Michael Heseltine: "Unless the nation states of Europe co-operate, they are in toy town"

The former deputy PM addresses business leaders with his case for European unity, and explains why he won't be voting Conservative.

by Michael Heseltine
Last Updated: 05 Dec 2019

The following is a lightly-edited transcript of a speech delivered by Management Today’s proprietor, former deputy PM Lord Heseltine, at the Britain’s Most Admired Companies awards dinner at Claridge’s, December 3 2019.

You may not feel that a speech by a politician is something you're actually looking for at this particular moment. But sadly I am a politician and I am at the platform, and have an insatiable capacity for talking when given an audience. So for a moment or two, I thought I might talk about the one thing that’s on everybody's minds and to talk to you largely as professional managers, because in a sense, that is what binds us together.

I'm probably the only person in the room who actually heard Neville Chamberlain declare that we were at war with Germany in 1939. It was a very small wall-mounted radio in the kitchen of our home in Swansea. I can hear his voice now. I lived through some of the heaviest bombing that Swansea suffered. And again, I can remember standing in the garden looking at the bombers coming over.

Around the time I became politically aware at the age of 18, or a little earlier, Winston Churchill was talking about creating a kind of United States of Europe. A little later than that, Harold Macmillan made his epoch-making speech, the Winds of Change.

It was a brave speech really, explaining to the British people who had many of the images of the victory of the Second World War, the special relationship, the fact that we stood alone, the fact that we had the greatest Commonwealth and Empire the world had ever seen - a psychology of indelible significance in the thinking and attitudes of the people at that time - that really, in a sentence, imperialism was dead. 

And then to apply to join the defeated nations and occupied nations of Europe in a configuration - nobody perhaps was prepared to define it with precision, after all Churchill himself had talked about a kind of United States of Europe, but the mould was in the making, and the dialogues were under way and the dialogue was at it simplest but at its most essential, ‘it must never happen again’. It was a political reaction to generations of bloodshed on the continent of Europe. 

Well, I remember all of that, but I should talk to you as managers and there are two things that happened to me as a minister, which set the whole thing in context. And any one of you could have been either as a minister or in your company faced with a similar sort of situation.

The first was a simple one: "Minister, would you be kind enough to sign here? This is to put another £6 million into Britain's space efforts. You know what the French and Germans are like, they are upping the ante." So I said, "Well, before I sign the £6 million, a consequence of which will be immediately that the French and German ambassadors will wire Paris and Bonn, explaining what happened and asking for more money, before I sign that, perhaps you could tell me, if the whole of Europe put its space money together, how it would compare with the United States?"

I'll never forget the figures when they came back to me. "Minister, if we put ours and the Germans’ and French and the Italians’, all of it, into one pot, we would have £200 million a year to spend. You asked for the American equivalent. It is six times that amount, £1.2 billion a year." 

Well, I went on to help create the European Space Agency, as a product of which Britain got the satellite leadership that we secured. And the union of Europe came into being which could begin to talk in international terms about the resources and the technologies that were needed to put Europe into a sensible, competitive position, not a leading position by any means but a sensible one. 

Fast forward to 1985 when General Abrahams came to see me. Now he's not a general who has been perhaps in the headlines of world politics, but he was important because he had been entrusted by President Reagan with the Star Wars initiative. 

General Abrahams came to see me as defence secretary, and he said "Secretary of State, I'm in charge of this programme and I have $29 billion to create within the United States the infrastructure technologically and industrially that is necessary to develop this incredible peace-making defence process, and I can put $100 million out of my $29 billion into Heriot-Watt University today, because they are at the leading edge of silicon-processing or something or other.

I think at that stage, he sat back expecting a grateful Secretary of State to say, well, that's awfully generous. But I don't think he fully understood what I had heard him say, because what I heard him say was that I have $29 billion and I know where every piece of advanced industrial technology is in the world and I'm on my way around with packages - decent, generous, open partnerships with each one of them. And by the end of the process, I will have transferred back into the American industrial base all the technologies that I want for this extraordinarily sophisticated process. That's what I heard him say. 

Now I would have done the same if I was American - it's not anti-American in any way, this is exactly what nation states do. But it revealed to me with a clarity, which was as sharp and  focused as I hope I've described it, that unless the nation states of Europe cooperate, they are in toy town, with the world as it is.

At the same time, I visited China. It was a peasant economy, but they were talking about how they were going to change it. And as my life in politics has evolved I have seen the move from a peasant economy to a space age economy. And that means the resources of an enormous economy are brought to bear, just like the resources of the American economy are brought to bear, in support of their commercial and industrial activities. 

You can be the partner of it, but you will be a partner so junior that you will matter hardly at all. Or you can believe that in the widest sense of national self-interest and of the European collective peoples, you will be better to share sovereignty, because that will give you power shared on the scale you can never achieve yourself. 

That is why I cannot accept that we should leave the European Union and become some sort of independent nation state, hoping that we will be able to do better deals on behalf of 60 million people than the Europeans can do on behalf of 450 million people. 

So I have not been able to support the party that has been my home politically and intellectually since I was an undergraduate at Oxford, and I have lent my vote elsewhere. I have not joined another party, I am a member of the Conservative Party - at least I was when I set out to come here tonight. And so I intend to remain.

But that is the background to the most important decision in an election that any one of us will make in our generation. Thank you.

Image credit: Erroll Jones

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