This is a fluent narrative of the United Kingdom’s external political relations with the USA and the European Union from the Suez debacle of 1956 to the Brexit debacle of 2016 and its immediate aftermath. The story is told through the eyes and words of Prime Ministers, their advisers, and senior Whitehall civil servants. There is more detail in earlier chapters where even readers like myself who lived through the events may have forgotten the details - or worse: I can’t even remember if I voted in the first 1975 Referendum…... Later chapters assume, reasonably enough, that the reader’s memory is still reasonably fresh. But even those with very good memories will find things here which they didn’t already know.
Though the author (chief political commentator at the Financial Times - the newspaper I have read for several years after giving up on The Guardian of Morality) took the Remainer side in Britain’s (still ongoing) civil strife, the narrative does not feel unbalanced or obsessive. Nor does Stephens get side-tracked into gossip and he characterises Prime Ministers in terms of their grasp of issues, their management and presentational skills, their decisiveness - and their success or failure. So it’s a serious book.
There are two or three lacunae. Though Empire & Commonwealth figures in the background it rarely appears as a player, nor do those who have migrated from it to the UK. This misses several things. The Empire provided soldiers and supplies of essential goods through World War Two (see David Edgerton, Britain’s War Machine reviewed elsewhere on this blog) and in those ways was not untouched by the European conflict. Equally, more recent migrants from the Indian sub-continent have not had a European take on the world and have clearly been open to “Global Britain” rhetoric. The Leave campaign of 2016 courted the Asian vote (including that in the northern “Red Wall” constituencies) and it was made to appear that the ending of free movement from the EU would be the precursor to greater openness to migration from Asia. This appealed, among others, to Bangladeshi restaurant owners and so on, though they may yet be disappointed. But in 2021 the door has already been opened to dual national citizens of Hong Kong.
This seemingly small topic does sit within a larger one which would look more broadly at the UKs changing demographic which played a large part in making possible the Leave victory in 2016. It also qualifies the broad brush characterisation of the Leave campaign as racist or xenophobic. There are good foreigners and bad foreigners and those who live next door are always the worst.
Another seemingly small topic is Russian influence, which nowhere appears, except briefly in the quaint form of the Profumo scandal. Though Stephens charts a history of the arms-based Cold War and its end, he does not make a theme of the new Cold War in which Russia has deployed cyberattacks, money, kompromat, trolls, and sleeper agents to weaken and even destabilise Western democracies. It would not have been gossip to say something about the role of Russian money in the Leave campaign and in financially sustaining a Conservative Party which has very few members and relatively few enthusiastic donors. The UKs hesitations about its international allegiances and its real friends does seem to have opened a space for the operations of those who wish it failure rather than success. Put differently, the Conservative Party has changed and there are new Brexiters as well as the remaining old-guard of Iain Duncan-Smith, John Redwood, and so on.
Contemporary book jackets, done on the cheap by freelancers, are often dire. This one is quite clever and reminds me that in Germany the UK is now sometimes referred to as Die Insel. And in France, England’s decline is charted in the small linguistic change which has turned Les Rosbifs into Les Fuck-Offs.
Nearly all the books reviewed on this website are ones I have bought; this one was sent as a review copy by the publisher, Faber.