In the light of Luisa Passerini’s new book on the cultural and political discourse on Europe in Britain in the 1930s,footnote it is tempting to draw a number of parallels between that decade and our own. The inter-war years, Passerini shows, were a period of much speculation and adventurous thinking about Europe—initially by politicians, but subsequently by individual scholars and small groups, whose interests were ostensibly ‘cultural’ rather than ‘political.’ These groups adopted names which evinced almost as much millenarian posturing—perhaps, in the context of the 1930s, it is fairer to say ‘utopianism’—as we see in our own period. Such names included ‘New Europe’—a phrase which recurs during the 1920s and 1930s in various contexts, but which is currently the name of David Owen’s emusceptic lobby group—and ‘New Britain’, the title of a journal launched by the New Europe group in 1932, but which has gained familiarity as the watchword of a party whose attitude towards Europe is anything but forthright (others from the 1930s included New Albion and New Atlantis).

A period of political retreat from serious consideration of the idea of a federal Europe set in after Churchill apparently captured the mood of the country in his famous Saturday Evening Post article of 15 September 1930, in which he drew a contrast between Europe and the British colonial empire, the continent and the Commonwealth, declaring primary allegiance to ‘our own dream and our own task’. In the wake of the Briand memorandum of 1929 on a proposed federal Europe, the British press persisted in seeing the Commonwealth as the foundation for a unity potentially stronger than the usa and Europe, and Churchill capitalized on these sentiments: ‘We are with Europe but not of it. We are linked but not comprised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed.’footnote1

It is these lines of Churchill’s that William Hague drew upon in the recent Conservative European election manifesto. ‘In Europe, Not Run by Europe’ was the slogan for the Tory campaign, and Hague has sought to fashion himself as the inheritor of Churchill’s mantle of sobriety. Perhaps this is nothing other than history replayed as farce; in Hague’s rhetoric, Churchill’s dream of empire is replaced by nothing so grand, merely the parochial appeal of the English pound. When Hague declared that we have our own currency to ‘rival’ those of the dollar and the euro, and that all we need is the will to make it work, he secured his European election ‘triumph’ by means of a self-delusion shared with the electorate. If the analogy between the British Empire and the English national currency holds up, the latter has perhaps another ten years of moribund life before a series of independent assaults culminates in its ignominious and inevitable demise.

Such bathos continually frustrates any attempt to read the thirties as a dress rehearsal for our own concerns. Hague is no Churchill, just as Milosevic is no Hitler, just as Tony is no Eric Arthur, just as Jospin is no Briand, just as George Walden is no Ortega y Gasset, just as nato is no League of Nations, and just as the proposed ‘stability pact’ for the Balkans is no Marshall Plan. The possibility of drawing such analogies is both presupposed and consistently denied by Passerini; no reference is made to them—for reasons that I shall explore below—yet the book’s very existence is testament to her belief that the European Union, as an existing entity and as a promise for the future, is a paltry achievement compared to the united Europe once imagined by the figures who populate her narrative.

The fact that such analogies, when analyzed in detail, fail to stand up is only one reason why Passerini refuses to draw attention to them. Not only does she avoid any reference to the parallels suggested above; she implicitly repudiates the once conventional assumption of historians that the past and the present exist in any sort of continuity; that the past may be used to illuminate the present, as well as the converse, enjoined by A.J.P. Taylor, that the present be used to throw light on the past. In addition, she puts the greatest possible distance between herself and the philosophy of history, the grandest, and malest, of historical approaches. In other words, she writes from a cultural-historical perspective which has more in common with Burckhardt than Hegel; yet she goes a great deal further than Burckhardt in her pursuit of the ‘cultural’, as opposed to the ‘political’ (or received) truth of the period she is concerned with. Culture, wrote Burckhardt, ‘is the sum of all that has spontaneously arisen for the advancement of material life and as an expression of spiritual and moral life—all social intercourse, technologies, arts, literatures, and sciences. It is the realm of the variable, free, not necessarily universal, of all that cannot lay claim to compulsive authority.’footnote2 Such an approach runs the risk of both Eurocentrism and, especially, ahistoricism, by privileging the ‘spontaneous’ (and therefore authentic) over the deliberated (and therefore official, sanctioned). Burckhardt, both in his lectures on Greek civilization and in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, looks back through the lens of his own time and finds evidence of a spontaneity and individuality which he deems to have been lost in his own present.