Richard North, 04/01/2021  

Back in 2011, alongside Booker in his column, I wrote a blogpost dissecting an article written by Max Hastings in the Daily Mail on 13 September of that year.

The article caused quite a stir. Headed, "Sorry, I was wrong!", it was paraded as an "extraordinary recantation" of a former Telegraph editor and famous historian – a "pro-European all his adult life". Then, he was admitting that the EU was "now a disaster", which was "blighting every aspect of British life" and crippling our recovery from the financial crisis of the time.

My blogpost was not particularly complimentary about the man, whom I called a "poseur", noting Booker's memories of the days when he worked for him (as did I briefly when Booker and I ran a joint column in Telegraph). Crucially, Hastings could scarcely conceal his contempt for Booker's criticisms of the EU – despite his support for Johnson as Brussels correspondent.

Yet this was the man who, for all his supposed erudition and claims to be a historian, had never grasped the real nature of the European "project" or the vision behind it. As he wrote in the Mail, he was at one with so many Tories who believed that, "in its early decades, the Common Market was a benign institution set up to liberalise European trade". Only then conceding that it was no longer so.

As I wrote at the time, I found (and still find) it intensely irritating when these "above the line" figures waft through life, with their lofty, condescending demeanour, asserting that which is palpably untrue, simply by dint of their refusal to get to grips with the reality, or to do their homework and ground their beliefs in fact.

In fact, I added, I can't even begin to express how sick I am of these patronising, sneering grandees who have spent decades looking down on us all, so superior in their profound ignorance, and so absolutely certain that only they can possibly understand the true nature of their beloved "Europe".

It was the likes of Hastings who simply could not accept that, for fifty years, building itself up step by step into a form of supranational government, the "project" had only ever had one aim – to take away ever more powers of member states to govern their own affairs.

But, despite that, back in 2011 – while rejecting "the crude jingoism of the UK Independence Party", and realising "that quitting Europe would engage us in a crisis that would sap the entire energy and attentions of any British government for years" – he had decided that it had "become essential to repatriate powers from Brussels".

This, he averred, was "not in furtherance of isolationism, but of the economic imperative to strengthen our competitive position in the world and repair our social fabric". We must, he continued, "regain control of Britain’s borders, loss of which has inflicted wholly unwelcome social change", adding: "Almost incredibly, the latest net immigration figures are the highest ever".

Then, he concluded: "If the EU maintains its present path, it is hard to see the structure surviving longer than another decade".

Now fast-forward to yesterday and Hastings is back in print, almost a decade later, and the EU's structure is still intact. Now writing for Bloomberg, though, the great sage has changed his tune. From demanding the repatriation of powers from Brussels, he now complains that what he now calls "Brexit Mania" has been fed by delusions about World War II.

With no mention at all about financial catastrophes and like matters, the "great political success" of the Brexiteers has taken a different turn. They have "convinced a narrow majority of the British people that most of their woes, even the weather, derive from Europe", if only because "foreigners make convenient scapegoats".

Re-writing history yet again, Hastings tells us that, almost half a century ago, in 1973, the British people reluctantly acquiesced in joining the European Economic Community only because they had exhausted all other possibilities of extending their influence abroad. Never mind that British people were never asked prior to 1973 and it was hardly the "people" who were seeking to extend their influence abroad.

But what is so striking about this current piece is another contrast with a decade ago. Then he was averring that, "in its early decades, the Common Market was a benign institution set up to liberalise European trade" – an unequivocal assertion which is a classic example of the Tory foundation myth.

Now, however, he claims that it was "the British governing establishment" which sold membership to the British people on a false prospectus, asserting that the EEC was solely a trading partnership, which demanded no sacrifice of sovereignty.

Despite perpetrating the same myth in 2011, he now declares that "this was a lie". Furthermore, he declares, this was "known to be such by all thoughtful politicians" – although apparently not by a one-time editor of The Daily Telegraph.

And yet, Hastings was hardly on his own. About that exact time, according to his memoirs, Cameron was complaining that his Party "was becoming increasingly ungovernable" on "Europe", while his view at that time was "Britain's current status in Europe was becoming increasingly unsustainable, as the whole project continued to mutate into something so different from what we signed up to all those years ago".

In this passage, there was no hint that Cameron was seeking to project a lie. Rather, in the context of the Tory "foundation myth", we have a scenario where Tory politicians, unable to reconcile the fact that a Conservative leader, Edward Heath, had taken the country into an EEC dedicated to political integration, had fostered a more palatable alternative.

It thus became the received wisdom that we had joined a trading bloc – the 'Common Market' - only for the fiendish Continentals to go off the rails and attempt to turn it into a "federal superstate" at a later date.

There is, of course, a Labour variation of this myth, offered by Owen Paterson just before the 2016 referendum. Referring to the 1975 referendum, he stated that "the British people were sold a false prospectus of joining (sic) a 'Common Market'".

"We wanted free trade, an economic project, prosperity", he said, "But the notoriously slippery Prime Minister of the day, Harold Wilson, chose to disguise the fact that we were signing up to a project of political integration".

This myth, in its various forms, has been extraordinarily pervasive, and – as Hastings indicates - not confined to politicians. For instance, in an "explainer" piece on 1 April 2019, ITV political correspondent Paul Brand wrote: "The Common Market was the precursor to the European Union - originally just an economic project, which later evolved to become a political one too".

Bizarrely, again in 2011, Paul Krugman was writing in the New York Times - albeit earlier than Hastings – that the European project had been both a political and an economic project.

That, he wrote, "has been the European strategy ever since the Schuman declaration. The point is to deliver a series of economic integration plans that do double duty: they're economically productive, but they also create 'de facto solidarity', moving Europe closer to political union".

No one can say, therefore, that this dual role was a particular secret – or at least not a very well kept one. But nevertheless, it is part of the great deception. Much of that, as Booker and I wrote in the first and subsequent editions of our book – and I have emphasised in the new edition – is self-deception.

But even then, that does not entirely explain the phenomenon. Keepers of the mythical flame, by and large, actually believe what they say. They believe their own version of history, usually because it is more preferable to reality – or more convenient.

Still, though, we have to suffer these lofty, condescending "above the line" figures such as Hasting, who get free license to perpetrate their delusions while the truth goes begging. Sadly, even though the truth can co-exist with lies, that doesn't always invalidate the lies. They are able to take on lives of their own, leaving people to choose what they wish to believe.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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