History to the defeated doesn’t even say “alas,” it just cuts them dead. In the British Conservative Party especially, the waters of oblivion close over the defenders of deserted orthodoxies like appeasement and the Corn Laws. So now with the Tory Europhiles. For a generation and more, to be “a good European” was the passport to promotion in the party. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Young Conservatives prided themselves on being the largest youth movement in the free world, and they were as passionately devoted to the Common Market as they were to table tennis and the twist. By contrast, the opponents of Britain’s entry in 1973 were a sullen minority, easily written off as crusty nostalgists for the Empire. In the 1975 referendum on Britain’s continued membership, they made a wretched showing alongside the dinosaurs of the Old Left. Enoch Powell and Michael Foot sharing a platform looked like a tableau vivant of the wrong side of history.
In retrospect, it is remarkable how soon that tide began to turn. Already by the late 1980s the YCs had come under the control of the anti-European pro-Empire right. The Federation of Conservative Students had been closed down in 1986 for its scandalous racist antics by the party chairman, Norman Tebbit. The YCs themselves were closed down as an embarrassment in 1998. The party’s future direction was becoming clear. The painful struggle that John Major endured in 1992 to push through Parliament the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union, was only the most conspicuous sign that “the bastards,” as Major so delicately dubbed them, were on a long-term roll. Aspiring Conservative candidates had to take on the protective coloration of Euroskepticism to have much hope of selection.
Today, as the remaining Remainers pick their way through the debris of the referendum of June 2016, they hear only the derisive cries of the victorious Brexiteers: “You lost, get over it, stop moaning.” Analysis of the results of the general election that Theresa May so foolishly called in June 2017 shows that the Conservatives owed their survival to the influx of millions of Leavers. All that is left of the great Europhile generation is their memoirs. If revenge is a dish best served cold, we are in for a veritable smorgasbord.
Chris Patten and Ken Clarke are the two most attractive survivors of that generation: genial, unstuffy characters, easily reaching for the slang—“gobsmacked,” “double whammy”—that doesn’t trip off the lips of their stiffer colleagues. Even their book titles tell you something—the familiar first names, the self-deprecation in the subtitles. (Kind of Blue is borrowed from the Miles Davis album, Clarke being an obsessive jazz buff more likely to be found tapping time with his Hush Puppies at Ronnie Scott’s than at the Athenaeum.)
The two men came from modest backgrounds to occupy most of the great offices of state, both of them offering…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.