23 OCTOBER 1999, Page 38


This blessed plot, this realm, this nation of extremists, this England


I t is a tactic of the Labour government, and of the Vichy wing of the Tory party, to call those who oppose the headlong rush into the European superstate 'extremists'. Personally, I have no objection to being called an extremist. Indeed, I am never happier than when in a minority of one. But I cannot see how the desire to renegotiate our obligations to the EU to reduce our role to mere membership of a free-trade area can reasonably be called extreme. It seems to me a classic example of the mid- dle way, between total retention of sovereignty on the one hand and total abandonment of it on the other. England's relationship to Continental Europe has always placed us in a dilemma, for the Channel is wide and deep enough to consti- tute a real natural frontier, and we have been mighty grateful for its existence on many occasions, not least in my own life- time. On the other hand, it is narrow enough to be crossed, and was crossed repeatedly in prehistoric times by invaders and settlers such as the Beaker Folk, who may not have been as charming as they sound. Two millennia ago the Celtic tribes who lived here were happy to have quite sophisticated trading and cultural relations with the Roman colossus on the Continent, yet fought against a surrender of sovereign- ty. Was Caractacus an extremist? Was Boudicca, or Boadicea as I still call her?

One reason why the Angles, Saxons and kites made a success of their English ven- tures is that they cut their links with their Continental homelands and identified themselves completely with the new coun- try they created, evolving a distinctive lan- guage. King Alfred and the other extremist kings framed their laws in it rather than in Continental Latin. Their Norman and Angevin successors were never able to impose their vernacular tongue, French, on the bulk of the English, and eventually, in the 14th century, French was flung off even as a courtly language. The Statute of Plead- ings made it unlawful for cases to be tried except in English. At about the same time the great Crecy window was built in Gloucester Abbey to celebrate a notable victory of English over Continental arms, to mark the maturing of the first truly English architectural style, Perpendicular, and to complete the bifurcation of the English and French cultures. If all these characteristic actions of us islanders, over many genera- tions, were extreme, then indeed extremism is the English norm.

On the various occasions, over the last half-millennium, when joining a Continen- tal superstate has been on offer, there have been sections of our ruling class willing to take it. But they have always lost the game, not least because the great bulk of the com- mon people have been extremists. There were some in the 1550s, in Mary Tudor's day, who felt our future lay with a Habs- burg superstate which, after all, at that time not only ruled half Europe but also laid claim to, and was speedily occupying, the entire Western hemisphere. But the Span- ish option was eventually turned down by extremists such as Queen Elizabeth and Sir Francis Drake as contrary to English inter- ests. Again, in the third quarter of the 17th century, Charles II became closely associat- ed with the grand design of Louis XIV to dominate the whole of Europe, to the extent of signing a secret treaty with him and accepting a pension from France which made him less dependent on Parliament. But this course, too, was eventually reject- ed, by both the elite and the people, and extremists such as Marlborough began vig- orously to force King Louis and France to abandon their superstate schemes.

It is worth remembering that, 100 years later, Bonaparte's scheme for a united Europe, based on a common system of weights and measures, a common currency, a common law code, a common cultural policy which (among other things) cen- tralised all Europe's art treasures in the Louvre, and various other devices which have been resurrected in our own day, had strong support from a section of the elite in London. Whigs such as Charles James Fox were all for it, for a time at least, and a scribbler like William Hazlitt remained a supporter till his dying day. But the people did not like it and, thanks to the efforts of various extremists such as Pitt the Younger, Canning, Castlereagh, Nelson and Welling- ton, this second French plan for a Euro- pean superstate came to nothing.

After Waterloo, the Germans took over the French role of would-be uniters of Europe. They proceeded more slowly and methodically, first with a customs-free zone, or Zonverein, the model for the later European Common Market. The huge armed forces, the imperialism, the wars of conquest had to wait another half century.

There was a section of the English elite which welcomed the rise of Germany, admired as a country with more first-class universities and opera houses than the rest of Europe combined. But eventually the actions of the Kaiser's Germany forced a sufficient number of extremists, led by Asquith and Lloyd George, to resist the design for a Teutonic Europe.

When Adolf Hitler moved towards the foundations of a 'New Order' in Europe, which would 'last 1,000 years', he, too, found associates among the English elite: not just appeasers but others willing active- ly to support him, such as Sir Oswald Mosley. And it must be said for Mosley that he remained consistent, for, after the war, he was one of the first to come out vocifer- ously in favour of a European superstate, and remained an enthusiastic Europhile till his death. But of course he was not an extremist; that role was reserved for Win- ston Churchill, who as early as 1933 identi- fied the menace of the New Order and was accordingly labelled a public menace. Churchill, let us recall, again attracted charges of extremism in 1947, when he spoke at Fulton, Missouri, of 'the Iron Cur- tain' the Soviets were lowering across East- ern Europe as a prelude for seizing the rest and unifying all in a communist superstate. A section of our elite, especially in academe and within the Labour party, favoured the design until, thanks to the efforts of such extremists as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, it finally col- lapsed in ruins in 1989.

Now we have France and Germany, hav- ing each twice tried and failed to erect European empires on their own, combining to found one which, they hope, they will jointly dominate. So far their alliance has been a civil one of politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats — indeed, the opening stages of the European Union have been marked by collective cowardice and military ignominy. But things can change, and last week's announcement that the French and German armaments industries are, in effect, to amalgamate may be the opening of a new and sinister chapter. Let us hope there are still enough extremists left among us to read the lessons of history and take steps in time, as our forebears did. To William Hague, who has just been branded an extremist, I say, 'Welcome to the club. You will find it very English.'