August 26, 2002

How Tony Blair Saved Britain

Despite having the money, the think tanks, and the media outlets, does it ever strike you what a pitiful 'case' the smack Iraq lot make for it? And add to that the small, but useful thing they have going for them – the fact that these somewhat tuneless praise-singers holler in support of American and British government policy. Really, there should be few easier gigs than this, but nope. Where really do you ever get to read a decent argument in favour of, and actually justifying, an attack on Iraq? Well, in an act of intellectual perversity I'm going to have a go next week in this space, if only to see if, in the process, we can see why the folk on the other side of the hill think as they do.

This really is the sort of thing that bothers me most – and so too often I bore you with attempts to try and 'explain the explanations', or, as I would say if I had done English Lit at a New England college, to provide the meta-context. Over at ERO we've tried recently to provide a Conservative examination of why Britain found herself bombing Serbia in the mid to late 90s. For me it was especially depressing that at the time the Tory response to Britain's Balkan wars, outside of the maverick personality of the late Alan Clark, was so limp. I'm not saying that one webzine will turn things around, but it's a start. Now, as we're going to wade into deep waters next week, let's take a look at what is reasonably bruited as Iain Duncan Smith's signal achievement to date as Tory leader – the end to the internecine party feuding over 'Europe'.

In the closing months and weeks of the Second World War, Hitler and Goebbels' rapidly diminishing future meant that they sought inspiration and reassurance from the past. One 'lesson' appealed particularly: 'the miracle of the House of Brandenburg'. This was when Frederick the Great, seemingly about to be destroyed by an irresistible combination of enemies was saved at the very last moment by the death of Czarina Elizabeth. Her successor, Peter III, promptly took Russia out of the war against Prussia.

Obviously the last days of John Major's regime bear little comparison to those of the Third Reich. But one thing they did have in common was the conviction, hope, that the source of their pains might just, at the very latest possible opportunity, be swept away by some deus ex machina.

Just a few short years on it's difficult to recreate through words alone how truly horrible for Tories the problem of 'Europe' had become. And how certain, though for conflicting and poisonous reasons, all Conservatives were that 'Europe' was about to bring their 18 year epoch to an abysmal end.

One way to bring back that feeling of intellectual toothache we suffered without interruption from at least Black Wednesday on is to try and conjure up the grotesques who daily paraded before us. There's no need to name names, to do so would take us far beyond Parliament, even to the pages of what Ken Clarke likes to call 'the Canadian owned press'. What the Clarkes and Heseltines never understood though, was that like any fight between children, it didn't really matter who 'started it', a persistent willingness to engage in combat made every participant seem equally repulsive.

And like in any failed marriage, the true test of how horrible it had all become was, how did it affect the Children?

As their grown up counterparts waged fratricidal war over Maastricht at Westminster Tory students found equal excuse to do the same. In the early 90s the undergraduate anti-Europe society claimed to be the biggest political club in Oxford. Cambridge anti-Europeans, making up in extremism what their organisational incompetence lost in numbers, had no time for well attended speaker meetings and lavishly produced magazines on the Oxford model. Instead of mere talk they preferred to fight via the agency of 'the stunt'.

The most successful was the eloquent forty foot "NO TO MAASTRICHT" banner smuggled into the University Library and hung from a top floor window. Unfortunately the picture destined for next day's Telegraph wasn't developed in time . . . And, the consolation prize of a front page on Varsity, the student newspaper, was lost because of a more Dadaist political statement. Someone rather more inspired had overnight put a pair of giant green fluorescent hands on the Corpus Christi clock, relegating the sceptics to page three.

We, er, they suffered from an unwillingness to take their stunts to the ends their inexorable political logic demanded: even teenage Powellites couldn't bare to ask hostile questions of genial grandee Willie Whitelaw (the consensus was, it would have been like sticking knives in Pandas' eyes). They didn't, despite having a personable American lined up, go through with the plan to mark Commissioner Brittan's visits by dressing her up as 'Britannia in chains' and pushing the stricken symbol round Market Square in a college wheelbarrow borrowed for the purpose. The point here is not the inability of Cambridge graduates to come together in a small group and organise anything successfully – the last Tory cabinet demonstrated that rather more fully – but that 'Europe' from 1992 to defeat in May 1997 caused Tories to do, and think very silly things in relation to one another.

Goebbels' diaries show how Hitler and his Propaganda Minister tried to cast many of the final scenes of the Third Reich in the 'miracle of the House of Brandenburg' mould: localised battlefield successes were hailed as the turned tide; ever more fearsome super weapons to succeed the V1 and V2 were just round the corner; and most cruelly of all, Goebbels and Hitler celebrated Roosevelt's death, thinking that it meant the US would now pull out of the war.

Tories, like the late Führer and pubescent Croatian schoolgirls, had also acquired the habit of seeing miracles all around. Conservative visions in the '92-'97 Parliament were of an (immediate) future when 'Europe' had ceased to torment them. These faint, false glimmers of hope took many forms. Forza Italia and the advent of the sceptical (mk. 1) Silvio Berlusconi was heralded as a fundamental change in the EU, and our way out of all difficulty. Jacques Delor's departure from the Commission was celebrated in some papers much as the news of the relief of Mafeking was. The ERM collapsed. Mitterand died and in time stopped being President of France. Helmut Kohl was supposed to be due to quit the stage at each relevant German general election. All of it, even the Danish referendum result and the fortuitous timing of the continental recession, amounted to nothing. In government the Tory party was determined to fight over Europe, Europe didn't go away, and the party retained just enough strength to fight it too.

The pain would never have ended for John Major's government if it had lived. To kill the pain would have meant stopping the project of European integration. But to derail that train required Britain to appear to want to board. In other words the futility of Tory Euroscepticism was total.

An extreme claim? It is virtually impossible that, but for general election defeat, Mr Major could finally have been on the cusp of the destruction of the Franco-German axis, the engine of the anti-British development of the Common Market. For the development that has facilitated, almost forced serious Franco-German divergence, has been the emergence of an apparently 'pro-European' Britain. This has removed the figleaf of unity for Berlin and Paris, for no longer can they, whatever their differences, define themselves as together in their common opposition to the aims of the uncommuniatiare British.

Evidence for this seismic event is plentiful, indeed The Times' excellent Roger Boyes makes a living out of chronicling it. The mercurial personality of Chirac, in contrast to Mitterand, has played its part in France recently lashing out and rediscovering her independence. Much more significant is that post reunification Germany has discovered that she has national interests and that being a democracy does not preclude their pursuit. France, slightly better practised at this last activity, has fallen out with her axis partner to the extent that it is now the norm for the two not to brief each other first on major policy developments.

The Franco-German axis since 1990 had become a conjurers' trick, dependent on the performers ensuring that the audiences attention was always directed away from the central slight of hand. With the disappearance of sceptical Britain we only had to look at Paris and Bonn for the illusion of European construction to dissolve.

Victory against the motor of integration has been gained by Britain being moderately more Euro-friendly. This is not a trick the Tories could have pulled off, they were, and are heading in the direction of wanting a terminal crisis in our relationship with the rest of the European Union. Mr. Blair has unwittingly saved us from European Union, but if he wanted, and worked explicitly towards it, could he dragoon the now divergent French and Germans into it? The evidence of his and Mr. Straw's diplomatic ability to date thankfully suggests "NO".

Text-only printable version of this article

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis, and is publisher of ERO. He recently took some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration.

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