‘Whatever is decided, the City of London should remain just as prosperous. Moreover there is nothing in the Werner plan . . . to deter Britain’. The Banker, Spring 1971.

In British politics, agreement is traditionally more important than differences. This is part of what ‘consensus’ implies. The points of agreement have to be normally at a deeper level than those of discord, in order to minimize the latters’ effects. In fact consensus-points are best taken for granted: then, ‘what we have in common’ stays in the background, the bass-note of national unity, an apparently neutral and uncontested framework for argument. There is no superior technique of social conservatism.

But the current ‘great debate’ on whether or not Britain should join the European Common Market is unusual in that for once this underlying framework is, at least, illuminated. However garbled some of its expressions may be, it can hardly avoid being about fundamentals: it is about the nation and the state. So it casts a rare searchlight over the rotting timbers, the massive but badly rusted ironwork. ‘What we have in common’—the political inheritance of the Anglo-Scots bourgeois and imperialist nation-state and its extensions in Britain and overseas—is more nearly the object of debate than its bland assumption. Like it or not, both ‘points of view’ in the debate can hardly help showing the structure both stand upon.

What they stand on is, in the first place, nationalism. At first sight both the pro and the anti-Europe factions may appear equally devoted to national sovereignty: that is, equally nationalistic. In his broadcast comments on the government’s White Paper about the Common Market, Heath presented the operation as a venture into new national glory: ‘We have the chance of new greatness’, he said, ‘we must go in if we want to remain Great Britain, and take the chance of becoming Greater Britain’. The arguments for joining Europe have often been very economic in content. But the point of growing economically stronger is usually this: the restoration, even the improvement, of ‘Britain’s place in the world’. Only in this way can the British nation’s prestige, influence and power among the other nations be ensured. For Britain as for the other big ex-imperial power in Common Market Europe, France, the Community is a surrogate for Empire: since Asia and Africa will no longer oblige, maybe we can use other Europeans to magnify the faltering rayonnement? Hence, as for De Gaulle, Europe might represent the continuation of the national saga: we can be imagined as joining our ‘destiny’ (the favoured concept of romantic nationalism) to the wider one of Western Europe, without giving up much that really matters.

On the other hand, among the anti-Common Market groups, it involves renouncing all that counts: the national saga itself. As from January 1st 1973, Britain will no longer control ‘her’ own destiny, and therefore no longer be ‘her’ self. Far from meaning more greatness and national self-affirmation, the European Community would lead to the erosion, eventually to the loss, of national identity. Foreigners, some of them bureaucrats, will tell us what to do. The leading weekly organ of intellectual reaction, The Spectator, believes for example that Britain must at all costs keep to the open seas and the fresh breezes of ‘outward-looking’ tradition. Claustrophobic, ‘inward-looking’ Europe would be ruin to this sailorly inheritance. The attitude is shared by the Monday Club’s imperialists, the fascists of the National Front and—in somewhat different vein—by Enoch Powell. During the three years of his remarkable influence, the latter has reiterated the gospel of pure nationalism: the nation is re-discovering itself, ‘defining itself anew’ (with the help of the coloured immigrant community) after an era of degradation. After the long detour of Empire the English are homeagain, ploughing the Saxon field. The last thing they want now, evidently, is to have a lot of foreigners trampling over it. In this way imperialists, crypto-imperialists and post-imperialists of the right can all unite over the Common Market question. This is hardly surprising, since from the earliest days of English mercantilism up to Churchill a prodigious arsenal of patriot philosophy furnishes ammunition for exactly this sort of nationalism.

What is surprising is something else. Why, given these huge ideological resources, is this right-wing opposition to Europe so feeble? It clearly represents no more than a tattered fringe of the ruling class: a few mps, a certain number of intellectuals, small and relatively impotent groups. True, it includes the right’s most formidable single figure, Powell. But how isolated, how powerless he now appears! This is the man who exerted such a large influence on affairs only a year ago, and who only months ago seemed likely to lead a powerful movement against the Common Market. He toured Europe to prepare a campaign which has failed to materialize. There is no conservative revolt against Heath’s government, either in parliament or outside it (where most of the big press supports him, with only predictable exceptions like the Express). How is it that the class and the party of Disraeli and Churchill, the prime repository of historic nationalism, can be so astonishingly united around the less nationalistic perspective? For, although the same national rhetoric often surfaces on both sides, there is of course no doubt that its intensity is far greater among the ‘antis’: as always, fervour is strongest among those defending the nation against outside enemies.

The problem is all the more startling if one considers for a moment the real situation in which Heath’s bid for entry to Europe is being made. Most of those behind him are hound to have at least a marginal consciousness of what that reality is. The last decade has witnessed a vertiginous decline in British international power. It is false to think that the 1971 negotiations are—as is often reassuringly claimed—merely a re-presentation of the same old issues as Macmillan’s government confronted in 1961. To read the speeches of 1961 now is to be instantly aware of a dizzying gulf. Those symbols of stardom round which opposition to Europe crystallized ten years ago, the Commonwealth and the American ‘special relationship’, have evaporated almost without trace. The Sterling Area is on its deathbed, still expiring quietly after the coup de grâce of the 1967 devaluation. A decade of economic crisis has cruelly and continuously underlined British isolation, impotence, and growing backwardness in the capitalist world. Chronic civil war has broken out in one British province. The immediate prelude to the new negotiations was a prolonged outburst of ethnic bemusement and half-hearted racism, culminating in the elections of 1970. Seen from abroad, Britain is obviously making the best of a bad job: its twenty years of dithering and crab-like advances issue in a pathetic last leap into the only hole left open, and the scuttling operation is solemnized as epochal ‘decision’ and ornamented by a great debate on destiny.