Stephen Wall spent decades with a ringside seat at the Anglo-European circusby Robert Saunders / October 6, 2020 / Leave a comment
Although it is marketed as a history of Britain and the European Union, Reluctant European really sparkles as a political memoir. Stephen Wall joined the Foreign Office in 1968, and for four decades enjoyed a ringside seat at the Anglo-European circus. He worked with Ted Heath during the entry negotiations and ran the Foreign Office’s European Department under Margaret Thatcher. He was Private Secretary to John Major and Europe adviser to Tony Blair. From 1995 to 2000 he was Britain’s Permanent Representative to the EU, returning to run the Cabinet Office’s European Secretariat.
The result is a decidedly “high-political” account centring on prime ministers and diplomats. The sketches are deft, witty and sometimes surprising. Harold Wilson, whose critics thought him as straight as a corkscrew, is credited with a “principled and strategic” course that safeguarded membership. Thatcher “was incapable of being tough without talking tough,” whereas Major “was tough on substance while being unthreatening in manner,” making him a steely negotiator. Blair “was a strategist and tactician of a high order,” but “was not intellectually interested in the issues.” Gordon Brown was “invariably moody and uncommunicative,” while David Cameron “viewed the EU entirely through a domestic prism.”
Of the three grand EU projects of recent decades—the single market, enlargement and monetary union—the UK played a leading role in two. Yet successive governments failed to tell a positive story, instead presenting the EU as “a problem” to be managed. Despite his enthusiasm for membership, Wall accuses Britain’s leaders of misrepresenting the EU to the public, offering an “airbrushed,” intergovernmental version that “did not represent the reality” of “ever-closer union.” Promises of leadership in Europe rang hollow, for “what they were leading was habitually a rearguard action.”
Reluctant European: Britain and the European Union from 1945 to Brexit by Stephen Wall (OUP, £25)