Thursday, 14 April 2016

Them and Us

The first part of Nick Robinson's new two-part series, Europe: Them or Us, began last night. 

Given that I didn't know what to write about it after having watched it, I thought I'd follow Sue's example and review the newspaper reviews in order to get my own critical juices flowing...

...except that I failed to find any such reviews (except for one in the Evening Standard which pulled off the splendid feat of being both very short and full of errors).

But my juices seem to be flowing now (well, I've got a cold), so....

Much of Part One of Europe: Them of Us was based on archive material landmark from a 1996 series called The Poisoned Chalice. Nick Robinson provided the link-up commentary. 

While I was watching it, though fascinated by it from start to finish, the thought struck me that The Poisoned Chalice must have represented where the BBC stood in 1996. 

For about the first three-quarters of this programme, the archive voices came overwhelmingly from the pro-EU-membership camp until, with about a quarter of an hour left, there was a sudden flurry of anti-EU-membership voices (on the no-buses-then-three-buses-all-at-once principle?).

The anti-EU voices were bit players back in 1996, it seems. And they were bit players here in 2016 too. 

The illustrative archive voices were overwhelmingly pro-EU and, so, Nick Robinson's commentary couldn't help but trace their disappointments and delights during the up-down couple of decades leading up to the UK's entry into the EEC in 1973. 

That's not to say, however, that Nick's commentary was biased. He was essentially stitching together interviews from that 1996 BBC documentary here. But, as David Keighley argues at News-watch, Nick gave us a narrative that the EU (and what lead up the EU) was essentially about peace, in the wake of WW2, and that is a contested narrative...

...not that you'd know that from Nick Robinson's piece.


All the above must be cast in the light of how BBC viewers - including me - must have taken Nick's narrative. 

What I took from Nick's narrative was that Churchill was probably in favour of a United States of Europe but equivocal on whether the UK should be inside it.

Then that - a point Nick Robinson repeatedly reinforced - the charge that Britain again and again (early on) missed the chance to mould the growing European Union in its own image, and has, therefore, lost out by not being pro-EU enough....

...a section typified by this segment with a rare post-1996 voice:
NICK ROBINSON: That fateful decision, taken in a rush by a group of junior ministers, was only the first of many on which British politicians decided we were different. We could sit things out, we could wait for it all to go wrong. The result was that the rules of the European club were drawn up to suit them and not us. That's something that has bedevilled Britain's relationship with Europe ever since.  
TONY BLAIR: Britain's problem with Europe is that we didn't invent it and weren't there at the origin. And as a result of that, we've always felt that Europe was something kind of done to us and something that we were always...somewhat on the fringe of. 

The real test of Nick Robinson and the BBC's impartiality will, of course, come next week - in part two. Many will be watching that very closely.


There were, as you might expect, quite a number of interesting facts and vignettes here. I'll end this post with a few of them...

On De Gaulle's 'Non' to Britain joining the EU:
NR: Macmillan's charm offensive had failed. De Gaulle spelt out why to his Cabinet, in words noted down by his Information Minister.
ALAIN PEYREFITTE French Minister of Information, 1952: It’s not a matter of sentiment, but of facts and figures. He then concluded in a jocular way by recalling a song by Edith Piaf. Realising that Macmillan was a bit sad because of what he’d said, de Gaulle could only sing to him: Ne Pleurez Pas, Milord!
NR: Macmillan didn't actually cry in front of his French hosts but, on the way home, he was in tears. 
On Heath's 'Gastronomic diplomacy':
NR: Heath hadn't just mastered the detail - a man often seen as stiff and icy switched on his biggest smile. He'd cooked up a plan to win over French hearts by appealing to their stomachs. Ambassador Soames, a well-known bon viveur, invited the President and his wife to leave the presidential palace and join Heath for lunch at the British Embassy instead. A good deal would be easy to swallow after a good meal.
MICHEL JOBERT: Gastronomic diplomacy is vital. And the most deplorable are the Americans, without a doubt.  For a French person it’s worrying to put it mildly.  But with Soames at the embassy we knew there was no risk, and indeed there wasn’t.
TIMOTHY KITSON Heath’s parliamentary private secretary 1971: And I remember we had salmon with a mayonnaise... with a mint mayonnaise to start with. Actually, it was a sea trout which had come down from Scotland. We had English lamb, I think it was, and we had some seriously spectacular wines. Which was, I think, a '55 claret and a '35 port, and I think we had Chateau d'Yquem, with a very exciting sweet. All in real Soames style. 
On the goings-on in the Conservative Party at the time:
HUGH ROSSI Conservative Whip 1972: Those who would support the government through thick and thin, because they were Europeans in their outlook, we called ‘the robust’. And we indicated them on our daily list with a blue sign, a blue tick. On the other extreme, would be those who we could never persuade and they would have some good reasons, some bad reasons for voting against the government and we gave them the collective title of ‘the shits’ and we marked them off with a brown pencil. And then in the middle, there was a larger group than the others, which we called ‘the wets’. And it was a term, in fact, invented by the then Chief Whip Francis Pym.


  1. As previously stated, I don't accept the premise of this programme, that it is a question of perception ie are "that lot" (mainland Europe) something we want to be part of, or do they represent the "other" (to use a fashionable phrase)? The premise of the programme is implicitly pro-EU (especially as it references the long established trope of confusing Europe with EU).

    Personally, I feel strongly European in as much as I like German composers, French artists, Italian and Russian novelists...and I am proud of the contribution of European philosophers and scientists to the growth of knowledge that underpins the modern world. But I am strongly of the opinion we should get out of the EU Empire now, while we can and rediscover the joys of democracy and crafting policies to benefit our citizens, not imperial projects like "the single market" (why does there have to be a single market in economies so varied and with such divergent interests?), "European security policy" (a complete disaster in Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Libya and Syria) - or "ever closer union" (there is no iron law that says Europe needs, wants or deserves such a union).

  2. To add - I have been very annoyed by this meme about the EU having been the guarantor of peace post WW2. First off, the Common Market as then was didn't start until 1957. We'd had 12 years of complete peace post WW2 already. Equally, post 1957, we've had wars in Yugoslavia and Ukraine where the EU has been one of the main protagonists (the Yugoslav Civil War got kick-started by Germany's rush to recognise Croatia's independence). Other institutions and countries - Western European Union, NATO, Council of Europe, the USSR and USA - can lay claim to having maintained the peace post war. I'd say the EU was more the product of peace brought about by other actors.

  3. I had a very similar impression, Craig. For me, the whole thing was blown right from the beginning, when Robinson set up his narrative, exactly as you say. Apparently, the only reason the EU has problems is because shallow, xenophobic Little Englanders didn't want to be involved at the beginning. The EU is stacked against Britain, but it's your fault! Churchill was the original Europhile, so what's your problem? A pretty lame appeal to authority, considering the context. And why anyone at the BBC thought Blair would be received as a trusted voice, I have no idea.

    The rest of it was very interesting, as obviously I hadn't seen any of that footage before. Although I did get the impression of a rehash, as this has all clearly been covered before, and none of this is actually new information. It just needed to be gently framed.

    Basically, any anti-EU points had been preemptively holed below the waterline, thanks to the opening pitch. We got 'balance', more or less, in the numbers game of how much time was spent on each side's points, but it's a hollow balance. I guess Robinson can redeem himself in the next episode, but I'm not optimistic. In order to properly lay out a full case for Brexit, he'd have to move beyond Britain's problems with the EU and have someone explain that the EU itself is broken and will only get worse.

  4. Just read Newswatch's take on this, and I see they saw a different main narrative: it's only the EU which has prevented more Continental wars. That has been one running gag of the Remain campaign, but I didn't notice it as a main narrative here. Much more effort was spent explaining how it's Britain's fault the EU doesn't work so well and only a strong Britain deeply involved in the proceedings can fix it.

    1. Yes, that was my main 'takeaway' from the programme too, right from Winston Churchill being compared to "Moses, who pointed the way to the Promised Land, but he never actually led the children of Israel into it".