It would be a vast pity if in the period leading up to the referendum on EU membership, a niggling dispute about what we have or have not obtained in the negotiation supplants wider consideration of the role we wish to play in Europe and indeed the world. Yet it seems this is exactly what we can expect: an obstinately petty argument, which drowns out any more expansive debate about how to further our national interest not just over the next few years but for the next century.

This complaint is prompted by a delightful new book entitled Last Imperialist: a Portrait of Julian Amery, by Richard Bassett, published by Stone Trough Books. Amery served in Special Operations Executive in the Balkans during the Second World War and as a Conservative MP from 1950 to 1966 and 1970 to 1992. Here we find an expansiveness of view about British interests, nourished by travel, history, knowledge of other cultures and languages, and by friendship with some of the main players, which is not often seen today.

Even in Amery’s time, he was regarded by many of his fellow Conservatives as a reactionary: a defender during the Suez debacle, and later with more success in Oman, of the imperial ideas espoused in the first half of the 20th century by his illustrious father, Leo Amery. Bassett demonstrates how unfair this was. He gives us Julian Amery as a Foreign Office minister in the early Seventies, arguing for a more adventurous policy in Europe, and warning his colleagues: “Europe’s identity will evolve in a dynamic way as the construction of a united Europe proceeds.”

In the same note, Amery adds: “We are not really full members of the community as long as the pound separates us from other European currencies.” One may agree or disagree with this, but it is a big and prescient observation. Amery was in particular a passionate supporter of a close alliance with France: as Aviation minister in the early Sixties, he had got the Concorde project off the ground, foiling American attempts to kill it.

In the Middle East, Amery saw no need to accept the inevitability of British decline, and was an acerbic critic of the failure of the United States, after Suez, to take over “the imperial responsibilities they had been at such pains to destroy”. Bassett quotes a marvellously scornful aside by Amery about the landing of American troops in the Lebanon in 1958: “they scarcely got beyond the beaches, hardly even to the brothel quarter”.

At a time when Europe is dismayed and dumbfounded by the Syrian tragedy, who is to say that Amery, who died in 1996, was without insight into these problems? For his view was unencumbered by the democratic pieties which so blinded liberal imperialists such as Tony Blair to the likely consequences of their actions.

Blair imagined that because he was a democrat, he could somehow not be classified as an imperialist. The truth is that he was an imperialist, but a singularly inept one, who never took the trouble to acquire a realistic appreciation of the forces on the ground. Blair’s invincible self-righteousness rendered him unable to think through the consequences of removing a despot. Even now he can’t bring himself to admit in full how mistaken he was.

One of Bassett’s more unexpected sources is an interview Naim Attallah did with Amery for the Oldie in 1993. Amery tells Attallah:

I certainly inherited my father’s views on the Commonwealth and the importance of Britain as the centre of the Commonwealth and a leading power in Europe, and all my life I was greatly influenced by his thinking. The year after he died I fought over what I thought was the last great battle of the Commonwealth, the battle over the Suez. When we gave in at Suez it was really the end of the Middle Eastern and African empire which Britain had built up over many decades. I was very sad at that, and it seemed to me then that our only chance of playing an important role in history was within Europe; and so while I did my best to defend what was left of the Imperial position, in Cyprus, in Aden and elsewhere, Europe has become increasingly the important area for British influence to exert itself. I see no other.

But another passage in the interview is perhaps even more telling as we approach the EU referendum. Amery enunciates with passion the distinction he sees between diplomacy and foreign policy:

Diplomacy is the art of negotiation; foreign policy is determining where the interests of your country lie. Looking back on the years between the wars I have a clearer view of where the interests of our country lay and would have fought for those rather than attempted negotiation. Anthony Eden, who was perhaps the greatest negotiator we ever had, fought very hard over Vietnam, where there was no great British interest, yet he surrendered in what I thought was an area of vital interest, in the Suez Canal Zone in 1954. This effectively meant the end of the Commonwealth as a world force, and a major defeat for Europe, and for British influence in Europe. Later on there was the Rhodesian crisis where again Lord Carrington achieved a great success in producing agreement between the different sides, but in my view at the expense of vital British interests in South Africa. So I have sometimes said that we have to be careful not to let diplomacy triumph over foreign policy; I would have put the latter ahead of the former.

The danger in the period leading up to the referendum is that diplomacy will again triumph over foreign policy. Whether or not we stay in the EU, we shall have a national interest in what is happening on the continent of Europe, and will need to work out how to defend that interest.