaulay’s influence contributed to earning him a peerage.”

It is true that the perfection of Macaulay’s style could lend him the fraudulent air of hitting every nail on the head. Black avoids that fault. He does not offer a heart-warming tale of national progress towards an ever more perfect parliamentary democracy, or indeed towards an ever more perfect European Union.

British identity became bound up with the British Empire, which within 20 years of the end of the Second World War had vanished from the map. Harold Macmillan decided, in the early 1960s, that Britain had better after all join the Common Market, in which countries such as Germany, France and Italy, which a few years before had suffered harrowing defeats, were now prospering.

And as Black says of Macmillan: “The entire policy failed.” De Gaulle vetoed British entry. This ground is covered more elegantly, and at far greater length, by Hugo Young in This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair, published in 1998.

Like many members of the British Establishment, Young thought we had made a dreadful mistake by not going into the Common Market at the start. Black adopts a more detached position. He is rightly appalled by the level of the present debate on Europe, with both sides indulging in gross simplifications, suppressions and distortions of the historical record:

“Britain is a European country, but that does not dictate any particular political arrangement. Unfortunately, this proved unhelpful to polemicists and was therefore widely ignored. The emotional weight of the issue did not encourage measured restraint. Indeed, the virulence of some academic commentators proved particularly notable.”

This brief and thought-provoking account reminds one that Britain joined the Common Market because of a widespread (though by no means uncontested) sense that we were a nation in decline. And for different reasons, the German and French elites decided their nations had become unviable.

The European Union is a collection of failed nation states which needed to make a new start. Germany’s recent history was unbearable. The only way for German politicians to convince themselves, and show their neighbours, that they had really changed, was for them to become good Europeans.

Otherwise the smaller countries which surround Germany would become afraid of resurgent German power, and would form an anti-German alliance.

The only way for the French to be sure this time of keeping the Germans in order was to build a new Europe, run by a bureaucracy constructed on the French model.

These points are not made by Black, nor would it be fair to criticise him for leaving them out, for his book is admirably concise. He has almost nothing to say about Germany.

But he does observe that it is still not clear what kind of European Union we are being urged to remain members of, and “what type of ‘Europe’ the EU will propose and offer in forthcoming years”.

For however much some Remain voters in the United Kingdom may feel they have become European,

“The EU has certainly failed to replace the nation states of Europe as a focus for popular identity and thus loyalty or potential loyalty. If this is a measure of its failure, it is also a cause of it, if failure is to be defined as an inability to proceed to federalism. The central political problem in any community is the eliciting of consent. This is not simply a question of defining acceptable policies and selecting leaders who will be judged competent, but also reflects the nature of identification between people and government, which is a question of history, symbolism, and a sense of place and purpose. These, in turn, combine to produce an ideology that is more potent than the more intellectual and abstract creeds usually designated by that term. This is arguably strong in Britain, because of its political and institutional continuity with its 19th-century past, which is unusual within Europe.”

Britain will always be concerned by what is happening on the other side of the Channel, and in that sense, leaving looks like a riskier option than remaining.

But perhaps the British are less frightened of independence than we were in the 1970s, when Edward Heath at last managed to lead us into the Common Market. Perhaps we have adjusted to the loss of empire, our maritime past as a small but daring nation has started to reassert itself, and we are starting to feel a bit more confident.