In the early 1960s --- I have to keep reminding myself that was almost six decades ago --- British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan decided he would try to persuade General de Gaulle, then President of France, that Britain should join the European Economic Community, that had been established in 1957 by the Treaty of Rome, and whose members were France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg.
I was working in London as a correspondent for The Montreal Star at the time, and for he following three or four years the question of whether to join or not to join was one that reverberated at the centre of every British political decision. It was at this time that I discovered, thanks to an article I read, the principle of attitude reinforcement, as it was known to psychologists, which is to say that if you started out with a presumption that joining the EEC was a good thing, all arguments you heard thereafter tended to reinforce your established opinion; similarly, if you started out with a negative view, all arguments tended to reinforce your negativity.
I was a New Zealander born and bred who had been working as an immigrant in Canada when the newspaper decided to send me back to Britain, where I had previously lived for four years, and so I carried my own prejudices on the subject of joining or not joining the EEC into almost everything I wrote.
Political passions were aroused then, as they are now, and I recall Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour Party, making some stirring speeches about the Commonwealth connection, saying things like, “You may say, well, all right, let’s forget the past, but what about Ypres, Passchendaele, those battlefields on which our Commonwealth brothers laid down their lives alongside ours? Are we just to forget those?” Although I was probably less influenced by what I might call the nostalgia of history than your average New Zealander, having schooled myself into an anti-imperialist mindset throughout my youth, and I certainly was no average Canadian who felt insouciant towards Britain’s actions, such speeches as Gaitskell’s nevertheless did get into my emotions as I tried to make up my mind on the subject; and I definitely felt as the psychologist warned I might feel, that my inclinations against Britain’s abandoning its connection with us were reinforced by every argument I heard, until I began to think of the British action as an act of betrayal that it would be hard to forgive.
Of course, not everyone agreed: I remember a stirring debate held by two leading members of the Labour Party one evening, with the bon vivant pro-European Roy Jenkins, a lover of good wines and all things Continental, arguing against the ascetic anti-European Douglas Jay, an equally impressive intellectual, who tended more towards cheap sherry, and had no particular fondness for France. As their learned arguments echoed around the rafters of the packed small conference room, enrapturing their audience, it seemed at times almost that they were elevating their favourite tipple into the decision-making factor for EEC membership.
In the middle of it all I had a beautiful experience: I went down to Dorset, to the very land described by Thomas Hardy in the opening passage of his novel, The Return of the Native, where a semi-retired scion of the British upper classes, Sir Piers Debenham, suddenly decided to stand in a by-election to oppose the Conservative succession, that without his intervention would have been a slam dunk. This was a man who had spent most of his life planting trees on Egdon Heath, as Hardy called it, and I remember him going from meeting to meeting, waving above his head a small red booklet as he cried, “This is the Treaty of Rome, it deals with the frontiers of Europe. That old silly who governs us (his way of describing Harold Macmillan) wants us to sign this Treaty. Those frontiers are a problem for those Europeans. But they are not a problem for us. We have no need to sign this Treaty of Rome, no need at all, and we must not sign it.”
The Conservative candidate, Angus Maude (who had just returned after an unsuccessful stint as editor of The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, and was expecting South Dorset to be a sinecure for him) treated Sir Piers as a massively irritating fly to be brushed aside, yet no matter how often he denigrated him by calling him “a prancing philosopher”, nevertheless the old man was making an argument from the centre of the British tradition of separation from Europe, and although he did not win the seat, neither did Maude: Sir Piers got the votes that allowed the Labour candidate to come up the middle and shut out the Conservatives for un unimaginable victory. Reacting as I did to the powers of attitude reinforcement, I was mightily pleased at the unforgettable intervention of Sir Piers, speaking as he did from the very heart of the British rural tradition.
The British eccentricity built around the South Dorset by-election was even more pronounced in that the seat fell vacant on the elevation of the Viscount Hinchingbrooke to the ancient peerage of Earl of Sandwich. Old Hinch, as he was popularly called in those days, had been enabled to become a member of the House of Commons through one of the peculiarities of the British peerage system, but when once elevated to the full peerage, he had to move to the House of Lords. Old Hinch was a dyed-in-the-wool British Tory, a rabid imperialist, pro-Russian, anti-American, bitterly anti-European, a man who would normally have supported the Conservative succession into his vacated seat, but who, because of the entry of Sir Piers Debenham to argue the anti-EEC case, felt obliged to notify Angus Maude that he could not, in all conscience, support his candidacy. Maude was furious, of course, his sinecure disappearing before his eyes.
My readers may find it odd, as do I, that 60 years later, the same issue is still being argued in all its profundity, in itself a living proof not only that nothing ever changes in British politics, but that Britain, for all of its having joined the EEC finally in 1973, never really felt itself to be a full member, and has always harboured the wish to cut itself adrift from the Continent.
Those newspaper posters of the 1960s that I remember so well, said it all: in the course of a major storm, “Continent cut off,” they proclaimed, as if that land mass over there was a mere appendage attached to the far more significant island.
Well, as someone has been heard to remark, “Wot the hell, wot the hell, toujours gai, toujours gai.”