There are few issues in postwar British politics that have proven as contentious and as vexing as that of Britain's relationship with the rest of Europe. For decades Britain has wrestled with the question of its place within an increasingly integrated continent, with the very subject of Britain's membership in the European Union regarded by many as still open for debate. Yet for others the problem was not that Britain joined Europe's unification project but that it did not join it soon enough, having passed on what in retrospect seems to have been the priceless opportunity to become a founding member of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. As Alan Milward demonstrates in this book, however, such arguments ignore both the problems and opportunities that faced Britain after the Second World War, ones that he sees as providing a far more complicated set of options for British policymakers than might be seen in retrospect.
Milward begins by looking at the European issues facing Britain after the end of the war with Nazi Germany. Foremost among them was the growing threat of the Soviet Union, and the consequent need (far from guaranteed) to keep the United States engaged with European defense. The Soviet challenge served as an impetus for postwar reconstruction, an effort that helped stimulate efforts towards a combined economic effort, Though Britain encouraged such efforts, her leaders eschewed any sort of long-term commitment, seeing the Empire and the Commonwealth as far more important to the British economy that a devastated and divided Europe- an understandable view given the statistics Milward provides for British trade during that period. Instead, Britain sought to maintain a role at the center of a sort of Venn diagram between the United States, the Commonwealth, and Europe, sharing a role with each yet not being drawn into any sort of isolating commitment with any one of them. It was this attitude which led Britain to opt out of the sort of restrictive relationships entailed in the emerging Coal and Steel Community, as well as the subsequent EEC. That the EEC's emergence coincided with both the European economic boom and growing international competition for Commonwealth markets fueled almost instantaneous second thoughts after 1957, but by the time Britain sought entry into the EEC it faced the implacable opposition of Charles de Gaulle, who vetoed Britain's first attempt at entry in January 1963.
All of this Milward describes in a narrative characterized by erudition, insight and wit. His command of the sources is impressive, and he is generous enough to direct readers in his footnotes to books offering opposing viewpoints on the more contentious issues. Together it makes his book essential reading not just for those interested in Britain's relationship with the developing institutions of united Europe, but anyone wanting to learn about this pivotal point in defining Britain's postwar relationship with the world.