All Brexit Is Local

All Brexit Is Local

Party politics have always driven Britain's troubled relationship with the EU.


TWENTY-FIVE years ago, Sir Geoffrey Howe resigned as deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom in protest of Margaret Thatcher’s staunch anti-Europeanism. Howe’s departure from the frontbenches came just two days after Thatcher’s denunciation in Parliament of plans for a European single currency (“No! No! No!”), a moment that has since become totemic of what Howe condemned in his resignation speech as the prime minister’s alacrity to undermine her own ministers over European issues. Whereas some in Thatcher’s cabinet—not least of all Howe, a former foreign secretary, and Nigel Lawson, then chancellor of the exchequer—preferred that Britain be an active participant in crafting Economic and Monetary Union, the Iron Lady consistently sought to stymie their progress and appeared bent on using British influence to forestall the emergence of European-level institutions of economic governance. An impasse existed at the top of British politics, one that Howe sought to overcome by precipitating an open debate within the Conservative Party over the country’s future in Europe and the wider world.

Addressing a packed House of Commons, Howe negatively contrasted Thatcher’s rejection of European integration with Harold Macmillan’s brand of pro-European conservatism. Macmillan, of course, had been the original petitioner for British membership in the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1961. According to Howe, a hallmark of Macmillan’s foreign policy had been his recognition that Britain must “place and keep” itself at the heart of Europe. Macmillan “saw it as essential,” Howe explained to MPs, for the British “not to cut ourselves off from the realities of power; not to retreat into a ghetto of sentimentality about our past and so diminish our own control over our own destiny.” The point of the comparison was to cast Thatcher as a petty and wrongheaded nationalist, someone whose blustering patriotism would lead to a shrinking of Britain on the world stage. Britain’s future lay not in Thatcher’s romantic dream of splendid isolation but in something more akin to Macmillan’s sober, pragmatic and statesmanlike brand of multilateralism.


As it turned out, neither Howe’s resignation nor his calculated Commons oration succeeded at promoting a full and galvanizing discussion within the Conservative Party on Britain’s relationship with Europe. Instead, his intervention was overtaken by events. Badly damaged by Howe’s shot across her bows, Thatcher was challenged for the party leadership by Michael Heseltine. And after failing to rally enough Conservative MPs to her corner, Thatcher quit the premiership ultimately to be replaced by her preferred successor, John Major. (Tellingly, Major’s seven-year stint as prime minister would be just as—if not more—marred by cabinet and backbench rebellions over Europe as the tail end of Thatcher’s time in Downing Street.) Lost amid this dramatic sequence was Howe’s original analysis: that Thatcher and Macmillan represented two poles of Conservative political thought towards Europe; that Macmillan had essentially been right to support internationalism and integration; and that Thatcher was wrong to oppose Europe in the name of preserving national sovereignty.

Given that it was not fully dissected at the time—and especially in light of Britain’s impending referendum on EU membership—there is a great deal to be gained from revisiting Howe’s central contention. Was he correct that Thatcher had strayed from a more sensible foreign policy set by Macmillan three decades earlier? Is European integration—the pooled sovereignty, the convergence of economic policies, the perpetual battles over questions of democracy, legitimacy and accountability—a prudent course for British leaders to plot for their country on the world stage? And as the United Kingdom contemplates Brexit, what are the lessons—if any—for the twenty-first century?


IN FACT, Howe’s juxtaposition of Macmillan and Thatcher can be said to crystallize a common misconception in British political discourse that continues to this day: that the debate on British involvement in Europe boils down to a disagreement over Britain’s role in the world. For contrary to Howe’s suggestion, Macmillan never saw European integration as a solution to the question of Britain’s foreign policy, vexing though this question was for him. He preferred instead to put stock in Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States as a way to safeguard the country’s international standing.

Macmillan’s actual view—one that would later be shared by Thatcher—was that Britain should pursue European integration to bolster economic growth; as an institutional guarantee that Britain’s domestic economy would continue to be market oriented; and to steal a march on the embattled Labour opposition of the day. In other words, closeness with Europe was to be sought as an outgrowth of domestic political exigencies, not as a way to reorient Britain’s foreign policy. And despite the lofty imagery often touted by pro-Europeans, this basic political calculus has remained operative ever since: British policy towards Europe overwhelmingly is a product of Innenpolitik over Aussenpolitik, of partisan politics over geopolitics. This was true in the 1960s and the 1980s, and it is still true today.

Not that Macmillan was oblivious to the question of Britain’s role in the world, of course. After all, his premiership (1957–63) unfolded in the shadow of the Suez Crisis (1956), the international debacle that saw Britain—working in concert with France and Israel—launch an ill-fated military assault to wrest control of the Suez Canal away from the Arab nationalist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser. What this ignominious episode brought home to Macmillan was that the era in which Britain could act unilaterally in foreign affairs had come to an end. In the recent past, Britain had been primus inter pares among the great powers. Now, the United States and the Soviet Union were unmistakably dominant. Even in regions historically in Britain’s sphere of influence, such as the Middle East, it was the superpowers that held the most sway. Not even leadership of the dwindling Empire and a transformed Commonwealth was enough to cement Britain’s place in the top flight of states. The ground upon which international politics took place had shifted, Macmillan saw, and Britain’s place in the world with it.

But it would be wrong to conclude that Macmillan looked to Europe to solve this foreign-policy predicament. He did not. Instead, the most important component of Macmillan’s foreign policy was to move Britain more closely into the U.S. orbit. “These Americans represent the new Roman Empire,” he once confided, “and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go.” Towards the end of husbanding Britain’s role in the world to that of the United States, Macmillan worked hard to rebuild the wartime special relationship that had been so badly damaged by Suez. Macmillan fostered warm relations with President Eisenhower and even warmer relations with Ike’s successor, John F. Kennedy, with whom Macmillan concluded the Nassau Agreement in 1962 to secure U.S.-manufactured Polaris missiles for Britain. Indeed, the Macmillan-Kennedy relationship often is regarded as a high point of closeness between Anglo-American leaders, an era in which cooperation blossomed over nuclear issues, intelligence sharing and military planning.

Viewed from this perspective, integration into Europe was hardly necessary to stay Britain’s geopolitical decline. Britain’s security and diplomatic clout would be secure so long as the country could boast a firm alliance with the United States, Macmillan wagered. The decision in 1961 to apply for membership in the EEC, then, had to have been driven by different motivations altogether. And what the historical record makes clear is that these motivations were partisan in character.

First, Macmillan—despite his reputation as a central planner—recognized that Britain needed better access to foreign markets to generate economic growth at home and placate the domestic constituents upon whom Macmillan and his colleagues in the Conservative Party relied for political support. Powerful groups such as the Federation of British Industries envied the enormous economic gains being made by the EEC’s member states and lobbied Macmillan to secure similar free-trade agreements for British business. Eager to keep the Conservatives’ near monopoly of the business vote, Macmillan was all too happy to oblige.

Initially, Macmillan championed the creation of a rival to the EEC, the European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA), to fulfil this partisan objective. And following its creation in 1960, EFTA, which united Western Europe’s non-EEC countries into a single trade regime, did go some way towards facilitating British firms doing greater commerce with the continent. In the end, though, a consensus emerged that Britain’s competitiveness could not be brought into line with the major economies of Western Europe without the level playing field that only British membership in the EEC could bring.

In time, EFTA came to be seen more as a political bargaining chip to gain British entry to the EEC and less as a viable economic entity in its own right. But throughout the period, it is clear that Macmillan and his Cabinet made European policy largely according to a simple political rationale: freer trade and open markets would benefit British business and, in turn, would bolster the political standing of the Conservative Party. Whichever model of European integration would best serve these domestic political ambitions was the model that Macmillan would throw his weight behind.