SIR ALEC DOUGLAS-HOMES "Britaininto-Europe" speech and this week's Shadow Cabinet reshuffle mark the most important political developments in the country since Mr. Wilson came to power. For the first time since the war, the real issues in Britain have begun to come to the surface. (It is at least possible that the next general election will not, after all, be fought over coloured immigration.)
All our major problems—political. economic, defence and that concerning this country's role in the world--are wrapped up in the larger one of our relations with Europe. Until the Common Market question, in whatever guise it will eventually present itself, is finally settled one way or the other, the associated problems cannot be solved.
The trouble is that the question of joining Europe cannot he answered on an experimental basis. There is no instalment plan form of membership, whereby we can try out solutions piecemeal and accept or reject them on a basis of expediency. We have to commit ourselves in advance or look for another solution.
Such blind acceptance on trust goes against the deeply ingrained instincts of the English people. That is why Mr. Macmillan's Government sought to strike a bargain in Brussels. President de Gaulle's famous non was the result.
For the past two years since then, British policy on Europe has been one of marking time. Until President de Gaulle leaves the political scene—and he reminded his press conference that he was not immortal—he is not likely to change his basic attitude, whatever comforting words he may have had for the new British Ambassador. His view is—and it is one to which all the Europeans subscribe deep down— is that joining Europe is not a matter of tariffs and quotas but of spirit. One is either a European or one is not.
The Opposition leader's speech is not going to make Britons into Europeans overnight. But it may he the first move in a long process which will persuade our Government and people to look at ourselves and our problems dispassionately and to discover if there is any other role which will satisfy our best and deepest instincts.
But the decision must be faced honestly. It is being either naive or politically cautious to say, as Sir Alec did, that membership of the Common Market would not affect the Atlantic Alliance or our trade relations with the Commonwealth. A strong Europe, with Britain a member, would obviously be a more powerful
partner in an Atlantic community than a divided Europe with Britain on the sidelines. But in order to claim anything like equal partnership with the U.S., Europe might very well have to assert her independence first. The European movement is not ultimately in conflict with an Atlantic alliance but its growth to maturity will strain the existing partnership to the limit.
The Commonwealth. too. is hound to suffer, at least in the short term while world trade is readjusted. Sir Alec is right in saying that a prosperous Europe would be a good market for Commonwealth exporters. But the building of a prosperous--and united—Europe would demand economic measures which would affect all outsiders. Arrangements could no doubt he made to minimise these effects but they cannot be eliminated immediately.
The greatest decision, however, concerns Britain's own future. Those who oppose the European solution on political, economic or defence grounds, have not put forward any feasible alternative. The idea of Britain as the honest broker between Europe and the U.S, is flattering but it is a chimera. The economic attractions of joining Europe become more obvious every day as our trading figures continue to disimprove, due to the failure to maintain exports to the Common Market countries. Even as things are, the defence problem seems to be resolving itself in a piecemeal fashion in favour of much closer links with Europe.
The biggest remaining question-mark is whether we are psychologically prepared for the step. Despite all the controversy of the past years, we are as far away as ever from knowing the views of the people. A general election fought on this issue would be an ideal way of testing the nation's mind. It may, indeed, come to this if the Government does not quickly recover the ground which Sir Alec's bold manoeuvre has won from it.
Finally, in the European controversy, the issue is too often presented to our people purely in one-sided terms. The emphasis is on what we can get from Europe' and not enough is made of what we can contribute. In the mourning of Sir Winston Churchill, the enduring value of the British contribution to the world was vividly remembered. The stability of our political institutions, the love of freedom and fair play, the regard for human dignity, the respect for law. the desire for peace, and the determination of our people to defend all these things came back to mind. If Britain does eventually join Europe, the contributions will not he all one way.