MICHAEL HESELTINE: POLITICAL MANAGERS - THIS GOVERNMENT LIKES TO BE LIKED ... so, lacking the courage to tackle the eurosceptics and argue for Britain's self-interest, it fails to lead us through the single-currency impasse

MICHAEL HESELTINE: POLITICAL MANAGERS - THIS GOVERNMENT LIKES TO BE LIKED ... so, lacking the courage to tackle the eurosceptics and argue for Britain's self-interest, it fails to lead us through the single-currency impasse - Russell Bretherton is not rem

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Russell Bretherton is not remembered among the political giants of his day. Rightly so. He was an Under Secretary at the Board of Trade, there to serve his political masters at that time, the Conservative government of 1955. Years later he was interviewed by Michael Charlton for a series of interviews for the BBC called The Price of Victory. The dialogue is memorable for its account of Bretherton's role in the work following the Messina Conference, which was the gathering of Europeans in Sicily that led to the signing of the Treaty of Rome.

The British position was one of suspicion and hostility. The Europeans were going to press on, hopefully with us, but - with or without - on.

Bretherton describes his uncomfortable exposure to continental enthusiasm: 'I could get no instructions.' An official without instructions is as a yacht without wind.

Half a century is a long time in politics, but the impressions created by our failure to understand the determination at the time of six of our closest European neighbours have not dimmed. Indeed, event after event has kept the impact alive and embedded the impression - in some minds the assumption - that Britain will always dither on the edge of European integration until others have led the way and we eventually play 'catch-up Charlie'.

Britain's position was then, in the post-war world, understandable. We had stood alone, defended our island launch-pad without which American and allied forces would have found the liberation of Europe nigh impossible. We were head of a Commonwealth of Nations and the greatest empire the world has ever seen - or will ever see - many of whose children had died in battles that were essentially ours. Negotiating victory into a partnership with the defeated or occupied nations of western Europe required a psychological adjustment that called for a vision beyond the norm of politics. Besides, prime minister Anthony Eden was against. As RAB Butler conceded in the same recordings: 'We were quite wrong, of course.' But at least it was understandable.

No such excuses will be available for our present Government's lack of leadership on European matters. As a government they have a central weakness that permeates all they do. Tony Blair likes to be liked. A fortune of taxpayers' money is invested in testing public opinion in order to adjust the policies, the speeches and the strategy of our rulers to the whims of the moment. It is a formula of weakness.

When I first entered the Cabinet in 1979 there was no talk of being liked or courting short-term popularity or governing by focus group. A huge job of reform was needed to propel a reluctant country through the trauma of change. Change is fine for other people. No-one actually thinks they will be expected to do anything different when they hear politicians promising change.

It comes as a shock when the message is replaced by harsh reality. But we did what we believed to be right, necessary and overdue. In the short term there was much unpopularity. That didn't make anything we had done wrong. It only demonstrated people's general aversion to the discomfort that change inevitably brings.

At the time of Messina, Britain failed to judge how the second half of the 20th century would give rise to quite different political realities over which we were to lose much control. It is to the enduring credit of Conservative prime ministers from Harold Macmillan through to John Major that each in their term had the courage to tell the British people the truth about the nature of a very different world, and Britain's role in it. They fused our sovereignty with that of our partners in the European Union for the simplest of reasons: that they saw Britain's self interest best served by such a process. Few, if any, of the decisions were popular. But they were right. That is the point.

Tony Blair knows full well that Britain's self interest demands not only our presence at the conference tables where Europe's future is being thrashed out, but in a way that convinces our partners that our intentions are constructive and not designed to wreck the achievements of 50 years.

The single currency is at the heart of the present political impasse.

The euro is here to stay. It is undervalued and will recover, before too much damage is done - one hopes - to our largest export market and countless British jobs. But the public mood is eurosceptic, fuelled by a daily diet of disinformation from a largely North American-owned newspaper industry.

The focus groups send the wrong smoke signals, so the Labour Government dithers. They fear electoral consequences if they explain frankly the risks we face as the coming of the single currency opens up a competitive surge on the continent; such competition will sharpen their companies while too many of ours hold back.

Prime ministers soon become preoccupied with their place in history. They earn that place in the long term by vision, leadership and courage. Short-term popularity is a prize with the staying power of melting ice.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

The questions to ask when everything is unknown

Systemic intelligence is an indispensable skill for business leaders.

How to stop your culture going back to normal after COVID

In this video, Capita's Melanie Christopher and Greene King non-exec board director Lynne Weedall discuss...

This isn't just a health crisis, it's an equality crisis

Inspiring Women in Business winners: In the “new normal”, we must make sure that female...

How to build an anti-racist business

You don't need a long history of championing equality to make a difference.

What are Simon Roberts’ big 3 challenges at Sainsbury’s?

The grocer's new CEO has taken the reins at a critical time.

Should CEOs get political?

The protests that have erupted over George Floyd’s murder have prompted a corporate chorus of...