‘What do they know of Europe who only Europe know?’

(Pocock 2005: 288)

Introduction: Stereotypes, myths, and definitions

Michael Oakeshott was asked in the early 1960s at a public lecture at the LSE on British entry to the European Community, ‘where he personally stood on the matter’. He is reported to have replied: ‘I do not find it necessary to hold opinions on such matters.’ The questioner ‘thought such Olympian detachment on the part of a professor of political science excessive’ (Annan 1990: 400). One of the twentieth century’s most eminent political philosophers was, in that instance, either refusing to play the role of an ‘intellectual’ and pronounce on ‘such matters’; or he was not sufficiently interested in the particular question of his country’s potential membership of the EEC; or both. The story might at first seem to confirm the two main stereotypes about British intellectuals and Europe. British men and women of letters and academia are habitually thought to be reluctant to pronounce on political issues and be ‘intellectuals’. And the British in general are supposed to be – at best – ambivalent about ‘Europe’ and their relation to it.

(p.148) But then, like most stereotypes, these two do not stand up to critical scrutiny. Oakeshott’s comments were, in fact, idiosyncratic – he was, after all, ‘a deviant’ (Annan 1990: 387–401). On the first point, Stefan Collini recently challenged the cliché that there are no intellectuals in Britain, or at least (as the argument immediately collapses when challenged) that there are no ‘real’ intellectuals in Britain, or that, if there are any, they are insignificant and powerless compared to those in other countries. Collini (2006: 45–65 and passim) demolishes this ‘absence thesis’ by showing that there has existed – and still exists – a thriving culture of intellectuals and intellectual activity in a country that sees itself as uniquely inimical to them.

As to the second point, it is not true that the British tout court are not interested in their relationship with ‘Europe’. Of course there is no gainsaying that ‘popular enthusiasm on European matters has been noticeable in Britain only by its absence’ (Bogdanor 2005: 700). But things are more complicated as far as the elites (political and intellectual) are concerned. What has generated the perception of lack of interest in ‘Europe’ is the relative decline of passionate debate on ‘the European issue’ in British public life in the last decade or so. ‘Intellectuals’ tend to discuss publicly the issues that are on the political and media agenda, and Europe has been taken off the agenda in recent years.1 This relative quiet has been the result of an unspoken ‘moratorium’ which the leaderships of the two main political parties (not least due to pressure from Australian‐ or Canadian‐born press magnates) have been trying to impose on debates on Europe. But that moratorium is, if anything, proof of the strong passions generated by ‘the European question’ in the UK. It is the fact that debates and divisions on Europe became so sharp, tribal, and vicious in the late 1980s and 1990s, especially within the Conservative Party (Labour had their fair share in earlier decades) that has led to the attempt ‘not to talk about Europe’.2Things were not so ‘quiet’ from the 1960s to the 1990s, however, and apparently dormant passions may resurface in the future.

There is no doubting the paramount role that perceptions of the past and certain understandings of the country’s history have played in generating the difficulty the British political class have displayed in reconciling themselves with the idea of Britain being – or becoming – just one more ‘European’ country (Peter Anderson2004; Daddow 2006; Holmes 1996; Young 1998: 1–2 and (p.149) passim). The Reformation (and the particular way in which it happened in England) has been seen as a crucial turning point, but the antiquity of British/English isolationism should not be exaggerated. England (to say nothing of Scotland) was very much part of European movements, developments, and networks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was in the nineteenth century particularly that the attitude of isolationism and complacent superiority syndromes became most pronounced. Several factors may be adduced to account for that, including Britain’s prosperity and strength at the time, repulsion at the excesses of the French Revolution after 1792, the sometimes overweening pride that resulted from the British role in the defeat of Napoleon, repeated invasion scares, and, far from least, the magnitude of Britain’s global empire during the Victorian era.

But besides the consciousness of Britain’s power and prosperity, there was, among the Victorian intellectual elite, a particularly political source for their sense of uniqueness and complacency. The vast majority of nineteenth‐century British liberals were (or became, not least after 1848) convinced that Continental Europeans were not sufficiently liberal, and indeed could not understand what real liberty consisted in (Parry 2006; Porter1983; Varouxakis 2002). The belief that Britain (or, more often, ‘England’) was the quintessentially liberal nation surrounded by illiberal Continental nations who were obsessed with uniformity was almost unanimously held in the nineteenth century – and has not yet lost its grip on British imaginations, if one is to judge from the pronouncements of some British Eurosceptics (Scruton 2006: 30).3

Such historically formed attitudes were considerably reinforced by the experiences of the Second World War. Not only did Britain resist being invaded. She also played an indisputably major role in defeating the Nazis. And she did so in cooperation with the Americans. Finally, the fact that Britain has not undergone any major constitutional shake‐up as a result of violent upheaval since the seventeenth century has had profound effects both on British self‐identification as a paragon of political stability and on British attitudes towards constitutional arrangements and constitutional change.

In the following pages I begin by offering a brief historical overview of the attitudes of British intellectuals from the time the debate on ‘Europe’ began in earnest, in 1961 (when the UK first applied to join the EEC), to the time when Britain’s continued membership was confirmed by the result of the referendum of 5 June 1975. Following this, I proceed to examine more recent debates, once British membership itself was an established reality, but the shape and future of (p.150) the European entity was at issue. This examination begins with different strands of Euro‐federalism represented in British debates by academic political theorists such as Larry Siedentop and Glyn Morgan. This is followed by a brief account of the trajectory on the European issue of early participants in these debates who are still active today (Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn), who turned from major advocates of the EEC into stringent critics, due to the direction it has been taking in the last decade or two. The paper then moves on to consider a completely different strand of ‘Euroscepticism’, that represented by the long‐standing animosity towards the EEC/EU among British conservative intellectuals (Noel Malcolm, Roger Scruton, and – more recently – Niall Ferguson). The longest section is dedicated to British attempts to find ‘third ways’, as it were, between diverse competing conceptions of Europe. Though very different from one another in what exactly they propose, several participants in British debates fit such a description, including Anthony Giddens, Richard Bellamy, Kalypso Nicolaïdis, Robert Cooper, and Timothy Garton Ash. Finally, in the concluding section, I advance some overall claims about issues such as the role of historians in British intellectual debates on Europe, the convergence of right‐ and left‐leaning intellectuals in defence of the nation, the peculiar position of the UK in relation to the United States, and the relevance of British political traditions and thought to the European Union as it stands today and as it is likely to be in the foreseeable future.

Debates prior to the 1975 referendum

Ideas and projects by political thinkers or ‘intellectuals’ aiming at different forms of federation, supranationalism, or European unity of one form or another have a long history, and British thinkers have had their fair share of attempts. Some British intellectuals played their part in federalist plans in the interwar period.4 But I want to focus in this paper on intellectuals’ responses to ‘the European idea’ once a concrete and real prospect of European unity of some form was on the political agenda. This happened with the creation of the EEC following the Treaties of Rome of 1957. Britain did not join the ‘Six’ then (Ellison 2000). But soon second thoughts started to gain ground. The context was one of deep anxiety about Britain’s place in the world (Hennessy 2006: 613–20). The victors of the Second World War came very soon to realize that they had emerged from it an (p.151) impoverished and visibly diminished power, which had recently lost its empire in a rapid succession of developments.5 The late 1950s was the time of ‘angry young men’; when John Osborne’sLook Back in Anger and The Entertainer were great hits, and when young intellectuals and academics began castigating and sending up ‘the Establishment’ (Annan 1990: 402–5; Collini 2006: 155–69; Hennessy 2006: 502–5; Marquand 2008: 164–6, 185–6; Thomas 1959). The Suez debacle of 1956 had further accentuated the sense of crisis – and finally brought home the message that it was the US that was now in charge (Hennessy2006: 458–63). Britain had arguably been in decline since at least the 1890s, and the US had been steadily emerging as a major power since before then, but it was after Suez that it was no longer possible to make believe that Britain remained a leading power. The country was in shock and began to look for a new role (Harrison2009: 70–122). The British Conservative government of Harold Macmillan decided to request the beginning of negotiations on joining the EEC in the summer of 1961. The application was negotiated in 1961–2 and British entry was eventually vetoed by Charles de Gaulle in January 1963.

What did British intellectuals think of the question of EEC membership? Even before the government’s decision was taken, the declaration of the Campaign for the Common Market, chaired by Lord Gladwyn [Jebb], which called on the British Government ‘formally and explicitly to declare their readiness in principle’ to join the European Common Market, was signed by several academics and writers. Isaiah Berlin, Noel Annan, Maurice Bowra, T. S. Eliot, Rebecca West, A. J. Ayer, Max Beloff, and Hugh Trevor‐Roper were among them.6

An altogether different kind of response came from intellectuals of the (first) New Left. Stuart Hall and Perry Anderson (1961: 1) undertook to offer the British left guidance on the question in the summer of 1961. They emphasized the close links of the creation of the EEC with American involvement in Europe and with the Cold War and highlighted the very small representation of socialist political forces in the European Parliament and the Commission. The issue of Britain’s entry was not purely economic, it was political: a Labour government would not be able to withstand the pressure coming from six other countries that were orientated against the left and therefore would not be able to implement the socialist policies of the Labour manifesto (ibid.: 9–10). They also predicted negative consequences for the Cold War, fearing that ‘the harmonisation of foreign policy, will make possible, at least, a single European riposte to any international crisis’. And they took for granted that the single European riposte would coincide with that of America, thereby (p.152) creating a ‘Euro‐America’ pitted in deadly confrontation with the Eastern bloc (Comecon). But the Common Market would have ‘its most far‐reaching impact upon the under‐developed territories’. Incentives provided by EEC development funds were most likely to lead African regimes to choose ‘the path of free‐trade and private investment’ rather than ‘policies of planned investment and controlled industrialisation’ (ibid.: 11–13). In the final section, Anderson and Hall discussed potential alternatives to turning to Europe ‘as a desperate relief from stagnation’. They proposed to look again at EFTA (all of whose members, except Britain, were neutrals) and, even more, the Commonwealth. They preferred the ‘more radical alternative’, which ‘would certainly involve a realignment of Britain in the world political system…and a turn towards non‐alignment in the military and international power struggle’ (ibid.: 13–14).7 This position was in conformity with the ‘positive neutralism’ advocated by the first New Left.8

But there was no complete unanimity in the New Left even then. As early as 1962, the Scottish political philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (who had not yet left Britain for good and was in his New Left phase) took a position that anticipated the one Tom Nairn (and Perry Anderson) would come to defend in the early 1970s. He thought that it was sad that Gaitskell and the Labour Party were adopting Stalin’s ‘Socialism In One Country’ slogan. Socialism was international. The revolutionary changes involved in the ends of socialism could not be insulated from the outside world. ‘Either, as Lenin saw, they expand to an international scale, or they regress.’ In a sentence characteristic of the strategy he was proposing MacIntyre wrote:

The last intention of the fathers of 19th‐century capitalism was to lay the foundations for the Labour movement; but they did. The last intention of the founders of the Common Market is to pave the way for a United Socialist States of Europe. But I am all for taking them by the hand as a preliminary to taking them by…But that would be tactless. (‘Going into Europe: Symposium III’, Encounter, Vol. xx, No. 2 (February 1963), p. 65).

Another interesting New Left case is that of Raymond Williams. Initially he was equally opposed to both the EEC (as a form of capitalist integration) and the right‐wing defence of national sovereignty (Chun 1993: 141; ‘Going into Europe: Symposium III’, Encounter, Vol. xx, No. 2 (February 1963), p. 65). But by 1971 he had come round to preferring (‘marginally’) the Common Market choice to what he saw as the alternative (‘an economic assent to increasing subordination to United States capitalism’: ‘Going into Europe: Symposium III’, Encounter, Vol. xx, No. 2 (February 1963), p. 65). By the mid‐1970s he had come (p.153) to choose a ‘Western European identity’ against ‘the economic nationalism of the Labour Left’ (Perry Anderson 1980: 156; Chun 1993: 141).

But the most sustained treatment of the question came from some of the younger generation of thinkers of the (second) New Left, led in this respect by Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson. They were soon to look at the EEC much more favourably, for instrumental reasons. This was in the context of their belief that Britain was so archaic (‘Ukania’ was the name Nairn coined to convey this) that Europe would be a better terrain for radical reform.9 The most comprehensive and straightforward analyses at the time were contributed by Tom Nairn in articles in the New Left Review in 1971 and 1972, and a book in 1973 (see references).

On the other hand, at the time of the actual British entry in 1973 and the subsequent referendum on continued British membership (1975), the EEC was still vehemently opposed by some of the old guard of the New Left, notably historian E. P. Thompson and the British section of the Fourth International. Thompson argued in a newspaper article a few weeks before the referendum that he perceived ‘a time of unparalleled socialist opportunity’ in Britain, if the country stayed out of the EEC. Thompson could glimpse, in England, ‘the possibility that we could effect here, a peaceful transition – for the first time in the world – to a democratic socialist society. I mean that we could do this in the next five years, not in the next century.’10 But others on the New Left had decided, after the failures of the Labour governments of 1964–70 to implement radical change, that ‘socialism in one country’ would not do and castigated what they saw as the Labour Party’s nationalism (Nairn 1973: 97).

A major forum where intellectual debate on Britain’s relationship with the EEC was conducted was the monthly magazine Encounter. Founded in 1953, Encounter ‘was for a while a principal medium through which British intellectuals could reach an educated but non‐specialist public’.11 Symposia dedicated to the question of ‘Going into Europe’ featured in successive issues of Encounter (1962–3 and 1971).12 Most respondents were in favour of entry.13 There (p.154) emerged some noteworthy convergences. There was near‐consensus that the question was not primarily economic, but rather political (and the New Left thinkers discussed earlier agreed on that). Another view that was expressed by many was that, on the issue of Europe, reasons and rational explanations were simply ways of justifying one’s prejudices, cultural biases, and gut reactions. It was the latter that ultimately determined people’s attitudes. Among those who were in favour, a considerable number agreed that one of the key reasons (and the main reason for some of them) was the prospect of entry into the EEC ending British stuffy parochialism. A concern raised by many was that the EEC should not become a protectionist and isolationist club, because in that case entry would damage Britain’s links with the non‐developed world and not least the countries of the Commonwealth. But the Commonwealth was seen as a real viable alternative to the EEC by precious few (e.g. Iris Murdoch or the economist Nicholas Kaldor). Most thought that Britain had to digest that it was no longer a world empire and that the Commonwealth was ‘no more than a social club’. On the other hand, the alternative that was raised as real and serious was that of Britain opting for a closer relationship with the USA rather than joining the EEC (the term ‘51st Stater’ was used a lot in these debates).

The responses in 1971, when Britain had applied for the third time, were no less interesting. Most of those who had already been asked in 1962 had not changed their mind. A noteworthy response came from Ernest Gellner, who (clearly influenced by arguments in The Federalist Papers, No. 10) maintained that ‘a Western [European] federal union would probably favour liberal stability, by making it that much harder for colonels, generals, saviours, and Guevara‐impersonators to seize the centre of power. Federalism adds a dimension to pluralism, it multiplies the countervailing forces.’14

A major contributor to the overall debates in 1971 was the Budapest‐born Cambridge economist Nicholas Kaldor, who became an influential figure of ‘the case against’ in the (second) ‘great debate’ in 1971, not least thanks to his article ‘The truth about the dynamic effects’, in the New Statesman (12 March 1971). Kaldor made an economic case against Britain joining the EEC, arguing, among other things, against the CAP, and predicting that Britain would be unable to compete with the industries of the ‘Six’ and would be relegated to a kind of northern Sicily dependent on structural funds. Those on the left who argued in favour of Britain’s EEC membership had to reckon with and refute ‘Professor Kaldor’s’ arguments (Thomas 1973: 106–7, 145, 184–5; Nairn 1973: 97–8).

The European question stirred passions sufficiently among many British intellectuals and writers to lead to a public intervention in the press à la française shortly before the referendum of 5 June 1975. Writers for Europe was (p.155) a campaign in favour of ‘yes’ organized and chaired by the historian Hugh Thomas and signed by more than two hundred authors and academics.15

Post‐Maastricht federalist solutions

Once the UK was in the EEC (and decided to remain so as a result of the referendum), the Community (later Union) evolved considerably over the years, and so did British intellectual responses to it. The most widely discussed contribution to debates on ‘Europe’ by an academic political theorist in the UK to date has been that of Larry Siedentop. An American‐born Oxford don, with a particular interest in the political thought of Alexis de Tocqueville (Siedentop 1994), Siedentop made his major foray into debates on the EU with the book Democracy in Europe (2000). The very title of the book was Tocquevillian, as was the ambition implied in the undertaking. No less Tocquevillian was the book’s claim that there was a great and imminent danger of bureaucratic despotism in Brussels. Siedentop recommended a federal constitution as an antidote against the danger of such despotism. The book was received enthusiastically by reviewers and commentators in Britain, hailed as, at last, ‘a proper book on Europe’ and the like. It was, however, quite severely criticized by some academic specialists on the EU. Andrew Moravcsik (2001) was especially condemning: ‘Despite its factual inaccuracy and political romanticism, Siedentop’s anachronistic philosophical purity appeals to many British critics.’ That Siedentop’s book was received so positively by the British press, politicians, and political pundits, against the judgement of many academics conversant with the EU and how it had developed by the time the book was published, may be accounted for by the fact that there was so little of any seriousness at the time to have been written in an accessible register of political thought.

Now, given Europe’s striking dependence on the United States (as noted also by Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn – see below, next section), it is not surprising that there are thinkers who put security at the forefront of their discussions of the question of Europe. Glyn Morgan is a Welsh‐born political theorist based in the US. Besides being the author of the book The Idea of a European Superstate (2005), Morgan (a former journalist) sometimes contributes to the British press (particularly in The Independent) on topical issues related to the EU. Morgan’s major argument is that justification debates are misplaced, and that security should be more seriously considered as far as the EU’s role is concerned. Unless (p.156)

Only gold members can continue reading. Log In or Register to continue