Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de Tours

Editor-in-chief Trevor Harris

(Literature, Civilization, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Linguistics)
GRAAT: Pronounce [greit]
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GRAAT: Getting to the bone
A peer-reviewed journal of Anglophone Studies


David Gowland, Arthur Turner & Alex Wright, Britain and European Integration since 1945: On the Sidelines (London: Routledge, 2010). UK £17.99 (paperback), 31€, 312 pages, ISBN 978-0-415-322133—Trevor Harris, Université François Rabelais, Tours.

On the face of it, another book dealing with the question of “Britain in Europe” might seem less than entirely necessary: many attempts have already been made, after all, to try to understand how and why the British square peg simply will not fit into the round hole of Europe. Yet the very fact that the problem continues to resist such a sustained academic onslaught is proof that it deserves, and requires, a solution.

The authors here set about their task with palpable energy and quickly round up the usual suspects underlying “British policy and attitudes” [2]: loss of empire/great-power status, relative economic decline, strains on the British union, the Anglo-American special relationship... But while the general approach appears to follow a familiar declinist trajectory, the enquiry takes place within the context of Europe as a “stalled” [4] institution or set of institutions. True, the image of Britain “on the sidelines” ostensibly takes up the now canonical perspective of a Britain “half-in, half-out”, an “awkward partner”, practising “remote benevolence” or “benign detachment”. But Gowland, Turner and Wright move beyond this traditional ambivalence: what if those early French fears about Britain as the agent of European disintegration were well founded after all?

The various stages of Britain’s misadventure with Europe are neatly and thoroughly logged: notably British detachment (for admittedly complex reasons) from the crucial initial stages of the ECSC negotiations and then from the Messina talks; or the theme of Anglo-French mésentente running right through the story from Churchill and De Gaulle, to Blair and Chirac (with just a minor blip when we arrive at Heath and Pompidou). The reader follows how Britain’s commitment to a one-world system, to her supposed privileged position at the intersection of “three circles”, led her into several miscalculations and revealed fundamental flaws in her argument. Above all, the “British manufactured myth of a special relationship” [23 and again at 227-30] set her off on entirely the wrong tack. The “agonizing reappraisal” [42-76], when it finally came, merely resulted in a cure arguably worse than the complaint: the failed, have-one’s-cake-and-eat-it EFTA project. Britain then dithered erringly towards the first application. Once accession was finally achieved, after the long interval caused by two French vetoes, the mounting onus of adaptation to the EEC left successive British governments little respite. Though British bloody-mindedness made things worse, the authors are surely right to point out that the adjustment was just hard to make. The “pre-entry habits of thought” [78] persisted, but Britain also probably joined at the worst possible time. When one adds the grip the Franco-German couple had on European institutions, a febrile domestic political situation, and ongoing economic weakness... Then came “Sister Bountiful” and the infuriating wrangle over the “BBQ”, and the Brighton v. Bruges bout: these episodes are well analysed and can hardly be said to have fundamentally sweetened the prevailing tone of British involvement. And all this was then followed by “opt-outs”, “variable geometry”, and the earnest banishment of the F-word. Britain seemed obsessed and permanently flummoxed by the Euro-Scrabble of SEA, “PMT”, CAP, EMU, TEU... Even the Blairite revolution, despite early optimism, quickly amounted to a full circle as Britain now tried to cope, grumpily, with the complex relations, within the EU, between Westminster and the devolved institutions of Britain’s stateless nations.

Each stage of this familiar tale is told with great precision and verve. This is a satisfyingly solid book, admirably clear, even-handed (rightly refraining, for example, from adding a further layer of myth to what is still often portrayed as the heroic exceptionalism of Thatcher). Above all, the book is well written. True, the authors do not appear to like sub-headings or numbered sections. This is a shame, since putting in a few judicious dividers would have made the writing even clearer, allowing the reader to return more comfortably at intervals. One wonders, too, whether a thematic approach might not have been better than the more conservative chronological treatment which has been retained. The primary impact of the book as an excellent synthesis would, in that case, have been underplayed: but not the rigour or the quality of the synthesis itself. And, given both the sweep and the intricacy of the authors’ perceptions, a thematic treatment throughout (it is more than hinted at in chapters 5, 7 and 8) might perhaps have encouraged readers to recognise more readily the full value of the contribution being made here.

The whole is argued cogently and with authority, and progressively acquires great conviction, carefully bringing out the most telling aspects of British political culture which help to understand—though not necessarily justify—British tactics and strategy in relation to Europe since 1945. The initial “limited liability” metaphor [18-41] is entirely apposite, and places the question firmly in the context of Britain’s traditional emphasis on trade, and the economics of contact with Europe (and the world). There emerges here a very clear sense in which British politicians have almost unanimously assumed that the country’s future lay in its past. This position cannot easily be dismissed as merely fickle, or sinister. The contradiction between British political economy and a European Zollverein strategy is a genuine one, historically and conceptually. The collision between a vision of a common (free) market, on the one hand, and incremental “harmonization”, on the other, was bound to produce, if not confrontation, then at least some unavoidable inconsistencies. The clash between “negative” and “positive” freedoms, may have been momentarily diluted by New Labour’s Third Way, yet the cultural repressed has a way of returning which it is very difficult to avoid. Even Edward Heath, rightly seen as something of an exception to the rule, can scarcely be said to have experienced a Wesleyan “strange warming” where Europe was concerned: it might even be possible to argue that his European “convictions” were in practice conditioned by a sense of desperation and an acute consciousness of the need to just get Britain in. In addition, Pompidou’s “new France” could, in practice, afford to be generous in its recognition of Heath’s European credentials to the extent that the whole system of EEC finance was battened down before the veto on British entry was lifted... In short, what this book brings out far more clearly than many other similar accounts is the incredible longevity of ideas–not least those which stick limpet-like to the British national self-image.

So where does the book stand on the question of Britain’s attitude to Europe? Hesitation, prevarication, ambivalence: all these are recognised as characterising Britain’s approach since the launch of the European project. But, as the authors make clear, it would hardly have been an obvious, fully motivated choice for Britain to have thrown in her lot with France and Germany in 1950. Quite apart from purely domestic considerations, anxieties about the German question were deep-seated. But there were also grave doubts about France’s stability, about the weight of history bearing down upon her and, conversely, the clear signs that de Gaulle was intent on setting France on the path to a new “grandeur”.

Notwithstanding all this, as one reads it becomes very obvious that the authors see the “Europeanisation” of Britain as a fact: an inevitable and ongoing fact after nearly forty years of membership. More importantly, however, they also show clearly the extent to which Europe may have become "Anglo-Saxonised”: dénaturée, in part, by the determined British criticism of the CAP, or by its enthusiastic support for enlargement and by a relentless (neo-)liberal approach in all things economic.

The authors do not really have space, or the remit, to draw out the implications of this two-way influence fully, but they are fascinating. Britain has been regularly subjected to criticism, even vilified, for the perceived short-sightedness of her policies—a fair portion of that criticism emanating from British observers. Yet it is legitimate, now, to ask to what extent Britain is really an exception in terms of its approach to Europe. As the history of Europe lengthens, it surely becomes increasingly difficult to cast Britain as the sole Euro-villain. There is a cumulative malaise and a developing degree of justification for detailed comparative work to show how other member states have, at times, behaved in un-European ways (including France herself). Britain remains the sitting duck, particularly if the Europhobic British press is taken as the main barometer. Most recently, in the wake of the financial turmoil of 2007/2008, the Anglo-American economic approach was openly derided by many in Europe. And despite periodic assertions to the contrary, instead of being “at the very heart of Europe”, Britain still appears at times to be dominated by a quintessentially English paradigm of values and ensconced, rather, deep inside Sherwood Forest.

If the collapse of the Eastern bloc, first, then the “sub-prime” scandal, second, seem to have permanently undermined both radical statism and unbridled capitalism, the search for some kind of European via media remains inconclusive. The elitist, technocratic approach to European construction does not exactly seem to be carrying all before it. For Britain, where scepticism and “cunctation” are generally the order of the day, there remains something not quite decent, something inescapably Orwellian about the methods used: had the visionaries who set the European project in motion been obliged to put their plans to the vote—as is routinely demanded in today’s media-saturated political environment—it is not extravagantly counter-factual to suggest that their scheme might never have got off the ground.

Although in a short review of this kind it is not possible to make the case fully, the authors deserve to be congratulated for having combined an excellent synthesis of sixty years of Anglo-European tussle with some very thought-provoking assessments which seem to point the reader to the conclusion that the British attitude to Europe is now a permanent part of the mix, for better or worse. From there, it is possibly less a question of simply affirming that Britain is a reluctant European–there can be no going back on this now, one suspects–but of asking oneself to what extent others are reluctant, too, and how that scale of un-commitment to various aspects of the developing project can be turned to Europe’s advantage in creating a unique and, as yet, untried vision of “governance”.

© 2011 Trevor Harris & GRAAT









Senior sub-editor: Hélène Tison