My latest Critical Quarterly column, written over the summer, on Britain’s decision to join the EEC is available here. The others are available here.

7 replies on “Brentry”

“Gradually, British policymakers began to realise that if they wished to retain a special relationship with the US, they would need to join the Common Market, rather than remaining aloof from it. For Miriam Camps this was ‘a very important – perhaps the controlling – element in Mr. Macmillan’s own decision that the right course for the United Kingdom was to apply for membership’.7 President Obama’s intervention during the 2016 referendum campaign, when he came out strongly in favour of continued British membership of the European Union, should not have come as a surprise to anyone.”

IMHO the term “special relationship” is a bit like “structural reforms”, or even “Brexit”. Nobody really knows what anybody else is going to think they mean when they use it.

For a historian, what comprises the “special relationship” beyond the key elements of shared culture and ‘security’ cooperation? It isn’t easy to see how either of these are or were dependent on EEC or EU membership.

Wasn’t there really a strong sense in Washington, as there is today, that Europe is frustratingly messy to deal with – and that the EU with the UK in it simplifies international relations?

Then there’s Russia.

With regard to President Obama’s “intervention”, I have to say that that was up there with the most ham-fisted and counter-productive things I have ever witnessed a US President do.

The immediate context for the so-called ‘special relationship ‘ – a Churchiiliian phrase from 1945 – is the impending Cold War and the breakdown in the post-war Allies relationship. Specifically so, as it relates to nuclear weapons technology and hegemony in thermonuclear power, initially limited to dominance by the US and the UK for a short-lived period post WWII. In terms of domestic British politics at that time, the UK was keen to have the Americans acknowledge the contribution of British science to the outcome of the Manhattan Project, to which British expertise had been ceded via the Quebec Agreement of 1943, thereby facilitating an international scientific collaboration in the creation of nuclear weapons.
Throughout much of WWII, the UK relied on ‘lend and lease’ arrangements with the US to sustain its war efforts and allow its economy to continue functioning. When the war ended in Europe,the UK found itself dependent on a loan from the US to avoid immediate domestic economic collapse. The US supplied the cash. Thus , having averted a national fiscal crisis, in foreign policy terms the UK was free to set about claiming a ‘strategic relationship’ based on supplied nuclear science expertise that had been initially developed in the UK; as well as ‘nationalising’ it as a unique contribution to the war effort and extrapolating it to the future of Britain militarily ‘protecting ‘the future of Europe.

Fair enough, except that the UK sought to isolate the contribution of French scientists, and many of the Central European scientists who had fled to Britain in the late 1920s and 1930s, and whose contribution, along with those of Mediterranean and northern European scientists, had proven essential to the understanding and development of atomic science.

Further , as it turned out, the British understanding of the ‘special relationship’ was one thing; the Americans’ quite another. By now it is well-established that the US supported France in its development of a nuclear weapons’ capability in the 1960s. The French, in turn, later assisted Israel in developing its nuclear weapons. Best not to get into what the French were up to, or might have got up to, under the Euratom Treaty 1957; had other European countries gone along with French strategic objectives of the mid 20th century….. Best not to dwell either on how the UK saw its role in Europe at that time…

Meanwhile, the phrase ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US has undergone several metamorphoses.. The equivalence of Thatcher-Reagan so-called’ neo-liberalrism’ is now part of the ‘special relationship’ conventional narrative of late 20th century, and early 21st century. economics. In economic terms, the new ‘special relationship’ is about a coincidence of liberal democratic values, the fact that 1m people – either way – work for US or UK-based FDI companies and that the UK is the main attraction for US FDI in Europe etc.
Well, knock me down with a feather! How might it be otherwise?

Arguably, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ or ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ has about as much meaning as did the ‘special relationship’ when it was first articulated in 1943/45. It meant everything…and it meant nothing. To my mind, the job of economists is to understand these political dichotomies and respond accordingly.

Here’s my ‘thought’. (What is wrong with the old word, ‘comment’ by the way?)

My understanding of the story, based on Booker and North’s book, is that the supra-national objective was always the intention of its architects, led by Monnet. The electorate in the 1975 referendum did not want it and this is why it was sold, always, as a purely economic thing, a free-trade area. As their book’s title puts it, it was a Great Deception. I agree that it developed its own momentum as it went ahead and one wonders with dismay where they want to take it next. There is a clear parallel, of course, with the wholesale adoption of our new civilizational rules, aka political correctness, which were imposed top-down on a largely unwilling people and, having built up their own momentum, also marches ever onwards.

I find the sudden changes of direction very interesting. Why did Macmillan’s government change its mind? (By the way, a friend of mine studying European integration was at a seminar of Milward’s (I’m sure that’s who he said it was) a few years ago and learnt (to my joy) that when it came to rejecting Britain and Ireland’s applications (and Denmark’s, if memory serves) the EEC found that it had lost Ireland’s.)

Thatcher herself changed her mind totally about Europe and it appears that this was solely down to it dawning on her, finally, what it was all about. She was in a minority of one in Europe and in a very small minority in her own Cabinet. After her Bruges speech (88 or 89) she was on borrowed time. (I was reading about it last night and it was interesting to see Heath’s predictable comment afterwards (while both of them were in Strasbourg at different events) about her hypocrisy and her ‘popularism’ (cf racialism and racism).)

Around the same time as Thatcher changed her mind about Europe the Labour Party changed its own mind, with the same suddenness it seems, in the opposite direction. I am becoming increasingly convinced that you can only go so far in looking for rational explanations for irrational behaviour. The whole EU thing is a fine example of irrational behaviour.

Your version of events seems to me to be closer to the reality. It is old hat but still something that needs to be pointed out that the EU had its origins in the European Coal and Steel Community, especially the unique nature of its decision-making machinery i.e. an independent High Authority that was more than a secretariat but an active player without whose participation, no decisions could be taken. In other words, the precursor of the present-day European Commission.

The concept of “supra-national” came later with the judgement of the ECJ and the concept of the primacy of EU law.

Philip Stephens in a brilliant piece in the FT made the essential point i.e. “Britain has regarded the EU as a commercial transaction not a political project”.

He opens with this paragraph;

“Chris Patten once remarked that for all its decades of membership, Britain had never really joined the EU. What the former Tory cabinet minister and European Commissioner meant, I think, is that it had never properly grasped the psychology of European integration.”

I have never found a better expression of what that psychology is than the wording of the French constitution in relation to that country’s membership of the EU.

“Article 88-1.

The Republic shall participate in the European Union constituted by States which have freely chosen to exercise some of their powers in common by virtue of the Treaty on European Union and of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, as they result from the treaty signed in Lisbon on 13 December, 2007.”

That the Irish body politics has never grasped it either goes without saying. Whether the French have forgotten it will be known in a few months time.

To be partitioned once was unfortunate; to be repartitioned accidently and nonchalantly smacks of carelessness.

There is great disorder under heaven; the situation remains excellent.

Comments are closed.