Ian Aitken, Tribune column, 9 December 2011
I was a bit taken aback when I opened my copy of the last issue of Tribune and found a piece by my old friend and colleague Paul Anderson in which he threatened to slag off his Eurosceptic chums for indulging in a little Schadenfreude over the present difficulties of the eurozone.
Mind you, he didn’t actually do it, saying that it was a subject for a later column. But his gentle warning set me thinking about how two lefties such as Paul and me could see the matter from such radically different angles, and how I came to be a sceptic rather than an enthusiast like him.
Looking back, I think I can trace my original distrust of the so-called European ideal to my old hero Aneurin Bevan. Although he was dead by the time the subject became a major political issue following Harold Macmillan’s original application to join the Common Market, I was in no doubt about his views. He saw the Treaty of Rome as a two-pronged effort first to entrench the capitalist system and the free market in a binding Europe-wide law, and then to provide a solid economic foundation for Nato and the Cold War.
I can’t actually provide chapter and verse for this interpretation of Nye’s view. But that was the general view surrounding Tribune and the Bevanites at the time. We argued and debated about it often, although mainly in the context of the Cold War, and there was no question that Nye shared that view and gave it his endorsement. Moreover, I don’t think it would have changed if he had survived: by then, he had become Hugh Gaitskell’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, and Gaitskell was a passionate opponent of Macmillan’s attempt to take Britain into Europe. Their remarkable alliance could not have survived a disagreement over such a central issue.
By the time Macmillan made his doomed application, I was on the Daily Express, whose proprietor was passionately hostile to Europe. As I have mentioned in this column before, Lord Beaverbrook saw the chance to create an improbable electoral alliance between his newspapers and the Labour Party, and he chose me to be the channel of communication between him and Hugh Gaitskell. The only thing that prevented the Express from urging its readers to vote Labour was Charles de Gaulle’s sudden veto, which scuppered Macmillan’s ambitions just as they seemed about to be fulfilled.
Not long after this, with Bevan, Gaitskell and Beaverbrook all dead, I moved from the Express to the Guardian and found myself in a new phase of my European journey. Where the Daily Express had been passionately anti, the Guardian (or some of its staff) was passionately pro, and I learned something alarming about the Euro-enthusiasts: they were so desperate to get in that they were ready to accept almost any terms that would satisfy General de Gaulle. This attitude was typified by the then deputy editor of the Guardian, a nice man called Harford Thomas. Late one night in the office, I said to him that I often got the impression that real Euro-enthusiasts would be prepared to go into it with their trousers down and dragged backwards through a holly bush. “Yes”, he said, “I would be prepared to go in on those terms”.
I don’t actually believe that Macmillan’s application fell into quite the Harford Thomas category. His was a typically calculated move, and probably had a lot to do with the wishes of John F Kennedy and the US State Department. They were dead keen to get us in as a reliable proxy for the United States – which, of course, was exactly why de Gaulle wouldn’t have us. But Edward Heath, the Prime Minister who eventually took us in, was very definitely a holly bush man. The only constraint he felt in his negotiations was what he could get away with at home – which is why he did not allow a referendum in spite of his promise to seek the “full-hearted consent of the British people”, and then drove the treaty bill through the House of Commons on a series of three-line whips. If Roy Jenkins (another holly bush man) and his followers had obeyed the Labour whip, the bill would have been defeated.
Then came Harold Wilson’s referendum – a typically clever ruse to get round the fact that his party was split from top to bottom on Europe. If it had been a vote on whether to go in, it probably would have been lost. But this was a vote on whether to come out, a much more difficult proposition to sell. The “Yes” campaign was fought on the basis of some truly spectacular lies – among them the assertion that our membership involved no loss of sovereignty – and was financed by gigantic sums donated from the City. The man who organised the fundraising wrote a book afterwards about how the result was bought.
So that is how I came to be a sceptic, even if I am rather more ambivalent now. But looking at events across the Channel, it is hard to resist a hollow laugh even at the risk of offending dear old Paul Anderson. As for that little matter of sovereignty, we now know where we stand: if you want to be in the eurozone, you will have to appoint your cabinet from the London Business School and then submit your budget to Brussels for inspection and approval. Maybe that’s the way it’s got to be – as Paul seems to be suggesting. But if so, I want no part of it. I will stay at home and read old Agatha Christies.