“The Worm in the Apple: A history of the Conservative Party and Europe from Churchill to Cameron”, by Christopher Tugendhat.
Published on 24 March 2022 by Haus Publishing – £20
It is a good dinner-party conversation to debate what is the most important event in Britain’s post‑war history. Some will point to the Suez Crisis, which definitively ended any lingering thoughts that Britain was still a superpower and led directly to the dissolution of the Empire. Others, with an eye to the tragedy unfolding in front of us on our TV screens, will put forward Russia’s current warmongering and the end of the post-Cold War settlement. A few might mention that glorious day in July 1966 when England’s football team, for the one and only time, won the soccer World Cup, and gave the nation one day of ecstasy and 65 years of arrogance, unrealistic expectations and disappointment.
But (and although it stretches a little the definition of “an event”), on the list somewhere should be the saga of Britain’s involvement in and disentanglement from the European Project. At various stages over the last 75 years Britain has been aloof, dismissive, enthusiastic, half‑hearted, complaining and finally overtly hostile to the plans and dreams of its neighbours. And the remarkable thing is that all these different emotions have been felt at various times by the same political party, the Conservatives.
Now it is not unusual for a political party to change its collective mind about something over time. But it is rare for a party to change its stance so completely on such a major issue, let alone to change it twice. The Conservatives though are at one and the same time the party of Churchill, who kept the UK out of the early stages of European unity, and of Heath, who against the odds succeeded in taking the country into the then EEC, and of Cameron, who failed to restrain the forces on his backbenches wanting to take it out again. What happened, why – and indeed how – did these about-turns take place?
Few people can answer these questions as well as Lord (Christopher) Tugendhat. In his time he has been a leader writer for the Financial Times, a Conservative MP, and a member and later vice‑president of the European Commission before being appointed to the House of Lords, where he still sits as a Conservative peer. In 1972 he participated in the debates as the UK entered the EEC from the green benches of the House of Commons, in 2019 he took part in the debates over the UK’s departure from the red benches of the House of Lords. And he has now written a book, “The Worm in the Apple: A history of the Conservative Party and Europe from Churchill to Cameron” to explore the role of the Conservative Party – his party – in this long saga.
Tugendhat’s book is not long – I finished it in just two sittings – and he has clearly set out to appeal to the general reader, those interested in politics rather than the political experts. In this I think he has succeeded well, with both pace and tone just right; the book is clearly authoritative but avoids being over-detailed, and in particular it avoids the trap so many politicians fall into of describing the political to and fro in such detail that only other politicians would be interested in it. The story he tells fascinated and educated me in equal measure (and at times appalled me too at the mistakes our leaders have made over the years). If someone like me was his target audience, he has hit the bull’s-eye.
One strength of the book is Tugendhat’s analysis of the early post-War years. So many political books skate over important but more distant events in favour of overdetailed blow-by-blow accounts of more recent but actually less critical matters. But Tugendhat very clearly shows that much of the UK’s difficulties as a nation over Europe go right back to the immediate post‑War period, when the UK could have played a decisive role in reshaping Europe but chose not to. The consequence was that Europe was instead shaped by, and (as the UK found out to its cost later) in the interests of others, something which Britain could never overcome and eventually could not even live with.
The book also prompts two other thoughts. The first is that a national failure of this magnitude – and it is clear Tugendhat does consider the country’s inability to make a success of its 40‑years plus membership of the EEC and EU to be a national failure – does not happen overnight and does not happen at just one level. He portrays at least three levels of failure right from 1945:
– a strategic failure to realise that reliance on the Commonwealth to provide trade and mutual support (Churchill’s preferred post-War arrangement) was backward-looking and doomed to disappointment. Put bluntly, the UK did not realise that even the white dominions, let alone the rest of the Empire, would want to forge their own paths as sovereign countries free of ties to London, and owed Britain nothing.
– a tactical failure to realise that even if the UK thought that what the Continental countries were up to in the 1950s would not come to anything much, it would have cost nothing to go along with it. Instead the UK chose to belittle their efforts and stay above the “chatter of the dreamers”.
– a political failure to be straight with the electorate, to build an honest eyes-fully-open case for joining and later staying in Europe. With the result that trust in pro-Europe politicians was degraded and the door was left open for the “£350 million a week” bus and other half-truths of the referendum campaign.
The second thought the book prompts is that all three of these failures were true cross-party failures. The Labour Party was just as guilty of all three, just as divided on Europe, just as lacking in vision, just as capable of changing from pro to anti membership.
Indeed the one minor criticism I have of the book is that Tugendhat lets Attlee’s government off too lightly. Having explained that the seeds of the UK’s disengagement from the Continental countries’ moves to greater partnership go back to the late 1940s, he might perhaps have observed a bit more strongly that it was Attlee’s government that was in power in the crucial years and which chose to forego a place in the Coal and Steel Agreement, after which Britain was playing catch-up for at least 25 and arguably more like 65 years, and as I have observed above, always playing according to rules set by others.
But that would change the book from an examination of the failure of the Conservative Party into one about the failure of the whole political class. To write that was clearly not Tugendhat’s intention, not least because it would inevitably end up being a much longer, more complex and for an Englishman more depressing book.
Instead he has stuck to his original subject, and written a crisp, thought-provoking and highly readable book which deserves a wide audience. Including, dare I suggest, many of his colleagues in the Conservative Party.