The 20th century brought war on a horrific scale, the slaughter of generations of young people and whole communities of civilians wiped out in a single night. How could anyone resist a fierce determination that it must never happen again?
The continental powers approached that challenge from a starting point rather different to ours. Three times, in three quarters of a century, they had been occupied, defeated, fought over. Our island fortress protected us from some of the worst excesses and made us the last hope of restored freedom.
Anyone with an interest in the conflicting political emotions surrounding the growth of European integration at that time should listen to a series of interviews by Michael Charlton commissioned by the BBC, in which he interviews British politicians and officials faced with the need to decide what role we would play as the Europeans met us at Messina to thrash out the terms of the Treaty of Rome.
Winston Churchill, in opposition after the war, had made a significant contribution to the post-war debate when he declared that we must create "a kind of United States of Europe". There is controversy about whether he thought Britain should be a part of it, and certainly, when he became prime minister again in 1951, there is no evidence that he was up for the party political battle it would have involved. Rab Butler, in his interview with Charlton, put it in the language of the day: "It simply wasn’t on. It wasn’t on. We were quite wrong, of course."
Churchill’s speech is important, however, in that it makes clear beyond doubt that the European Movement was always political. Opponents claim they were tricked into believing that we joined an economic arrangement in 1973. The Schuman plan that regulated iron, coal and steel industries across Europe was a stepping stone to the EEC, initiated by the French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, and signed in 1950. Again, this was a political initiative to gain supranational control over the essential war making industries. Europe, from the start, was embarked on an essentially political journey and everyone knew it.
Harold Macmillan faced the trauma of Britain’s post-war dilemma and the political challenge of telling the truth to a nation still motivated by delusions of yesterday’s power. The world had changed. The emergence of a European powerhouse based on German and French partnership, the preeminent American power, and the growing determination for self-government across the empire, required us to redefine our destiny.
Macmillan took up the challenge. The winds of change were blowing in a new direction. We needed to recognise the logic of history and our geographic location. General De Gaulle doubted if British public opinion was ready. If he had lived to see the 2016 referendum he would have said he had told us so.
Ted Heath led the Conservative Party of my generation. We understood exactly what was happening. A powerhouse of world significance was emerging from the disparate strengths of the nations of Europe. Together we would be stronger, richer, more influential and we wanted Britain at the heart of it. The Labour party was split and Harold Wilson opted for a referendum, thus avoiding the break-up of his party – for the time being at least.
I first went to Europe with my parents in 1947. With friends, in 1954, I hitchhiked 2,500 miles down through France, up through Italy, Switzerland and Germany and back across Holland and Belgium. We slept by the side of the road or in hostels. That Europe has largely gone. The war damage, the demolition, the self-evident poverty. What has not gone is the pride of nation.
They have created common rules because large, competitive production lines deliver cheaper products. Together we can afford the cost of competing with America and China whose governments provide such support for their technological and industrial base. That is why I did so much to create the European Space Agency in 1973. Our desire for safety, environmental standards, and better healthcare overwhelms any trivial deviations that individual regulatory systems ever achieved. I have no problem with the search for acceptable common standards of behaviour of tolerance across Europe with sanctions imposed where they are ignored. We stood back too long, faced with the early manifestations of this, in Europe in the 1930s.
By the narrowest of margins, and usually for reasons about which Europe was irrelevant, we decided by referendum to leave the European club in 2016. I deplore that decision. However, confirmed as it was by the election in 2019, I cannot deny the democratic mandate. One day, I believe the decision will be reversed but not for some time. The present leaders of the Conservative Party have reversed the opinions of their post-war prime ministers. That is their responsibility. Their fault.
We are leaving the club. No one asked us to go. Many of us will have made a similar decision in our personal lives. We may have left a club, a job, a team, a regiment or any other human organisation created to further our particular interests. How often does any organisation change its rules to facilitate such departure? Would you change your rules to allow a departing member to undermine your standards and thus compete more effectively? Changing the rules for one would lead to a chorus of demands from other members. How long does it take before a trickle of change swells into a flood, undermining the foundations of the structure itself?
Once the curtain that Covid-19 has drawn over so much news is lifted by the rollout of the new vaccines, the daily drip of damaging consequences of Brexit will become clearer. The lost investment, the European conferences with no British voice, jobs lost here and replaced in our former market, phone calls to other capitals that once would have come here.
Most damaging is the language of Euroscepticism. The personal and human relationships between us and our continental neighbours are priceless. We work in each others’ companies, holiday in each others’ resorts, marry across the frontiers and share a cultural and historic heritage beyond price. Every abusive headline echoes across the channel.
If we are to have our cake and eat it, they are left with an empty plate. If Britain is no longer prepared to help with the levelling up of poorer Europe, that message is clear. If European fishermen can no longer fish in our waters, why should the City of London have access to European currency markets. Every advantage we claim for Brexit provokes the question at whose expense.
Historians know where these arguments have led.
Michael Heseltine is president of the European Movement and a former defence secretary.