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Response to Review no. 544

I would like to thank Melissa Pine for a detailed and sympathetic review. She has meticulously recorded the development of my argument throughout the book, and generously highlights areas in which my research has added to existing wisdom. In so doing, she accepts the validity of the methodology of my work—and the work of other contemporary historians, she included—which is to use archival material to reconstruct governmental decisions as they appeared at the time. The activity of researching the European policy of a single nation has come under criticism (1). Of course, I accept the importance of studying the emergence of European trans-national networks, and also of multinational research. Nevertheless, this kind of administrative study of one nation, which observes the context of integration and of international constraints, does have its own importance.

First, governmental archival records exist. A tautological point perhaps, but were they never to be used the compulsion upon the government to make available its records would considerably reduce; and our understanding of national policy would rely on the memories of participants, and on the theories of journalists, political scientists, and social analysts. While empirical evidence does not point to one truth, it does at least offer ballast that can be checked and counter-checked. An author can never hope to penetrate fully Wilson’s personal views, but it is possible to prove, by the sheer weight of documentary material, that the British administration, presided over by Harold Wilson, sought to enter the European Community over the longer term. Wilson was sincere about taking Britain in, and his decision to do so was founded upon political considerations.

Secondly, there is reason in seeking to understand documentary evidence chronologically, as events unfolded to the main characters at the time. Neither Harold Wilson, nor the Foreign Office, nor the Board of Trade knew exactly what would happen next; thus their policies should be assessed in terms of what they thought they were trying to achieve. As Pine points out, this does not have to make the author an apologist for the policies; it facilitates a nuanced critique. Nor is it enough to say simply that Wilson was a domestic political manipulator. It is better to understand the way in which he conceived of policy towards the European Community and the way in which he strove to manipulate the Cabinet to accept membership of the EEC. He did not do this because he was obsessed with domestic politics, but because he understood that Britain had no choice but to attain membership of the EEC. Nevertheless, his policies had lasting consequences: securing a historic vote on Community accession, but fostering long-term hostility towards the terms of that membership.

Furthermore, the method of reconstructing events permits a variegated explanation of Wilson’s motivation. It emphasizes the many pressures acting on the prime minister, which in turn expresses the human element underlying policy decisions. Such an approach inevitably downplays a sense of economic strategy behind Wilson’s choices, and portrays instead the influence of the Foreign Office, the weaknesses in Wilson’s international policy, and the impact of the 1966 sterling crisis. Again, this is not to exculpate Wilson’s policy. Prime ministers may be only human, but they are people paid to take critical decisions under pressure. Perhaps unexpectedly, however, Wilson emerges favourably from such a charge. Faced with crisis, he made the forward-looking choice, and opted to take Britain along the road to Community membership. Once he had made this decision, he did all he could to make it succeed.

Pine suggests that I could have interviewed more heavyweight political figures, highlighting also the relative importance of oral evidence in contemporary history. At such a distance from the period, oral accounts could only ever prove secondary in a reconstruction of events. Nevertheless, it does provide a useful function. The interviews conducted with leading officials were useful in gaining an impression, albeit a subjective one, of some of the main characters. On occasion, where the documentary evidence is lacking (such as in Wilson’s meeting with General de Gaulle on 19 June 1967), oral evidence can supplement the written record, but, in the absence of other oral corroboration, it can never completely fill a gap. Interviews were also important in creating an understanding of the relationships between key civil servants and their political masters; and of relationships between political figures and between departments. Such observations can be illuminating. Sir Michael Palliser’s testimony did much to reveal the dynamic between himself—a committed ‘pro’ European—and Harold Wilson; and talks with Sir Patrick Reilly uncovered the fiery and unproductive relationship he had with George Brown.

This is also useful in providing context within which the documentary evidence can be interpreted. Palliser knew he had to appeal to Wilson’s sensitivities, and his advice to Wilson must be read with this in mind. Unlike the documentary evidence, however, because many of the principal actors are no longer with us, oral history can seem rather one-sided. Sir Michael maintained that Wilson was a more committed strategist than has hitherto been realized. While I concur with his judgement, at least for the period after July 1966, it is also a judgement that fits with his own role in events. Keen to see Britain a full member of the EEC, his desire to appeal to Wilson’s sensitivities may also have affected his own perception of those sensitivities. Similarly, Sir Patrick’s recollections, as one who had a personal relationship with General de Gaulle and an in-depth understanding of French policy, inevitably highlight the ways in which George Brown failed to reach this comprehension. Oral history, at distance from events, can only provide a small part of the picture for this sort of jigsaw. Moreover, heavyweight political figures did turn down the opportunity to be interviewed: James Callaghan; Denis Healey; Barbara Castle; and Roy Jenkins were all invited to be interviewed but declined. I also approached Tony Benn, but at an unpropitious time for him, and he told me he would not be able to add more than is featured in his diary. I did manage to interview a number of the surviving officials, but unfortunately many other key characters were already dead (William Neild, Burke Trend), and some were too ill (Sir James Marjoribanks) or died during the period of research. All in all, the patchy nature of oral evidence emphasizes the central importance of documentary sources.

While emphasizing that the purpose of my work was to chart government policy, Pine also suggests that the book could have considered Labour Party and public opinion. This is particularly the case in view of my conclusion that the 1967 application created a domestic political consensus in favour of British membership of the EEC, a consensus yet to be broken by either party in power. I agree that a detailed analysis of these areas would be extremely interesting. I chose not to look at either because, as Pine rightly notes, neither the PLP nor public opinion had a role to play in influencing the main lines of Wilson’s policy. Indeed, the Labour Party archives are relatively unrevealing on the topic for the time in government, comprising mainly a speech given by Wilson on the eve of his May 1967 declaration that Britain would apply for membership. Essentially, Wilson was determined to take Britain into the European Community and he believed, rightly, that he could force this policy through the PLP.

The prime minister was no doubt aware that the trend of public opinion and the press was to support Community membership. Thus, any action he took to confirm his journey towards membership could expect a favourable greeting. My assertion that Wilson created a political consensus in favour of membership of the EEC still stands. The point is that the political elite did accept that they had no choice but membership of the EEC. Pine’s forthcoming work on the period 1967–1970 will add further evidence of the way in which EEC membership was an elite policy and strategy. The story of the depth of support for this policy is another one indeed: and one that would require considerably more space, and a greater assessment through time, than could have been provided in my work.


  1. Wolfram Kaiser, ‘A never ending story: Britain in Europe’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 4.1 (2002), 152–65. Back to (1)