"This Blessed Plot" Shines Light on Brexit, by Michael Mosettig     Print

“This Blessed Plot” Shines Light on Brexit

By Michael D. Mosettig, former Foreign Editor of PBS News Hour

When Britain’s premier political commentator Hugo Young published “This Blessed Plot” in 1998, it was well received as a magisterial history of the United Kingdom’s rocky post-World War II relationships with the European unification movement and its progeny.[1]

Little did anyone imagine 20 years later, this same book would be a road map to the two-year-plus, non-stop mess, now careening to chaos, called Brexit.

This Blessed PlotAnd poignantly, had the writer not died way too early at age 64 in 2003, he might have offered cautionary advice to a British establishment gobsmacked by an electorate voting in a 2016 referendum to leave the European Union. Besides his deep connections in the London journalistic/political world, Young was also known in the United States from his commentary in The Guardian, his 1989 biography of Margaret Thatcher, his youthful stint in a U.S. Senator’s office and appearances on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

In the past winter weeks, seeking refuge in various non-fiction books as well as novels, I plunged back into a re-reading of this 558-page tome and came away feeling that not only was the Brexit referendum not a surprise but carried a certain portent of inevitability.

Young opens his work as “the story of fifty years in which Britain struggled to reconcile the past it could not forget with the future she could not avoid.” He concludes fully aware of Euro-skepticism in both major British political parties. But he anticipates the premiership of a new Prime Minister Tony Blair “untroubled by the demons of the past, prepared to align the island with its natural hinterland beyond.” (Of course, Blair’s record would have been a happier one had he stayed in that hinterland rather than following the Bush administration to the more distant one of Iraq).

But even in this last burst of British/European optimism, there are deeper warning signs. Blair presided over the European Council session which formally adopted the single currency (Euro), one his country would never join even as London reached dizzying levels of wealth as Europe’s financial center.

A re-reading of This Blessed Plot, which of course takes its title from the famous oration in Shakespeare’s Richard II, serves as a deeper reminder just how separate the United Kingdom is from the continent only 20 miles away. And all these feelings of historical, psychological and political difference, particularly among the English, came roaring back with Brexit. As the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole constantly reminds, the 52-48 percent Brexit margin was basically an expression of English nationalism, the huge Leave margins in non-London England overwhelming the Remain votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Wales was basically a tie.

The tortured history of post-war British ambivalence to Europe has been often told. What Young brings to it is his deep knowledge of British politics and access to many of the key figures in politics and government and particularly the civil service, which holds a sway unimaginable to Americans or Washington dwellers. The ambivalence began soon after the war as Winston Churchill lent his voice and moral support, but never British participation, in nascent European movements.

Young shows us what we have seen in the Brexit yearnings for a new global role. Britain emerged the only victorious nearby European nation from World War II, economically stronger than the continent, with elements of an empire even after Indian independence, a global military presence and a unique attachment to the United States and to America’s singular power in the world.

All of these factors motivated key decision makers to skepticism or outright opposition to European projects and the British decisions not to join the Coal and Steel Community and then the Common Market. Only when Britain’s relative economic weakness by the end of the 1950s became stunningly clear, did the Macmillan government switch course and begin the efforts to join. Those efforts were twice throttled by Charles de Gaulle vetoes in the 1960s but bore fruit by 1973 in the premiership of Conservative Edward Heath, the most pro-European Prime Minister in post-war history.

In the votes leading to British membership, there were plenty of threads to the present. Young cautions, however, about extrapolating political moods of the 1970s to those of the 1990s and beyond, because more recently the issue of national sovereignty became more important after real life experience inside the EU. Both parties were split in the 1970s. It took dozens of Labour MPs to give Heath a workable majority.

Indeed, the immediate Brexit future could be determined by the willingness of pro-EU Labour MPs to join like-minded Conservatives to prevent a crash-out. That would depend on Prime Minister Theresa May having a change of heart and willingness to confront her own split party.

For the Tories, the UK is in this current carnage because Prime Minister David Cameron cavalierly opted for a referendum on the misguided notion that he could end his party’s Europe debate once and for all with a decisive public vote. He did so despite the warnings of his closest colleague, Chancellor George Osborne that it could easily backfire.

But there is one historical thread in Young’s work that is now, at least temporarily, broken. As successive British governments attached themselves to successive American administrations, U.S. leaders from the Truman era onward were steadfast advocates of the European project and wanted Britain in it. As late as the Brexit referendum, President Obama spoke out for the Remain campaign. The day after the Brexit vote, then-candidate Donald Trump hailed the result from his Scottish golf course, and he has shown nothing but disdain for the European Union during his presidency.

More than he could have realized as he was putting elegantly together the exquisite detail of this book, Young was raising red flags wrapped around ambiguities.

A particular one was Margaret Thatcher, originally pro-European and certainly pro-Single Market. Yet the deeper she took Britain into Europe, the more strident her speeches grew against it.

“Mrs. Thatcher, at every stage, was part of it. Yet simultaneously all her political energy was directed against what she herself was doing. Even as she took Britain further in, she stoked the fire of those who opposed this every step of the way.”

And there is another forewarning of what would be the insipid and unsuccessful Remain campaign.

“...a continuing thread of the pro-European cause has been its restraint in both victory and defeat. There are reasons for this, not the least of them being that this is the side that eventually won the argument, occupied power, saw its ascendancy take root, could therefore afford to be magnanimous: a complex, significant story. It remains a telling fact, however, that for most of this history it is the anti-European cause that has had the greatest resonance, made the most noise, named the most enemies, touched the most doubting nerves.”

From this still important book, twenty years after its publication, come two enduring reminders: in politics, there are no final victories and interpretations of history depend not only when they are written, but when they are read.

Michael Mosettig is former Foreign Editor of the PBS News Hour and a member of the former Board of Advisors of European Affairs.

[1] Young, Hugo. This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair. The Overlook Press, 1998.