European Affairs

Britain vs. Europe: A Ringside Seat     Print Email
Reginald Dale

Reviewed by Reginald Dale
The Mandarin's Tale

By Roy Denman

Politico's Publishing, London, 2002.

282 pages

Sir Roy Denman, wit, raconteur, bon vivant and unflinching believer in a united Europe, had a remarkable career in the largely anti-European - if not anti-foreign - postwar British civil service. His unabashed Europeanism, his puckishness and his distressing habit of consorting with foreigners, nearly cost him his job on numerous occasions.

Yet he kept on getting promoted to higher and higher positions in Whitehall, before being sent to Brussels in 1977 as Director General for External Relations in the European Commission - the highest position a career civil servant could reach. From 1982 to 1989, he served as head of the Commission Delegation in Washington.

He had plenty of scrapes, and moments of triumph, along the way; and for many followers of Britain's tortured relations with the European mainland over the past half century, he is an almost legendary figure.

For much of the postwar period, Denman had a ringside seat as Britain struggled, often unsuccessfully, to work out a satisfactory, post-imperial relationship with its continental partners and former enemies. He was a senior adviser to two British prime ministers and three foreign secretaries, and met many of the top political personalities of the era - from Pierre Trudeau to Deng Xiaopeng and (for about 30 seconds) Winston Churchill, who quickly dismissed him in typically salty language.

This book is the highly entertaining account of Denman's journey from a shortage-plagued Cambridge University at the end of World War II to the heights of European bureaucratic power in the 1980s. The biting humor of some of the Whitehall scenes is reminiscent of the classic British TV comedy series, "Yes, Minister," in which a wily top civil servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, usually gets the better of his elected political superiors.

Denman stresses that he is no Sir Humphrey. The civil servants he knew would never, for instance, use Cabinet minutes "to twist ministerial decisions to suit bureaucratic wishes," he insists. Prime Ministers would not tolerate such antics. Nevertheless, his book and the TV series share a common technique - both use irreverent humor to offer shrewd insights into the way British and other civil services really work, or at least worked in the second half of the 20th century.

Books about the civil service are not usually funny or well-written. But this is both. Frequently, Denman's fine writing carries the reader smoothly through what otherwise would be an excessively mundane sequence of events. Here, for example, is how he describes part of his appearance before the final interview board for a job in the British Civil Service:

"At least, as the interview was drawing to a close, I thought I had made a gallant attempt to enlighten these old fogies. Then my attention was attracted by one particular Board member. London in 1947 was in the full grip of austerity. Among the men who were, almost without exception, wearing shabby apologies for sports coats and shapeless, baggy trousers, he stood out like a firefly at dusk.

"He was exquisitely dressed. And on his bronzed and aquiline features there could be discerned a patina which can only come from many years of first-class travel, the comfort of softly padding domestics, and occasional snifters of rare old brandy. He was, he could only be, the Foreign Office representative.

"‰Þ÷Tell me, Mr. Denman,' he asked, ‰Þ÷how do you relate to people you consider less intelligent than yourself?' This seemed to me a fair question and I thought it deserved a fair answer. The world, I said, was full of dimwits and dunderheads. From time to time they needed to be given a swift kick in the rear. A short silence followed this remark."

Denman did not make it into the Foreign Office, but joined the then Board of Trade - for which he was in many ways better suited, even though that department evidently regarded fluent German speakers like Denman with great suspicion. Those suspicions deepened when he fraternized openly with the locals during a stint at the British Embassy in Bonn in the late 1950s.

Many of Denman's triumphs came as a trade negotiator, and as a senior member of the high-powered if somewhat eccentric team that negotiated Britain's entry into what was then the European Community from 1970 to 1972.

His memoir is written in unashamedly British English. American readers will need to know, for example, that Council flats are housing projects, that Moss Bros. is best known as an up-market rental store for men's evening clothes, that the Knacker's Yard is where old horses are taken to be slaughtered, that "cross" means angry and that "tight" means drunk.

"Tight" and its synonyms are words that recur with astonishing frequency as Denman recounts his experiences in the corridors of power, both in Britain and abroad. Americans, and some Europeans, in fact, may be somewhat shocked by the ubiquitous role played by alcohol in the diplomacy of the era that Denman describes.

One of many extraordinary episodes involves the then British Labour Minister of Agriculture Fred Peart and his top civil servant arriving roaring drunk for dinner at the residence of the British Ambassador to the European Community in Brussels, singing "Old Macdonald had a farm" at the tops of their voices.

But the book also has a serious purpose. Denman believes that Britain made a tragic mistake in failing to understand and join the move to political and economic unification in Europe after World War II - a theme he developed in an earlier book, Missed Chances: Britain and Europe in the Twentieth Century, published in 1996.

"In tackling the most important problem before it over the last 50 years, our relationship with an integrating Europe, the public service mostly got it wrong," he writes. In a mostly light-hearted manner, his memoir seeks to explain the mentality of those who got it wrong, and why they did so. As Britain continues its hesitation waltz with Europe over the single currency, many of those lessons are still valid today.

Denman readily concedes, however, that Whitehall has changed beyond recognition since he started work there. "The days have gone for ever when the bowler-hatted barons of Whitehall could discreetly run the country's affairs," he writes.

The civil service is now less important and less attractive to talented young people, who are turning to banking, the law, the media and new Internet technologies. "This is not to be deplored but welcomed, for this shift will enliven and enrich the country," Denman says. The only pity about the book is that it ends before Denman's seven years in Washington. But perhaps that will make another volume.

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