The Twin Roots of British Belief in the European Union: Defeatism and Internationalism

The disparaging remarks by Ken Clarke MP, a senior Conservative Cabinet Minister, about the United Kingdom Independence  Party (UKIP) made on Sky News on 25th April was part of a serious campaign by parts of the Conservative party to discredit the UKIP ahead of the important County Council elections on May 2nd.  To be labelled by Clarke as “clowns” who dislike “foreigners and immigrants”, is probably not going to affect UKIP’s prospects, anymore than Prime Minister Cameron’s 2006 remarks about UKIP’s being made up of “fruitcakes, gadflies, closet racists” harmed it.  Indeed in the 2009 European Parliament elections UKIP went on to win second place ahead of the Liberal Democrats and Labour.  In the County Council elections UKIP gained 147 seats out of some 2300 available across England and received 24%, nearly a quarter, of the vote.

However it is worth considering where Clarke’s own political beliefs come from as they correspond to the views of a very substantial element of the UK establishment classes (la casta as the Italians call theirs) including middle class “left-wing Conservatives”, LibDems and Labourites as well as most of academia, civil and local government services and the arts.

Broadly it may be said that the establishment wrote Britain off after Suez in 1956 and their successors in the 1970s took the same defeatist view up to Britain’s and Mrs Thatcher’s victory in the Falklands in 1982 – and beyond this though more circumspectly.  One particular manifestation of this defeatism which endures today – and is well represented by Mr Clarke, is belief in a federated European Union as Britain’s destiny.  This view of Britain’s future is pretty discredited among the British people and a minority of newspaper editors and journalists, but most of the castas certainly haven’t dropped it, though since the prolonged euro crisis they are keeping quiet about it.

Where did this defeatist view come from?

After all, in the first half of the twentieth century Britain and the British Empire fought history’s greatest world wars from start to finish on all the oceans and on five of the seven great land campaigns[1] more than any other combatant – and emerged victorious – twice.  Why should the thinking of a large part of the intelligentsia so readily embrace the idea of helpless decline relative to other similarly sized nations[2].  While many have attributed Britain’s decline in influence post 1945 to “war exhaustion”, Correlli Barnett has shown in his masterly analysis “The Collapse of British Power”[3] that the precipitate decline in British power and influence after 1945 had its roots before the First World War in the ramshackle nature of most of British industry and in the character of the British ruling class.  Their successors in the 1930s added to their lack of knowledge of technology and manufacturing industry a bumbling ill-informed internationalism which finds its expression today as an inchoate support for the EU and massively ill-directed programmes of foreign aid.

Support of the EU programmes and Foreign Aid programmes (see Foreign Aid Realities: Invented Morality and The Realities of British Overseas Aid) have been passionately argued for amid a confusion of morality and reality, rarely informed by any actual knowledge of the beneficiaries of British largesse.  Those opposed to these uses of British taxpayers’ money have been condemned as “selfish” and “little Englanders”.

In the context of today’s current debate on Britain’s future relations with the EU, it is worth sketching out the basic geographical, historical and economic facts of the present relationship.

Britain’s involvement with Western Europe: Political differences and similarities

From the ninth century, Britain’s relationships first as England, then after the 1707 union with Scotland as Great Britain, have been extremely close, as would be expected from the geographical reality of England and the Low Countries being separated by a mere 21 miles at the nearest point[4].  Even Normandy, site of the great Allied invasion of 1944, is but 65 miles distant from the Isle of Wight on England’s South coast.  But social structures and commerce, which are at the heart of how people see themselves as nations and live as individuals have developed over 15 centuries in markedly different ways in England and France.

The 21-65 sea miles distance has since 1066 proved too much for a serious invader to cross into England, confirming a profound sense of insularity towards England’s immediate neighbours across the sea to the south and a constant outward-looking attitude to the world beyond the Continental Shelf, first to the west and then to the whole world.  France, by contrast, has looked landwards partly towards its mountain-girt neighbours to the southwest and southeast, but constantly east across the open plains of German-speaking Europe whence invasions were bound to come.  Germany in turn has looked further east towards the open plains of Eurasia, from which a 1,000 years of more or less continuous warfare have produced a shifting boundary between Teuton and Slav.  None of these profound geographical differences between England and France has been all determining – there have been great French explorers in North America, Jacques Cartier in the 1530s for instance in Canada, and the English explorers, Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor in the 1550s, in Russia (or Muscovy as it was called in the 16th Century) – but there has not been an appetite in their home countries to follow up these explorations very determinedly[5].

Cultural Differences and Similarities

Cultural forms (science, technology, art and literature) are somewhat more transmittable than social and political structures, being less constrained by distance, particularly after the invention of printing.  The English language itself, gradually formed during and after the Anglo-Saxon conquest and settlement in the sixth and seventh centuries is composed chiefly of Germanic words for everyday concrete things like food, shelter and clothing, while latinate French has provided many of the abstract words of ideas and concepts.  The EU treaties lay particular emphasis on concepts in their preambles.   The oft-repeated phrase “ever closer union” (of European peoples) is the outstanding example: British politicians have tended to treat this and other phrases as flowery abstractions, irrelevant to the practical business of removing obstacles to trade.  But for Continentals, especially the French, “Ever closer union” embodied in the “acquis communitaire” is the whole point of the EU and the EEC from which it has come.  By contrast Ken Clarke, a Cabinet minister in the Thatcher and Major governments (1985-1997) and in the present government (from 2010) for instance cheerfully admitted during the 1992 debate on the Maastricht Treaty to not having read the Treaty which he was advocating Britain should sign up to.

The Maastricht Treaty

He wasn’t alone in not having read the Treaty of Maastricht before voting it into British law: nobody in the British House of Commons at the time of the debates in May 1992 had been provided with an English language copy, probably because few if any in the British government had fully understood that the Maastricht Treaty – the most important for Britain since the Accession Treaty in 1972 – was an amalgam of all previous European treaties, including those which actually preceded its accession: the Treaty of Rome (1957), which set up the (then) European Economic Community (EEC);  the European Iron and Steel Authority (1950) and the EurAtom Treaty (1960) which set out to control the nuclear power programmes of all participant nations.  It was left to two private individuals, Professor and Mrs Stephen Bush to assemble these and other elements into one English language document.  A copy was deposited on the House of Commons bar by one of its members, Austin Mitchell MP, where other members could ponder the enormity of what they were doing – voting through a set of laws – including the detailed arrangements for abolishing the pound sterling in favour of the yet to be named Single European currency – without having read the documents defining what was intended to be monetary union of 12 disparate economies and any later participants in what the Treaty described as the European Union.  For many people – not previously engaged in the European debate, this behaviour by their MPs really was the point where they began to lose all respect for them as a class.

The appalling expenses scandals 18 years later served only to confirm a complete loss of respect for Parliament and the political class more generally in the minds of the majority of the British public.

The Maastricht Treaty’s British Supporters

To help those MPs who bothered to attend the Maastricht Treaty committee examination after the decisive second reading in May 1992, Stephen and Gill Bush put together a 24 page booklet with an index and guide to key clauses on monetary union entitled “The Meaning of the Maastricht Treaty”.  With the financial help of a distinguished British patriot, David Hill of Lancashire, this was sent to all 1500 members of the British Parliament – Lords and Commons and about 500 senior Establishment figures.  It was generously praised in the House of Commons as the “little grey book” by another  British patriot, the former Labour minister, the late Peter Shore MP.  With the final collapse of the idea in 2010 that European Monetary Union as a force for European unity would ever include Britain, it has to be asked why any sane individual in Britain continues to support Britain’s membership of the EU.  Yet they do – Ken Clarke MP for one – but many of the castas probably think the same, some because they are just fearful of the act of leaving the EU[6], others because membership of the EU brings the casta a large number of very well paid jobs.  Besides this self-interest there are two core assumptions and beliefs which from the 1930s have been a constant  feature in British public life.

Roots of Core Beliefs in Continuing British Membership of the EU

These are defeatism and internationalism, both of which are compounds of reason and emotion.


Defeatism about Britain’s future as an independent country has been fed by people affected by two streams: (1) experiences in the second world war; (2) Britain’s steep economic decline since the end of the second world war.  Edward Heath (born 1916 and Prime Minister 1970-74) is an example of (1).  Ken Clarke (born 1940, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1993-97) is an example of (2).

Heath served as an artillery support officer in the British Army in Northwest Europe 1944-45, when after 5 years of continuous fighting in North Africa, the Middle East, the Far East and Italy, it had serious difficulties of keeping up its strength, particularly in the teeth arms of the infantry and armour.

By contrast the US Army in Western and Central Europe continued to expand with fresh recruits and equipment until by May 1945, it was around 3 times the size of the British and Canadian armies outside Italy.  Churchill himself was acutely aware of the growing disparity in strength by the end of the war[7] and its understandable effect on British officers who had frequent contact with the Americans.  Heath’s later suspicion of the Americans seems to date from this period[8].  Along with others in his Cabinet of 1970-74, he seems to have drawn the lesson that Western Europe, especially Britain, France and Germany had to join together to sustain themselves against American power.   In this, Heath’s view chimed exactly with that of Jean Monnet, the architect of the EU and passionate advocate of measures to lull the different peoples of Europe into political union[9].  Various devices used in his premiership to deceive the British public as to his true intentions[10] were owned up to by Heath some time before his death in 2005.

Suez in 1956 had a profound effect on a whole generation of British people.  One may guess that it increased suspicion and resentment of the USA among the British political establishment, including Edward Heath, because of the US role in securing British withdrawal.  This belief in inexorable defeat and decline was only exorcised by the Falklands victory in 1982.  In the intervening 26 years this belief was reinforced by major weaknesses in British industry[11] now exposed to the full rigors of international competition principally from defeated enemies Germany and Japan.  To most senior politicians in the Conservative party and to Treasury civil servants completely unqualified in the technologies involved, it seemed that sheltering within the European Economic Community (EEC) as the EU was then called, was the only way of modernising British industry and retaining a voice at the “top tables” of international diplomacy.  This defeatist, despairing attitude has been the consensus view of the castas until the onset of disasters in the Euro-zone in 2009. Ken Clarke is the most visible expression of this former majority view, but it’s still widespread in places like The Times newspaper often wrongly viewed abroad and by some of its readers as the mouthpiece of “official” Britain.


Internationalism is a huge subject, but this article is concerned with its impact on the outlook of the British media and the British political class since 1945.  In terms of ideas we have lumped these two groups together as the British casta, to use an Italian word for these two influential, overlapping parts of society.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “Internationalism” as the promotion of the common good among nations, but this definition assumes implicitly that it is the changes to the interactions between nations (specifically the avoidance of war) which will promote the “common good”, whereas some of its modern advocates would see the very existence of separate nations as the chief source of grief in the world.  On this view internationalism is strongly opposed to nationalism.

At the very least, the prevailing view across the British casta and the charities movement which depends on it, is that it is the moral duty of the rich and powerful countries, by which they mean the Western Powers, predominantly the USA and Britain, to intervene in conflicts where “human rights” are being injured on a scale large enough to receive special treatment in the TV news bulletins.  Recent examples of such intervention are Afghanistan (2003-present), Iraq (2003-2010), Kuwait (1990-91), ex Yugoslavia (Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo 1991-99), Libya (2011).  The first three have required major  national commitments of ground and air forces by the USA and Britain.  (Aggregate British battlefield deaths from these three interventions are now twice those sustained in the Falklands in 1982).

Internationalism and the European Union

From the point of view of continental politicians and peoples, internationalism as expressed by the EU has been the only thing that matters for them since 1945.  In their view it has been an unqualified success in stopping wars between its members and they will do nothing to imperil this achievement.

Stopping Wars

In the 86 years between 1859 and 1945 there were no fewer than 10 wars between two or more of the 6 founding members of the EU and another 3 between Germany and 4 later joiners, as well as a cruel three year civil war in Spain and a semi-fascist dictatorship in Portugal, brought to a permanent end by joining the EU in 1986.  In the face of these realities which are present in the form of cemeteries in virtually every corner of the Western and Central Europe, arguments about sovereignty, subsidies and regulations which are so important in British eyes are mere trifles in Continental eyes.

Free Movement of Peoples in the EU

British commentators who, like the Merchant banker and chairman of Business for Sterling, Rodney Leach, in the Times of May 14th, write glibly about “reforming” the EU, creating “a new order redefining the EU as the Single Market”, of member states being grouped in a variety of “non obligatory unions” are really missing the central objective of the EU which is to move as quickly as possible towards a single state – one anthem, president, parliament, civil service, citizenship, currency, external tariff, foreign service, central bank and budget, direct tax-raising powers and armed forces bearing allegiance to its president and parliament.  Only the last in the list has not been achieved today[12]: it is daftness of the highest order to believe that the political classes in the original six founding members will be deflected one jot from this huge project by Britain’s wish to “renegotiate”.   In particular, the Euro rule which the British electorate really wants to get away from, namely the free movement of people, which translates in British eyes as uncontrolled immigration (from Eastern Europe, from Africa via France, Italy and Spain, and from Asia via Greece and Bulgaria) is completely non-negotiable for the EU.  The “free movement of peoples” is its holy grail.  To expect it to change this is tantamount to expecting the Pope to abandon the “Real Presence” to accommodate Anglican views about Holy Communion.

No change possible in Britain’s position in the EU

The position for Britain today is exactly what it was when this writer first put the phrase into circulation in his 1990 pamphlet “Independence or Extinction: No Middle Way”[13].  Whatever Prime Minister Cameron affects to believe is wrong in Britain’s position vis à vis the EU, the other 27 members, absorbed as they are with reducing their own deficits and unemployment numbers have no appetite for substantive negotiations with Britain, ultimately involving Treaty changes requiring ratification in all 28 countries.  Rather than this they would simply prefer Britain to leave.

A Reformed View of Britain

Both strands of the predominant beliefs of the British political class and intelligentsia over the last 60 years – defeatism  about Britain itself and moral activism abroad – are now on the retreat, but still dominant in many parts of the casta, i.e. the intelligentsia, media, politicians and the senior civil service.

Much of this political culture has wrapped itself in a shell of unassailable Olympian conceit, a recent expression of which is captured in an article by regular Times writer Rachel Sylvester on May 7th, five days after the voters delivered a devastating rebuff to the ruling political parties.

According to Sylvester, the driving force behind UKIP’s recent success in the polls is “anxiety about modernity” as “myth and reality merge in (ordinary) people’s minds” not blessed with her clarity of thought and expression.  Non-attributable Downing Street phrases like “we have to deal with the world as it is” and “help people to adapt to inexorable change” are redolent of the Cabinet Secretary’s 1973 comment about “managing decline” referred to above, or those around Mrs Thatcher in 1982 – “you can’t retake the Falklands”, or in 1984 “you can’t defeat the miners” – defeatism pure and simple.

The all pervading fear in British politics today comes not from the UKIP voters, but from the present political class and its metropolitan media chums like Sylvester, fearful of losing their access to well-paid jobs in the European Commission and its quangos, to thousands of quango jobs in Britain and above all its sense of being “in” the magic circles of influence and self-importance.

People don’t believe that immigration of 500,000 foreign people per year into their country is “inexorable”[14] nor membership of a European Union wedded to goals completely at odds with Britain’s interests, even its very existence as a self-governing nation, nor government by a political class which is completely unequipped to run anything, (e.g. witness the unending sequence of disasters in the public sector[15], nor that we can’t manufacture a wide range of consumer goods again.

British withdrawal from the EU is however now a real prospect.  If it comes about it will engender a completely reformed view of Britain, because a majority of the British people will have come to see that both the core beliefs of the political class and its alter egos in the media are false.  A London-based liberal moralism which ignores industrial success and failure alike will be replaced by a national realism which places earning Britain’s living by exporting to the world and controlling the numbers  of people coming from that world as its first priority.

[1]  Northwest Europe, North Africa, Italy, Middle East, Southeast Asia, Pacific, Russian Front.

[2]  Thus we have Sir William Armstrong, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service 1973, defining its job as “Managing decline”.

[3]  Published by Eyre Methven Ltd, 1972, ISBN 413 27580 9.

[4]  The actual nearest point Calais, though part of France since 1558 is geographically part of the Low Countries or Flanders.

[5]  The French, of course, established a substantial colony in Québec, but did not add many immigrants from France itself after about 1650.  At the Peace Conference in 1763, Québec Province was confirmed as part of the British Empire following Wolfe’s victory in 1759.

[6]  For example Mathew Parris in the Times of May 11th 2013.

[7]  Winston Churchill, “The History of the Second World War”, Volume II, Chapter 1, table 1.

[8]  Reinforced strongly by the US actions led by Eisenhower as President to force Britain’s humiliating withdrawal from Suez in 1956.

[9]  Jean Monnet, “Memoirs” (1978) page 12, Action Committee for the United States of Europe; page 272, following, ISBN 0 00 2165 171.

[10]  E.g. Heath’s 1998 admission that he supported monetary and political union all along.

[11]  Particularly in Mechanical and Electrical machinery.  By contrast, in the 1970s and ‘80s, polymers , chemicals and electronics were relatively strong; pharmaceuticals an outstanding success.

[12]  The EU forces exist in embryo form: the Franco-German Army Corps and the EU Navy patrol off the Somali coast.

[13]  “Independence or Extinction: No Middle Way” by Stephen Bush, published by Prosyma Publications (1990) 19 pages, reprinted 1991, ISBN 0 951 7475 0 9.

[14]  The government continues to quote net immigration of 200-250,000, but this range is made up of 500,000 foreigners in and 250,000 British residents out.

[15]  As described convincingly by Peter Oborne in “The Triumph of the Political Class” (2007), the typical route into the British Cabinet is now completely devoid of any real experience, let alone achievement in the fields which any modern country has to succeed in to survive.

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