Monday, July 18, 2005

So farewell then Ted Heath

How distant Ted Heath's years as prime minister now seem.

I was rather young at the time, but I remember it as an era of crisis. There were terrorist outrages by the IRA - both in Ireland and on the mainland - and also explosions caused by Britain's forgotten, amateur answer to the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Angry Brigade.

On the economic side there was union militancy, the miners' strike, power cuts and the three-day week. My strongest memory of the period is of doing homework by candlelight, though that may be a later invention as, thinking about it, I was never a great one for doing homework.

It is against this background that Heath's claim to political greatness - his taking of Britain into the Common Market, as it was then called - must be understood.

Heath came from the generation that fought in the Second World War. So in his mouth the argument that the nations of Europe must be brought together so that they can never again countenance going to war amongst themselves had real authority. When we hear it today from younger politicians it sounds insincere - a last throw at making the European cause still sound noble and visionary.

In any case, what really brought Britain into Europe was the turmoil outlined above. Though people wrote articles in the early 1970s asking if Britain was still governable, the political classes retained a deep confidence in their right and their ability to rule.

The economy was a different matter, and there were deep fears about Britain's economic decline. At the same time, Britain had seen the economic miracle that had taken place in West Germany since the War. Though many Liberals and Social Democrats looked with envy on Germany's more rational democratic and industrial institutions, Britain's chief hope in joining the Common Market was that a little of this economic stardust would brush off on us.

Equally, it is the decline of German economy that has taken the shine off the European project and robbed its supporters of their best arguments. Until a few years ago, for instance, supporters of the single currency assured us that disaster awaited Britain if we failed to become members. Indeed, this was practically the only thing Matthew Taylor said during his tenure of the Lib Dem economic portfolio.

Today, without these arguments we can see that European politics is just as low and mean as any other kind. Co-operation on foreign policy remains immensely desirable, but there can be no assurance that we have uncomplicated common interests just because we are all European. (We are all British, but that is little help in deciding how the country should be run.) Indeed these days we cannot even agree where the boundaries of Europe are.

So farewell then Ted Heath, and farewell to a certain kind of pro-Europeanism. It always owed more to despair at 1970s Britain than it did to love for the European ideal.


Anonymous said...

Indeed it did, and also to the Cold War. But in fact some of the economic success of the EU did rub off on the UK - despite the terrible start in the oil crisis/miners strike days. We have gone from being a relatively poor coutry to a relativey rich one (in European terms).


Cathie said...

Interesting... how quickly we forget history. Sigh... we will never learn, will we?