Hitler, Cromwell and the moral case for Europe
Liberator, Autumn 2004
Nearly seven decades ago, my great aunt was lying on the grass near the frontier between Czechoslovakia and Germany on a warm summer’s day, trying to read The Idiot.
An attractive-looking young man came and sat down and told her: “England is finished; France is going under. Jews, Christianity and Communism are the three united enemies of Europe. The German race only … must rule.”
This fearsome living memory of a former Europe was in a letter she wrote at the time, and was read out at her memorial service in Oxford during the summer.
Shiela Grant Duff, as she was at the time, was then a foreign correspondent in Prague in the run-up to the Munich Agreement. She was writing to her friend Adam von Trott, later executed for his part in the July plot to kill Hitler.
But that isn’t the kind of Europe I believe in, she told von Trott. Actually the Europe of Jews, Christianity and Communism was the one she wanted – communism with a small ‘c’, of course.
Listening to that exchange – only one lifetime ago – a little after the Euro-elections which brought such prominence for the UK Independence Party, reminded me of the moral case for Europe.
It is easy to forget that there is one, when the European Union is reported in the way that it is – partly of course the fault of the people who currently run it – but there is. And it is very important.
What is more, it is going to be vital when the showdown with the oily Ukip ranks finally arrives, as it will all too soon, maybe even in Hartlepool.
A few years after this letter, during the war, Shiela Grant Duff became Czech editor at the BBC European Service, then the biggest broadcasting operation in the world, operating on three networks for 36 hours a day in more than 20 languages.
In fact she later married its director, called Noel Newsome, who fought Cockermouth for the Liberals at the 1945 general election.
It was he who put a moral vision of Europe at the heart of broadcasting from London during the Second World War, and he whose thoroughly modern – but generally forgotten – concept of propaganda meant always raising the issues onto a higher moral plane.
"So far we have merely scratched about on the surface, repeating arguments based on unprincipled and superficial ideas about the political, social and economic likes and dislikes of our audiences; scoring facile but impermanent victories," he wrote in his propaganda plan in 1940.
"If our propaganda remains superficial, unprincipled and opportunist it cannot, however clever or cunning, contribute anything towards shortening the war, still less towards laying the foundations of a post war world fit for anyone to live in.”
Those are wise words. The BBC embraced the idea of European civilisation – there was no fatuous ban on Beethoven in this war – and promoted a vision of a new Europe emerging to reclaim it.
Half a century later, we can still try to win superficial points in the European debate, while the moral case for the European Union goes by default. Yet it is still unanswerable – even for the most passionate devotee of Mr Robert Kilroy-Silk. It is about the prevention of war.
The scars of two European wars are still so obvious in this country, the memories so sharp, that nobody can deny the vital importance of some process to make sure it never happens here again.
In two wars in the last century, my great aunt lost her father, her only brother and three of her uncles. Many other families could say the same.
The very fact that war in Western Europe now seems so unlikely is a tribute to the moral vision and success of the European Union. However infuriating its regulations, however corrupt its officials, it is the guarantee that parents will not again send their children off to fight in Flanders and that bombers will not again pound the great cities of European civilisation from the air.
That is the ground where we have to fight the sleezy characters of Ukip.
We may well point out that their interpretation of sovereignty just doesn’t add up – that it misses out the threat to our self-determination from the USA, or the myriad ways in which it has already been undermined by multinational corporations.
We might argue that Kilroy-Silk and his ilk would be happy to sell off the country to Murdoch or Wal-mart, or package it up in a cruise missile for Bush, as long as it has nothing to do with the continent. But that is just a minor debate compared to the one about war.
Because history shows that only when the British engage with the great civilisation of which it is part – when they feel a shared responsibility for it – can we guarantee our own stability.
And in 1815 or 1945, when it was a British vision that Europe back together again, the issue simply never arose.
As many as 15 million Germans listened to the BBC during the Second World War, when the penalty was death if they were caught. Ukip presumably would deplore this kind of engagement with continentals.
Of course, some things never change. When Shiela Grant Duff asked the Observer foreign editor, just months before Munich partitioned the country, what kind of stories he was looking for from Czehoslovakia, he said: “Oh, cows with five legs – that sort of thing.”
And there are other things that never change that we need to beware of in this moral debate. Because we should not underestimate the strand of Englishness – and it is primarily Englishness – that Ukip aspires to address, because it also goes deep into our history.
Brussels seems to have slipped into the role in our national psyche that Rome once did – the source of petty regulations, of interfering foreign officials, of the distant reek of the corruption of power.
The emergence of Ukip threaten us with a new Thomas Cromwell, a new dissolution of what safety nets exist for the poor – just like in the 16th century – a capitulation to extreme capitalism, a break-up of our common institutions and their sale to the friends of the new regime. It is a threatened re-run of Henry VIII and his destruction of England’s ‘commonwealth’.
The trouble is that actually the Protestant tradition in this country was largely correct about the excesses of Rome, and probably right to cut itself free from the despotic authority of the Pope.
Catholic or Protestant, Christian or Muslim, that sense of Whiggish national relief at our escape still runs deep in our national consciousness – just as it does in the Liberal Democrats.
In other words, we must not forget the excesses of Brussels: the outrageous secrecy, the depressingly technocratic approach to ordinary people and communities, the vast democratic deficit, the habit of covering Europe in concrete motorway ribbons to the great detriment of local economies. We must not pretend they are not there.
Don’t let’s defend them. But let’s remember and explain whenever the subject comes up what the European Union is for.
It is the guarantee of peace for the great civilisation of which we are part. Our task as Liberals is to reform the institution, fling out the technocrats, but defend its existence, and with it our right to European peace.