City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The General Says No

Written in


A story of Britain‘s exclusion from Europe—but not that one

By no means was it a good second-hand bookshop. In fact, it was a very poor second-hand bookshop, a nondescript shop on a nondescript concrete slab leading down to one of those nondescript piles of stones that apparently pass for a beach in Brighton. But perhaps due to the paucity of other stock, a bright red Penguin Special immediately leapt out at me. Its title was ‘The General Says No: Britain’s Exclusion from Europe.’

This, for a quid, would turn out to be a hugely engaging tale of Britain’s woeful failure to join the European Common Market in 1963. And at this Brexity point in our history, newly compelling, insightful, almost required reading.

It is the story of Europe rejecting Britain, rather than our recent little turnaround on that front. Although it also the story of Britain rejecting Europe. And of course, it is also the story of Britain and Europe having been so entwined for millennia that any true rejection is literally impossible either way.

Written by an Observer journalist, Nora Beloff, who had a “front seat at the Common Market negotiations” according to the back cover, the book was published in May 1963, a mere five months after the “death sentence”, as she puts it, being pronounced on 14 January 1963. So this is rapid reportage, yet Beloff tells it beautifully. You may find it hard to fathom how a description of two years of trade agreement negotiation—EEC trade negotiation at that—could be a page-turner, but it is. Beloff describes the characters, motivations, scenery and dialogue with real verve, with plenty of backstabbing and grandstanding, sensibly playing that hand rather more than data on the state of the Coal and Steel Pool.

This is serious journalistic writing in the best sense, however. Beloff uses narrative techniques as she knows these stories must be communicated en masse – in the spirit of Penguin books, in fact. However, reading Beloff gives a clear sense of the European landscape of the early 1960s, in all its complexity; political, economic, socio-cultural. (Incidentally, Beloff would go on to pursue a hugely impressive and groundbreaking career, moving from The Economist to The Observer, as political correspondent, making her the first woman in such a role for a British newspaper. She deserves to be better-known.) I’ve dog-eared so many pages in this book that it’s now impossible to make a coherent reflection on it, as I’d simply be typing out the whole thing. What follows are some reflections nonetheless, but I’d advise you to try to find a copy if you can—it’s worth it.

What hit us?

The opening paragraph of Beloff’s foreword could perhaps have been written at any point from 2016 onwards, rather than 1963:

What hit us? For almost two years the British people have been re-examining their national identity. Are we still a great power? Is there any reality left in the old notions of national sovereignty, patriotism, Commonwealth leadership, and military independence? If not, should the British surrender a large slab of public business to a Community in which they would be minority partners only? Are there other more appropriate international groupings, or should Britain accept irrevocable links with Western Europe, that small exposed peninsula, with its tremendous human resources and peculiar capacity for self-destruction, at the tip of the Eurasian landmass?

Yet that last note, regarding “self-destruction”, is a ‘tell’ that this is not 2018. These negotiations were carried out in the early 1960s by Europeans for whom the Second World War was a recent, painful event. Today’s rather more careless, and frankly less-informed, politicians appear to have forgotten, or chosen to ignore, the European Community’s role in ensuring that that war was the last major war. As she later notes, “When Europeans stopped killing each other at the end of the war, everyone declared themselves in favour of European union.”

Yet isn’t it astonishing, and perhaps somewhat depressing, that the rest of that opening paragraph, with its core motifs of British patriotism, sovereignty and military independence, are essentially the same notes that are being played out now, half a century later? Beloff, explicitly questioning whether there was “any reality left in (these) old notions” back then, would surely be horrified that today’s arguments still largely revolve around them.

Her foreword continues:

To answer these questions has proved agonizingly difficult. When the Conservative Party came round to saying ‘yes’ to the European Community, Labour leaders charged them with turning their backs on a thousand years of history: the Conservatives retaliated by claiming that the future was on their side — at which the reviving Liberal Party protested that they had been for joining Europe all the time. And then, while the country was still locked in argument and passions were red hot, General de Gaulle said ‘No’, and Britain’s own views on her national destiny suddenly appeared absurdly irrelevant.

How could we have presented him with such an exposed posterior? Was the whole debate a gigantic hoax, with the French never intending to let us in? Why did the General pronounce the verdict as unexpectedly and brutally as he did?

As I reported the story of the breakdown in the columns of the Observer I became aware there were still many unsolved mysteries. The chapters in this book are the results of an attempt to discover the answers.

Immediately, we shed reflected light on today’s torrid conditions. As she notes, the Conservative party, under Churchill, Macmillan, Eden et al, was largely pro-Europe at this point, whereas the Labour party, concerned to protect British industry, was largely agitating against Britain joining the Common Market. Although the economic situation is quite different in a sense — our coal and steel industries, at the heart of the debate at that point, are long gone, or automated and foreign-owned — perhaps we can still perceive some of the roots of Labour’s current ambivalence to European Union? Back in 1960, Beloff says “most British socialists could not conceive of their policies of social welfare, full employment and economic planning being operated by anything except the nation-state … Inclined to believe that the British worker was better off than his continental mates, they preferred to reject the accumulating evidence to the contrary.”

Either way, when it came to party political negotiations, the battle lines were, in truth, no more clearly drawn then than they are now. 1962–3 was generally a reversal of 2016–17’s current positions as regards the two major British parties and Europe. They have completely swapped positions at this point, essentially; yet equally, there is so little consistency at any point in this long history, that the zoom-out perhaps only reveals that it is our party political, short-termist decision-making culture, at the national scale, that is the core problem. It is not attuned to ever making a coherent decision that will stick.

Beloff could see this, even then. To cut her entertaining story short, she ultimately describes several ways forward for Britain after de Gaulle’s intervention. The first entailed remaining outside the coherent political groupings of Western Europe over the water: “keeping our fingers crossed in the hope that ‘the continentals’ will not, once again, do anything to upset us.” (Is this what Brexit means, when Brexit means Brexit?)

The second option is ignoring de Gaulle’s rebuff and going all in on another attempt at Churchill’s “United States of Europe”, a “European states conglomerate … a single military block with its own nuclear power.” (The question of who would be a nuclear power was, understandably, concentrating the mind in those days.)

Yet Beloff finds a third option, in which she seems to suggest a radical move away from the primary role of the sovereign nation-state, towards entirely different forms of organisation and decision-making.

Finally, there is a third way: to break down the barriers dividing like-minded nations from one another, for the purpose of seeking international solutionst to the many problems which confront modern society and seem intractable in the old national setting. Seen in this context, the European Community is a revolutionary experiment and Western Europe only a first stage in the long hard progress towards the management of man’s affairs by more rational methods than by the free-for-all struggle between sovereign nation-states whose sole responsibility is to promote the interests of their own citizens — and the devil take care of the rest.

This is as fascinating as it is appalling to consider what Beloff would make of the current debacle. Yet here she lands, as if to suggest that the issue is not with Europe as a political, super-regional entity, but in trying to organise it from within that relatively recent invention, the nation-state.

This is perhaps the essential theme: that the nation-state is no longer fit for purpose; in an age of superpowers like the USA and the Soviet Union, Europe needed to organise at a supranational level, and with the Second World War a fresh memory, Europe also had much to gain from suppressing nationalism, and thus the primacy of the nation-state itself.

The engine driving that throughout is the foresightedness of French diplomat Jean Monnet, prompting these questions. Europe first, and nations second? Could open trade across Europe work not simply for industry, but for agriculture too? (Then, as now, agriculture assumed a symbolic importance to politicians, though it possessed greater economic and strategic value than it does now.) Could a European economic engine properly resolve all the old embedded colonial interests, still dotted all over the world? There is much discussion of Britain’s trade reliance on the likes of Ghana and New Zealand, which would seem odd today; but was hugely important then.

The Monnet network regarded it as their mission to demolish national barriers dividing up Europe, and refused to accept defeat.

Yet although Monnet et al ultimately achieve many of their goals, laying down the foundations for European union, they are checked by de Gaulle’s stubborn manoeuvres at each turn, and ultimately a thoroughly confused series of positions from the British side, meaning only one outcome for them.

To the present day, and for those men listed above, almost literally sabre-rattling at times but who had at least earned their right to bear sabres, we unfortunately have to substitute in a substantially lesser array, in the form of Farage, Gove, Johnson, Farage, Davies, Rees-Mogg (or Le Pen, Gauland, Wilders etcetera) who for some reason have chosen to fight their own tortured mythical version of yesterday’s wars across Europe. It would appear very little has been learnt at all.

Muddling through

But if learning happened to be at all of interest, The General Says No has much to offer, to British politics and culture as much as European.

Those of us who have been watching The Crown for its portrait of British history at this point will gain several layers of cross-hatched depth to their characterisations of Macmillan, Eden, Bevin and Churchill from Beloff’s book. Equally, The Crown’s artful depiction of Britain’s global influence steadily receding, a tide drawing back in, is a theme throughout The General Says No, as it was part of the impetus behind Britain’s negotiations to join the EEC. But in another reversal of today, it was the Conservatives who recognised this most clearly, rather than a Labour party still wedded to idea of the UK as global manufacturing power, solely under its charge. Despite some vaguely positive muttering by Harold Wilson — the same sort of non-committal noises Corbyn makes about Europe — Beloff doesn’t see the Labour party offering much to Europe “until the British Left ceases to be insular and goes back to internationalist traditions”. Unusually, it was the other side making all the overtures.

For the Conservatives, it was a cosy, heart-warming experience to feel that their side now was being internationalist and progressive — just as it had been a relief for the Labour rank-and-file to discover that for a change they could be the ones to cheer the flag, the Commonwealth, and the great traditions of England. The European issue had muddled things up.

The Conservatives had little connection to the factories; but it did to the military, and Macmillan’s cancellation of the liquid-fuel rocket Blue Streak in 1960 meant at a stroke that Britain would have to rely on American military protection. The nation no longer had “a home-made and therefore truly independent armoury,” perhaps for the first time in centuries.

All this produced a new awareness that Britain was smaller than most of its inhabitants had thought. As 1960 drew in, the idea of joining a wider community, which would have been treated as preposterously Bolshevik a few years back, became an accepted topic of conversation at Conservative dinner parties.

Business opinion too was on the move. After a series of financial crises, and with a growing awareness that the expanding markets would be in Europe rather than in the Commonwealth, the business community as well as key administrators began to move in the Community’s direction. So did the press. The Conservative papers, the Financial Times, the Sunday Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, were backing Britain’s entry, or at least negotiations with the Common Market, many months before it became official party policy.

It’s almost heartbreaking to consider how today’s debate has effectively regressed from this position, back to what Beloff calls “unsplendid isolation”.

Yet equally, there are many traces of today’s debate etched firmly in the negotiations of the early 1960s, and still etched firmly now. Harold Macmillan’s position on expertise, although expressed with rather more sophistication, is eerily similar to Michael Gove’s infamous 2016 statement, “people in this country have had enough of experts”:

MACMILLAN: “Frankly the idea is not attractive to the British. We have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down before the divine right of experts.”

Yet Macmillan would also say, at the end of this failed first round:

MACMILLAN: “We told you, at the very beginning of these negotiations, that we wanted to go forward with you in the building of a new Europe. Our words were very carefully weighed. They remain true today. We have been encouraged by the upsurge of support for the fullest British participation in a united Europe which has been demonstrated in so many quarters in these recent weeks.”

“And so I would say to my colleagues: they should have no fear. We in Britain are not going to turn our backs on the mainland of Europe or on the countries of the Community. We are part of Europe; by geography, tradition, history, culture, and civilization. We shall continue to work with all our friends in Europe for the true unity and strength of this continent.”

Britain’s complex position expressed in two different statements from Macmillan

In 1963, one could imagine these were particularly brave words, given a Europe still licking self-inflicted wounds, and a Britain ‘on the ropes’, beginning to realise it was increasingly post-Empire. Europe had to move towards the idea of ‘Europe’, perhaps, to prevent further bloodshed, and Britain, given its relatively parlous position, had few other alternatives. Yet there must have been significant trepidation as to whether it would work at all. It must have been a huge leap of faith.

But this latest reversal, with Brexit, can hardly be because we now consider Europe as a truly failed experiment, for all its missteps, and can hardly be because we now believe we have better alternatives, either. Anyone who has worked closely with the European Commission over the last decades will be aware of the sheer frustration of doing so on occasion, and the need for constant, relentlessly focused iterative improvements, if not the odd reinvention. Yet for all that, it remains a mighty success. We now know that it has essentially worked, for all its issues.

Umair Haque’s recent impassioned comparison with America—admittedly as much a portrait of America as failed state as song for Europe—describes how “Europe’s social contract is more successful in all ways, not just one. Its socialism works better, giving people the basics of life, at vastly higher qualities. But its capitalism works better, too.”

In most of Europe — Scandinavia, core Europe, whether Germany, France, or Holland, even in countries that have been historical laggards, like Spain, people now enjoy the highest living standards in human history, ever, period. Even Italians — maligned as the caricatures of misgovernance — live half a decade longer than Americans. Europeans live longer, better, richer, saner, healthier, fuller lives — than Americans, than the rest of the world, compared to what might have been expected just a few short decades ago, when those very countries lay in ruins, and most importantly. In the eyes of history, Europe is something like human society’s most improbable but greatest success.
 — Umair Haque

Notably, despiting pointing to institutions like the NHS and BBC as examples of the European social contract in action, Haque does not really dig into how Britain has tried to remain half-in and half-out of these contracts—having its cake and eating it, to, er, coin a phrase. This tightrope walking puts Britain in a horrible negotiating position now, just as it meant its foundations were shaky enough in 1963 for de Gaulle to take full advantage. It also means that the NHS and BBC are rarely seen as shining successes from within Britain, but instead are pitched as endlessly tortured problems to resolve—for all their actual success—just as it means that Britain was unable to take full advantage of the European model Haque describes:

European capitalism and socialism developed into complements, each buttressing the other. They are often in tension, of course — just like a building’s arch is. Still, together, these once-opposed systems lift lives higher than either did alone — and that is the great lesson of the last century. The European social contract works because socialism and capitalism do not compete much — each is focused where it works best.
—Umair Haque

Of course, that argument is still not comfortable or welcome for the British Establishment, sixty years on. The successes Haque describes are just not accepted, never mind coveted—despite the data. And they are certainly not conveyed broadly in public, at least in Britain. Currently, much of the British press is essentially out of control on these issues, behaving with wilfully irresponsible abandon.

It’s not that Britain is not different to its European partners. Of course it is, just as Italy is different to Finland (I can report this startling statement with some authority, having lived in both.) Yet both are European, just as Britain is. Our press have little time for such ‘nuance’, unfortunately.

Back then too Beloff noted that the Daily Express, a meaningful force in 1962, embarked upon what she called “its daily drip-drip-drip campaign of front-page news items, designed to turn British opinion against Europe … The campaign ended on 30 January 1963 with the headline GLORY, GLORY, HALLELUJAH!”) Yet you can’t help think that she would’ve wept at the efforts of today’s mob, never mind the impact of the Macedonian Fake News Complex multiplied by Facebook.

Beloff has a journalist’s eye for the importance of communication, and communicability of ideas. You can sense her frustration with politicians, civil servants, and some of her colleagues, in the lack of attempt to connect big ideas with the broader population. She might issue a wry smile at the success of simple, and simplistic, messages like “Take Back Control”. And then a grimace, perhaps.

The clumsy phrase, European Economic Community, and the disheartening post-war flood of initials, which made ‘E.E.C.’ meaningless to most people, encouraged British newspapers, in so far as they bothered to report what was happening, to use the folksy term ‘Common Market’. But what the Europeans were really engaged in was not just the abolition of tariffs, but the merger of their entire economic systems. This basic fact never really sank into the heads of the British public or its officials.

But The General Says No is fascinating because it describes how official party positions have both flipped 180 degrees, largely, yet also continue to tear themselves apart from within on these matters. Above all, it suggests the system of party-political decision-making, Westminster-style, has not been fit for purpose for many decades—and not simply in the horror-shows of 2017’s various elections and referenda. (The last third of my essay on designing national identity tentatively suggests lines of enquiry there, like nested scales of decision-making, with systems designed appropriately for the scale of impact in question, implying regional scale for ecosystems like the Baltic Sea, for example, down to neighbourhood-based decentralised community-level decisions, for local energy-sharing networks, say. A bit more here.)

The book also intrinsically suggests that decisions are not final, that positions are not fixed, that ruptures happen—but Europe rolls forward.

The General

Beloff’s writing is wonderful, and drawn from the extraordinary depth and rigour with which she stalked her prey. You get the sense that she was at the negotiating table, listening at the door, under the desk, behind the curtain, on the line—everywhere. She sketches with detail, and pulls no punches. For example:

So, on the last day of August 1954 the French Assembly debated whether or not to discuss the ratification of the European Army Treaty. It was finally killed, then and there, by a preliminary procedural vote. The French deputies, who manage to combine a sentimental reverence for tradition with an extraordinary cynicism about politics, were reduced almost to tears by the croaky and senile voice of their fattest and oldest member, Édouard Herriot, leader of the traditionally anti-militarist Radical Party, as he pleaded for the survival of the glorious French Army.

Her portrait of de Gaulle is fascinating. Pompous and omnipotent, insecure and arrogant, complicated and charismatic, and who essentially “saw European union as a cluster of nation-states around France”, and the only viable entity capable of fighting off the United States of America. The USA, under President Kennedy, were largely assumed by Gaullists to be constantly considering how to take over Europe, by hegemonic and cultural assault if not by infantry, airforce and atom bomb. British membership was thus assumed to be merely a ‘Trojan Horse’ for Kennedy to ride in on. Beloff has numerous stories of de Gaulle essentially winding up his various ‘Anglo-Saxon’ counterparts, apparently resulting from various petty injustices of status, committed against him during wartime by other Allied leaders:

Describing his farewell, at the end of the war, to the then Foreign Minister, Anthony Eden, (de Gaulle) recalls this final, and he assures us, good-humoured exchange:
EDEN: Do you know you caused us more trouble than all our other European allies put together?
DE GAULLE: I don’t doubt it. France is a great power.

When Belgium and Holland began to accept Britain, in order to provide some kind of strategic counterweight against France’s dominance, “The General”, as Beloff calls him throughout, deliberately marginalised them, declaring,

Never mind! The British have been fighting for those little countries for a hundred years. They can have them.

And in this slip, recalling a hundred years of fighting, we see that ‘The General’ is not only the main character in this story, but also emblematic of the entire problem: these negotiations were unable to progressively resolve due to the intransigence of the old men in charge, on all sides, who were not only born in the nineteenth century but apparently still trying to live in it too.

War as motivation

In the final chapter, Beloff herself sketches out various progressive options for Europe, and the nations within, even placing the development of Europe in the context of a major shift in human history. She described the potential to move away from rivalrous nation-states, that “What is new and valuable in the ‘supranational’ experiments, still on trial in Brussels and Luxembourg, is not that they create a big new power, but that they are a revolutionary break-away from the old concept that society must be permanently divided into self-contained and mutually hostile nation-states.” She sees this movement as emblematic of “Western society developing beyond this point.”

There is general accord on freedom, tolerance, respect for other people, the settlement of differences between groups by non-violent methods, the admission that people from other countries and other races are also human. With this outlook goes the further admission that the rich industrial nations have a collective responsibility for helping to sustain and develop the rest.

She writes for a few pages of how to unify bargaining power at the right level, about how to move decision-making to this supranational regional level, but for the right elements. Today’s loose talk of returned networks of city-states and governance at urban or different regional groupings doesn’t feature once in the book, understandably given the context of 1963, but Beloff does lay out need to develop a different governance framework for Europe. She also talks rather more about shared security, and collective defence, as a common goal, than a shared currency, but that latter would not have even been a glint in the eye of Jean Monnet, the principle protagonist of unification, at that point. The near-past of the war was a more powerful motivator than the future of currency.

The messy, lashed together compromises that Beloff witnessed emerging as the European Economic Community might have been all that this generation of politicians could have achieved, steeped as they were in the age of empire. Dutch journalist Geert Mak’s recently described how it would be the next generation of politicians that would actually create true European Union, albeit with the same motive of never returning to the conditions of war. Reading Beloff alongside listening to Mak helps us understand that this was possible as the horror of war was viscerally understood, at “silent kitchen tables” across Europe in Mak’s words—yet these politicians were not the soldiers of empire.

In the twentieth century, war was everywhere, even in peacetime… yet this shaped European politics, helped to drive that European process forwards. Time and again, the war made European politicians bold enough to step out of their own shadow. To them after all, the European Union was more than anything a peace project.

They were the children, sometimes literally, of the generation of politicans that Beloff had to deal with. Beloff’s cast of characters had only known war; in fact, most had been knee-deep in many wars. So the European project could not fully emerge from Beloff’s generation, despite the initial connective tissue being threaded together—yet would emerge from the generation following.

The issue then, as Mak tells it, is that this generation “gradually disappeared from the stage, and with them, the unspoken motives that sometimes enthused them with extraordinary courage.”

The generation after, having never truly understood the origins of European union, those “silent kitchen tables” long forgotten, carelessly allowed, enabled or encouraged the severe damage done to the European project in the last decade. Yet even here, Mak implicitly suggests that the emergence of common enemies from this decade—Farage, ISIS, Trump, GAFA—may now be further binding Europe together again. He doesn’t state it, but we can see this in Macron and Merkel’s drive to take an empowered Europe to the next level of consolidation, redirecting the negative force of Brexit as if a judo move.

Europe means Europe

The value of looking back at these now historical documents, as I did recently with The Building of London, is manifold. With the benefit of hindsight, we learn from their telling of the past as they saw it at that point. Yet we learn more from how they saw the future, given that we know what much of that future would actually turn out to be.

One of the best books I read last year was The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes, which placed the development of that particular nation-state, the very idea of Germany, into a 2000 year context, effectively suggesting a time-lapse animation, its borders like a tide ebbing and flowing, back and forth across the Elbe, and never fully resolving. That history demonstrates the endless possibility of the idea of a unified Germany, and at the same time the relentless opposition of East and West, always pushing each other apart some point.

The story of Europe is in similar flux, lurching from post-war blasted heath to a fragile Common Market, which begat a confident European Union and an almost-common currency rushed through with near-revolutionary zeal. Then a series of body blows: the continent’s colonial history coming home to roost, the Commission sailing too close to neoliberalism, and suffocating in bureaucracy, a return of populist nationalism, and ultimately the spasm of Brexit—and yet at this point, having navigated elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany (almost) through those choppy waters, we can discern blood coursing back through the veins of its traditional leaders, and a chance to bind a resilient Europe further together, finding solutions to all of those challenges. Its geography cannot be denied after all, and ultimately, neither can its forward movement. Reading Beloff suggests that the question is what form it takes, not whether it takes form at all. (I would see this as a design problem. But then I would.)

While Beloff’s book reveals that all our familiar European foibles, ruptures and differences were firmly entrenched six decades ago, it also tells a story of a Europe that has more in common than that which divides us, binding itself together after even the most horrifying of events. Whilst European values are difficult to define, to pin down, they are meaningful nonetheless. (Pinning down a butterfly under glass tends to kill it, anyway.) Our variations on a recognisably European social contract, that rich, fundamentally entwined shared history, with its ancient and future connections, certainly needs to find the right vehicles to express itself, to manage itself with. It is no longer 1963, or 1973, or 1993, or 1999, never mind a Treaty of Rome, or further, those 19th century nation-state inventions. Yet just as Germany might move its borders back and forth yet has been Germany all along, so Europe only heads in one direction: more Europe.

The arc of history is long but tends towards geography

As Beloff notes several times, Britain is part of Europe whether it likes it or not. In the book, she tends to describe the matter of Britain in the European Community as closed—or at least “no longer topical” after de Gaulle’s guillotining of that idea—but she also repeatedly suggests that cannot be closed in the long term. Her constant probing as to how Britain and Europe might fundamentally relate is on the basis that, well, they are fundamentally related. As Macmillan said after the failure, “We are at the end of a chapter, not at the end of a volume.”

The question, then, is two-fold: should Britain join the European Community, and then what kind of Community is it? How does it relate to the rest of the Europe, the chunks of the east, south and north that were variously in or not yet in, or out?

The story suggests it would have been wiser to tackle the two problems together and, since we cannot draw anchor and sail out of Europe, to see whether we can join in creating the kind of continent which will help promote civilized world order.

From this, and Beloff’s book generally, we can perhaps take hope. Not simply for her stirring words and thoughts, but also in that long arc of European history being the most powerfully enduring force. For those of us who feel European first and British second, and for whom the Brexit referendum result was shattering on every level, we can read how fatalistic the mood was after ‘the General said no’, with Britain positioned as part of an Atlantic community as much as a European one, and yet we also know, as Beloff could not at that point, that within a decade Britain was joining the EEC after all. British politics changes with the wind. Britain being part of Europe does not.

Beloff’s point was that we should spend rather more time thinking about what kind of Britain, and what kind of Europe.

She repeats Victor Hugo’s 1849 declaration:

I represent a Party which does not exist, the Party of revolution and civilization. This Party will make the twentieth century. From it will emerge the United States of Europe and then the United State of the World.

Would it be a naively optimistic reading of this to suggest that, after the twentieth century’s bloody dust truly settles—and we are still in the teens of the twenty-first century, after all—that a United States of Europe may begin to emerge?

The tapestry of Europe

Just as we have seen how the apparently intractable outcomes of The General Says No were reversed within a decade, we can see how the heavy weather of the last decade, and the last two years in particular, may only serve to consolidate Europe after all.

In Geert Mak’s epilogue to his ‘In Europe’ (BBC Radio 4) he states:

European citizens have not allowed themselves to be thrown off course by Jihadist terror attacks, however horrifying. Brexit is lamented, but the psychological shock has passed. The issue of immigration is without doubt still corroding European solidarity, and European consciences. The European Union is without doubt in need of organisational reform. Rules alone have not been adequate for a long time. The Union must be able to react quickly to events in this new world order. The EU is reluctantly becoming a superpower, a political superpower.

All of European history is ultimately a story of interconnectedness, something that in this century is no longer an ideal, but a matter of life or death. Millions of threads run everywhere. Threads of work, study, research, pleasure, love. All across Europe. We Europeans are one people, far more so than we think, because of our past, and because of the world in which we now need to hold our own. We are bound together at the most profound level, till the devil do us part.
 — Geert Mak

Last word to Beloff:

The problem, for us and them, is to make a Europe fit for Europeans, including ourselves, to live in. It is time for the old men whose upbringing and experience makes it impossible for them to see beyond national frontiers and parochial patriotisms to step aside and let in the light.

The General Says No, Nora Beloff (A Penguin Special, 1963)


A colleague of Beloff’s at The Observer, Peter Wilby, said:

(Beloff was) a very colourful character indeed. My room was next to Nora’s and you could hear her telephone conversations. She asked relatively few questions. She seemed rather to be telling politicians what they should be doing and where they’d gone wrong.
—Peter Wilby

Reading The General Says No, that bold offering of opinion is all too easy to see. But this is no bad thing. In fact, quite the opposite. Beloff frequently makes such sense, with such clarity, throughout the book, and particularly in summary, that one can’t help think that if we had had rather more Nora Beloff’s around, and rather fewer of those vainglorious old men, we would all be a lot better off.

Leaving aside whatever the current resting position of Britain-in-Europe is as you read this, this remains the case above all.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: