Sunday, November 21, 2004

An old-fashioned textbook - and none the worse for it

All of us who have had to speak, give interviews, take part in media discussions on the EU know how little is known or understood about the project outside the small circle of political nerds. (Yes, indeed, as I have said before, I, too am one of them, knowing, as I do, the difference between the European Council and the Council of Ministers, not to mention where the IGC fits into the scheme.)

Each and every time we seem to have to go back to basics and one wonders what happens to people’s memories between various large events, such as a new treaty or a constitution. It is reassuring to find that each time there are more people around who remember and understand but … well, mostly, back to basics it is.

Fortunately, there are papers and pamphlets around that deal with the basics and can be used or quoted. The recently published Britain and the European Project by Christopher Hoskin is one such. This is a June Press publication and can be ordered from them at a specially reduced price of £3.00.

Mr Hoskin, who tells us that he has a degree in philosophy from Cambridge “and has closely followed the European debate for many years”, writes in a breezy and chatty style. For my taste, there are far too many sentences starting with the word “now” used as an interjection but other readers might approve.

I would also query some of his arguments. He seems to be a historian of the super-whig school, who sees only the good things in British history (Toleration Act but no Test Acts, respect for rights and property but not how late the Married Woman’s Property Act was passed etc). I have no real problem with it except that when the same method is applied to the twentieth century and the constitutional set-up, it becomes difficult to understand how we ended up in the mess we are in.

If I may also be slightly picky, it is time to abandon the line about the huge success with which Britain disembarrassed herself of her empire. As one thinks of the massacres on the Indian sub-continent and surveys the disastrous post-colonial history of Africa, one needs to query some of the assumptions about decolonization and the events that followed it. On the other hand, there were no catastrophic colonial wars like the ones France had in Vietnam and Algeria. This, too, must be noted.

With all those cavils, this is a remarkably useful paper because it does precisely what we need to do: it goes back to basics and spells them out in a way that everyone, even school children can understand. Though, I suspect, arguments made to politicians will have to be made even simpler. Perhaps Mr Hoskin can be persuaded to produce a Janet and John version for MPs and MEPs.

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