In September 2011, the Centre for Policy Studies published the book ‘Guilty Men’ by journalist and author Peter Oborne.
The book claimed to hold to account the politicians, institutions and commentators who had sought to tie the fortunes of Britain to the Euro. Oborne and co-author Frances Weaver highlighted what they felt were unscrupulous and vicious personal attacks on opponents of the Euro and called for a radical reappraisal of recent British political history.
The book caused much political reaction, both for and against the conclusions, and fervent debate over the issues raised. The Centre for Policy Studies is proud to present the first in our re-launched ‘Debate’ series – ‘DO THE CRITICS OF CONSERVATIVE EURO-SCEPTICS HAVE ANYTHING TO APOLOGISE FOR? – featuring Telegraph journalist and Guilty Men author Peter Oborne arguing that they do and author, broadcaster and Times journalist David Aaronovitch arguing against. To give the debate added spice, Oborne named Aaronovitch as one of the ‘guilty men’ in his work.
Read the debate and then get involved in the comments section below. We will highlight the best responses on our Twitter feed.
David Aaronovitch is a British author, broadcaster, and Orwell prize-winning political journalist. He is a regular columnist for The Times, and author of Paddling to Jerusalem: An Aquatic Tour of Our Small Country and Voodoo Histories: the role of Conspiracy Theory in Modern History.
On the family shelves, when I was a child, was a slim book with yellowing pages and austerity binding, called Guilty Men by – as it stated on the cover - “Cato”. It sits in front of me now. Written just after France fell and the fiasco of Dunkirk, it was a denunciation of the politicians who the pseudonymous authors considered to be responsible for the policy of appeasement and for an under-prepared and under-equipped British armed forces eventually facing the superior might of Hitler’s Blitzkriegers.
Those indicted included former Prime Ministers Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. They had, in effect, argued Cato, handed Europe to Hitler and connived in the deaths of British servicemen.
So when I discovered via Twitter and email that the CPS had published a new pamphlet entitled Guilty Men, and that I was one of the villains, I wondered what I’d done that was even metaphorically equivalent to weakening the nation in the face of fascist tyranny.
Nothing, of course. The new Guilty Men is an obviously hyperbolic conceit, but it is also ironic in that it does the very thing it complains of, but a hundredfold. As I understand its argument, it is that in the 90s the British Eurosceptics (the new Churchillians) were the victims of a quasi-establishment attempt to close down debate on Europe through ridicule and vilification. But history – as it did with Churchill – proved the Eurosceptics right and the vilifiers wrong, and they should now be held to account.
This argument is hyperbolic because no such thing happened. At least not in that way. Back in those days (the days when joining the Euro was in any way moot) I was a columnist on the smallest circulation newspaper in Britain. From my vantage point I was encountering a media landscape absolutely dominated by much bigger publications – most of which Peter Oborne has written for – that were editorially opposed to the European Union. These outlets would confuse editorial with news, run stories featuring myths about the EU, and employ a nationalist and populist invective that classified pro-Europeans as quislings and European unity as an attempt to impose a Fourth Reich.
I am not an emotional pro-European like, say, Polly Toynbee- in fact I voted No in the 1975 referendum - but I had become anti-populist (all that stuff about the “metric martyrs”!) and felt offended and alarmed by the tone of the argument. I also couldn’t help noting that many of the same people who were so strident now had been quiet while Mrs Thatcher had ushered an unreferended Britain into the Single Europe Act.
In fact what seemed to have happened was that a strand of Tory thinking previously limited to Enoch Powell and his allies, and which led Powell to oppose the Conservative Party in the elections of 1974, had increasingly come to dominate not just the party, but the national debate.
That is even truer now than it was then. Politicians have taken fright and almost dare not suggest their true views about the importance of the EU succeeding in the 21st century. And the irony is that publications like Guilty Men are helping shut that discussion down.
Peter Oborne is the Chief Political Commentator for the Daily Telegraph and author of the Centre for Policy Studies publication 'Guilty Men'. Here he argues that critics of Conservative euro-sceptics should apologise for their treatment of those vindicated by events.
Many of the leading advocates of the euro have fallen silent. So all credit to David Aaronovitch for making such a sturdy defence of his position. He has done so with honesty and courtesy, and has provided a fair summary of the central argument of Guilty Men.
I do hope he is wrong, however, to suggest that the effect of the pamphlet is to close down discussion of the euro.
Certainly something like that was the case with the original Guilty Men – indeed the authors’ explicit intention was to expose the Munich appeasers and drive them out of public life.
Frances Weaver and I are more generous. Indeed we are careful to acknowledge that there is an honourable tradition of pro-Europeanism, and that it remains important that it be heard. But we did maintain that single currency enthusiasts need to provide an account of their position if they are to maintain their credibility in what has become an urgent public debate.
Here is one example: yesterday Tony Blair made a dramatic intervention in the debate about the euro, asserting that it would be a ‘catastrophe’ if it broke up. Yet why should we listen to Tony Blair at all, given that ten years ago he was one of the leading evangelists for the single currency?
So the former prime minister needs to explain himself- all the more so because of his loaded party conference speech in 1999 when he sought to isolate eurosceptics from mainstream public discourse by associating them with racists.
Or let’s take the case of Will Hutton, another fierce supporter of the euro. Hutton is highly principled man, who refuses to abandon his affection for the single currency. In many way this steadiness of purpose is admirable. But it has forced him into two contradictory positions.
On the one hand Will Hutton’s thunderous Observer columns take the popular Keynesian line that the government should spend far more in order to avert recession. On the other hand his beloved eurozone is imposing a degree of austerity which would never be contemplated by the most sadistic monetarist. Like Tony Blair, if Will Hutton wishes to be taken seriously on the euro he needs to explain himself.
I cannot accept David Aaronovitch’s analysis of the recent past. When the debate on the euro was raging fiercest the majority of mainstream Fleet Street papers, including tabloids (and with the essential backing of the BBC), supported the single currency. As Frances Weaver and I have proved, these papers lied, fabricated and cheated in order to make their case. Aaronovitch was not, as he seems to suggest, a relatively isolated figure in a media landscape ‘absolutely dominated by much bigger publications.’
Finally, let us turn to Enoch Powell. I am no expert on Powell but I think that his case against the European Union turned on the issue of sovereignty. Powellites never captured the Conservative Party, as David Aaronovitch says. The Tory leadership under William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith was careful to stress the economic objections to the euro – and have been proved horrifyingly right.
However Powell’s warnings have also been proved all too prescient. Sovereignty is now at the heart of the matter. Greece and Italy are now economic protectorates of Brussels. Over the weekend two elected leaders (Papandreou and Berlusconi) have been removed in what looks very like coup d’etats, engineered, in an echo of the destruction of the Labour government in 1931, by international bankers. I believe this would have been Britain’s fate too if we had joined the single currency.
Our world is being reshaped around us. This should give rise to urgent public debate, and so I am very grateful that David Aaronovitch has had the courage and integrity to respond to our pamphlet.
If nothing else this exchange, conducted entirely I think in good faith, shows how two different commentators can have opposed memories of the same period. I don’t know whether Peter has had to endure abuse from dozens of Francophiles and the odd Kohlite, but I have to tell him that the most vitriolic comments I have received in my career have been from anti-EU campaigners.
In fact I would say that an excess of passion on the one side, and a lack of it on the other, has distorted the British discussion about Europe for over 20 years. Retreating behind an easy technocratic justification for European convergence, the pro-European politicians have mostly shown complacency and cowardice in the face of the storm. They have also had a huge problem explaining how national democratic institutions can operate within a supra-national context.
The problem is that this context exists anyway and enormously limits action whether we are in the EU or not. The idea of Swiss-style association, where you do what you want, and not what you don’t, isn’t even true for Switzerland, let alone for a magically detached UK. This is exactly what the crisis in the Euro zone is teaching Messrs Cameron and Osborne. You can either be in the tent being pissed on, or outside being pissed on even more.
What’s dangerous about the current lack of debate is that a false truism is being created – that the crisis has its origins in the Euro. It doesn’t. I would be far more impressed by the told-you-so’s if any of them didn’t tend to be the very same people who championed ever reduced banking regulation and failed to anticipate the mother-crisis of 2008. And if, by way of shifting the blame, they weren’t championing solutions that I think will be catastrophic.