Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Log 330: Joining, but not joining: the English turn against Europe recalls amusing days for a former correspondent

I notice that a recent poll shows that 68 per cent of the British electorate favour Britain leaving the European Community.

This really takes me back to the early 1960s when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, having decided that Britain should join, set his minister Edward Heath on the path to negotiating entry with General De Gaulle, who, in his imperious way, had no great fondness for Britain. I was working in London as a Canadian reporter at the time, but more important to my attitude on this subject was the fact I had been brought up in New Zealand, whose persistent and overpowering pro-Britishness I had always felt was cringe-worthy.
Thus, emotionally and temperamentally, I almost automatically sided with those Englishmen who opposed the entry into Europe, because it seemed like a massive betrayal by the perfidious English of the people who had come to their support over the decades in any number of wars --- the Boer war, the First World War, the Second World war, among them--- in all of which thousands of New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians, Gurkhas and others had been slaughtered for causes that seemed to have more to do with quarrels between European powers than with people like us living in the far corners of the Earth.
As a kid I remember the declaration of our Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, when he said, “Where Britain stands, we stand.” No ifs or buts. No reservations about the treacherous British conservative establishment who had so flirted with Hitler and his gang. None of that: just a bald statement that whatever Britain wanted, we were willing to do.
I remember reading at the time some psychologists writing about what they called resolution reinforcement being a natural tendency among humans: in other words, if your  opinions tended in one direction, it was natural to seize every fact that reinforced your opinion, and thus the nation quickly became divided into entrenched camps.
For example, in addition to the concerns expressed from time to time by political leaders based on their reluctance to betray people who had always trusted British leadership --- I remember a forceful speech by Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell to a party conference in which he said (or words to this effect)  “you may say, we have to change with the modern world, but what about Ypres, Passchendale, where loyal soldiers from the Commonweath were killed in their thousands, in the British interest” ---- in addition to this level of public debate an argument raged based on economic facts. I particularly noticed some Swedish research which seemed to prove that for the developed countries of Europe, by far the most efficient and profitable form of trade was among themselves, and this is why Britain was ready to jettison its long-held arrangements for favourable trade with the far-flung dominions, in favour of freer British entry into European markets.
A clear case of Britain feathering its own nest, and to hell with all its loyal followers around the world.  Moseying up to the Germans and Italians whom they had so recently called in the dominions to fight, and saying, to hell with New Zealand lamb and butter, Australian wool, and so on. Every New Zealand minister who came to Britain complained there was a world-wide conspiracy against free entry of their efficiently produced dairy products, which could have wiped out (for example), the dairying industry  of Canada if only they could have obtained free entry (as the British had given them for years.)
I remember a debate between two Labour leaders, Douglas Jay, who was against British entry, and Roy Jenkins, who was in favour of it, and I wrote a very amusing article suggesting that Jay was against it because he was known to drink cheap sherry, and generally to be rather a wowser (as New Zealand slang would describe him) and Jenkins was in favour because he was known as a bon vivant who loved French food and wine, and all the continental joie de vivre for which Europe was so famous.
Of course, in the event, it probably turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to New Zealand and Australia, who, faced with the loss of their British trade, had to diversify into other countries that were willing  (and eager, as it turned out) to buy their products.
But one positive aspect, I always thought, was that there were great areas of humour to be derived from all this fervent debate, and one of the most enjoyable jobs I ever had was to cover the South Dorset by-election, which was centred on the question of British entry. The seat had been held by a man called Lord Hinchingbrooke, who was elevated by inheritance to the Earldom of Sandwich, and thus became ineligible to continue in the House of Commons. (How he could have been eligible as Lord Hinchingbrooke is one of those unfathomable English mysteries.) Hinch, as he was known to everyone, was a gloriously unclassifiable personality, both imperialistic, pro-Russian, anti-American, violently against the European connection, and totally independent. His seat was to have fallen into the hands of a successor, a man called Angus Maude, who had become disillusioned with the comparatively liberal ambiance of the Macmillan Tories, and emigrated to Australia, where he became the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald.  It appears, however, than not only did he not take to Australia and the Australians, but they did not take to him; and so he returned just in time to get back into the House of Commons through this by-election.
But just as he was writing to Hinch soliciting his support, another extraordinary character entered the scene. This was Sir Piers Debenhem, a member of the establishment family that owned a major department store in London, but who had lived his entire life on the edge of the common that was immortalized by Thomas Hardy in his novels, as Egdon Heath, on whose barren wastes he had been planting trees for years. Sir Piers declared he was fighting the election in opposition to the attempt to join the Common Market. Hinch, of course, felt impelled, as a man of honour,  to support him,  and when Maude wrote to Hinch soliciting his support, he received the stunning blow that Hinch was sorry but he could not support him.
Sir Piers in his meetings clutched a copy of the Treaty of Rome, waved it over his head and cried, “This Treaty is about Europe’s borders. They have trouble with their borders. But we do not. We do not need to join this Treaty.” He had a wonderfully archaic pattern of speech, referred to Macmillan as “that old silly who governs us,” and was generally loved by the flock of reporters who descended on the constituency.  Warned that his intervention might conceivably overturn an impregnable Tory seat to the Labour Party, Sir Piers expressed his utter indifference to that.  Maude, facing the disappearance of his safe seat, become more and more hysterical, denouncing this loveable old eccentric in ever more extreme terms --- “a prating philosopher,” he contemptuously called him, which didn’t go over too well with the countrymen who knew Sir Piers well ----  and every one of Maude’s cracks exposed him for what he seemed to be, a rather nasty, jumped-up little careerist.  In the event, that is exactly what happened. Sir Piers got a respectable vote, of some 5,000 if I remember correctly, allowing the Labour candidate, Guy Barnett, an earnest technocratic type, to come up the middle and take the victory.
Well all this fun eventually came to an end when General De Gaulle delivered the coup de grace, shutting the English out of the Community, until the persistent Mr Heath managed to obtain entry on a later occasion.
Still, there is an old English saying, “the foreigners begin at Calais,” and there is every evidence that the British commitment to Europe has never been better than extremely lukewarm. In a way that must surely revive thoughts of “perfidious Albion”, it  now appears they want to remain outside the Euro Zone, while having their say into how it is run. Twas ever thus, I imagine.

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