Even when I was excited about the European Union, I was bored by it. It came into my life as an issue after the Cold War ended. Until then, I had rudely brushed aside a friend of mine who insisted, with the desperate passion of the ignored prophet, that it was important. When the U.S.S.R.’s Third Shock Army still sat in East Germany and lovely Prague was still frozen in despotism, it just didn’t seem to matter. Somebody recently unearthed a recording of me saying so as late as 1994, so I cannot claim, even if I wanted to, to be an ancient combatant in this controversy. You could see the Cold War as a material force, wrought in rough concrete and rusty steel, and I had done so. You could even smell it in the East Berlin perfume of brown coal and two-stroke exhaust. And you would have to be very slow to miss the U.S.S.R.’s morally simple challenge to the conscience, its abuse of psychiatry to torture and crush dissent being perhaps the most repulsive of its many crimes.
You couldn’t really see the European project. If you went to Brussels, it gave you a nice lunch and told you not to worry. You caught it at the end of a document, in a peevish speech by a German politician, in the fine print of life. It expressed itself quite often in absences, the abolished frontier posts that followed the Schengen Agreement, the disappearance of the national currencies of the continent. Only once did I really see it spitting, oppressive, and harshly demanding—and that was over an issue that I was almost alone in caring about. I watched a British shopkeeper called Steve Thoburn be spitefully, relentlessly prosecuted for the crime of selling bananas to his customers in English pounds rather than continental kilograms. This is the kind of thing that makes me uncontainably furious; I glimpsed for the first time what each of the multiple humiliations of subjugation and occupation by foreigners must feel like. And at that point I became what my old friend had been: an Ancient Mariner, eyes glittering, gnarled fingers clutching the wrists of passersby, gripped with a seething passion I could not communicate. Who cares about your silly old ounces and inches and furlongs? And yet I did, involuntarily. I have the same problem with Common Law versus the Civil Code and Roman Law. These are priceless, unique possessions, facts as well as symbols of an ancient liberty.
I read the histories—the liberal This Blessed Plot by Hugo Young and the conservative The Great Deception by Christopher Booker and Richard North. I was struck by how similar their descriptions were: Both books depicted the European project as a stealthy, relentless effort to create something never previously seen, an empire without an emperor, a supranational state that never quite admitted its statehood. As I am utterly fascinated by the twentieth-century history of Europe and the repeated attempts of Germany to dominate that continent, it seemed to me that the European Union was the Continuation of Germany by Other Means, the peaceful and civilized establishment of a dominance over Western Europe that has been inevitable since the final defeat of Bonaparte in 1815. Actually, I like Germany so much that I go there on vacation and would enjoy living there. I admire its creation of a free, law-governed society on the ruins of a homicidal tyranny. I can easily see why the original members of the Common Market might want such a merger. I understand why later entrants saw it as a sort of convalescent home where they could recover from dictatorship or Soviet domination. But I could see no need for Britain to be part of this political project.
What I hoped was that we might leave the European Union as part of a counter-revolution against all the errors of the past fifty years. I thought this would involve, above all, the destruction of the British “Conservative” Party, which occupied the space that should have been filled by a genuinely patriotic, Christian, and conservative formation. Then it all turned upside down.
By some strange process, the Conservative Party realized that it was in genuine danger. It wasn’t coherent or rational, more like some sort of fat white weed groping for the light solely to survive. After all, its support for the E.U. made it blazingly obvious that it was not what it said it was. As the E.U. issue became entangled with unpopular levels of mass immigration, and with a general malaise about the way the country was run, it sought to defuse the issue with a referendum. It assumed that the referendum would vote to remain. But it didn’t, and so we have had the past three years, which have resembled a cricket match played without a ball, by men in blindfolds. And out of this has come the weird conclusion that what we all really wanted was more free trade with Indonesia, which as far as I can see is what we have got.
Heaven knows what will happen to Britain. The government certainly doesn’t. But I have a worrying feeling that instead of sacrificing the Tory Party to save the country, we may have sacrificed the country to save the Tory Party.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.