Denis MacShane / Apr 2023
Timothy Garton Ash. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Britain and Europe are lucky to have Timothy Garton Ash as the chronicler of the extraordinary transformation of our continent during his and our lifetimes.
I first met him in Gdansk in 1980. Polish workers had staged a sit-in strike. They were advised by smart intellectual, lawyers, publicists to use the form of a trade union, Solidarnosc, as the lever to move the solid boulder of conservative communism and topple is into the dustbin of history.
In Garton Ash, a scion of elite bourgeois English public school and Oxford upbringing who was doing research in East Berlin in his 20s, Poland, and in due course the rest of Central and East Europe found a journalist-historian-advocate who knew how to write histoire – the story as much as the history.
He fell in love with a Polish poet and quickly added Polish to his German, and passable French to his always well-crafted English. He spoke as well as he wrote.
I was older, a product of the 1968 generation who had campaigned with Portuguese, Spanish and Greek workers and student and left activists to end their dictatorships as well as against the folly of the Vietnam war which ended as badly as similar western military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or Syria. After Solidarnosc was repressed in December 1981 I worked in Brazil, Korea and South Africa with democratic trade unions to end dictatorships there.
After the cul-de-sac of armed uprisings and violence launched by groups like the IRA, Red Brigades, PLO and Hamas the 1970-90 years saw democracy arriving on the basis of social organisation and non-violence.
Garton Ash writes elegant New York Review of Books English and brought the personalities and movements that ended European communist rule to life. His book can be safely given to any student or general reader who needs to know how Europe changed itself for the better in the last decades of the last century.
Garton Ash’s charm and intelligence and Oxford good manners opened doors to Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher, the Foreign Office and State Department. The end of communism in 1990 coincided with the arrival of the European Union.
The new European democracies embraced European partnership as the key that would unlock modernisation, investment, and tourism. The great cathedrals and palaces of rich west Europe or the great sites of antiquity and tourist pleasures of the Mediterranean, Italy, Spain and the Alps began publishing guide books in Polish, Czech, or Lithuanian as the European Union became whole and free.
Garton Ash saw better, faster than most journalists and intellectuals in England that consolidating the soft power revolutionary project of the European Union was now a political priority.
However, Britain or more precisely England, was not ready to embrace a European partnership despite Garton Ash’s eloquent urging full British participation and leadership in Europe.
Revealingly he writes that while keen on the creation of the European Union he baulked at the idea of its single currency. This reflects that continued English caution about European construction.
The line “I am in favour of Europe but….” and you can add in some aspect of the EU the English resile from. For Garton Ash, as for many, it was the Euro. Yet French, Italians, the Irish every bit as proud of their national identity as we Brits understood that a European single market and union based on Balkanised nationally controlled currencies would not last. Historians may judge the UK liberal pro—European elite’s rejection of the single currency, the cement that held mainland Europe together, was the moment when Brexit became inevitable.
There is one very important and usually over-looked EU problem which Garton Ash does face up to in a manner that liberal internationalist small ‘c’ conservatives have overlooked since the EU of the Maastricht Treaty was born in 1992.
The EU, the end of communism, arrived along with Davosman – the ultra liberal Enrichessez-vous mode of globalised economics which worked well for its believers and propagandists but left far too many people, especially workers, those without university degrees, who could only speak their own language, and that often badly, with a sense that they were not part of the shiny new Europe the clever men and women of Davos and the preachers of the Financial Times, the Economist or Wall St Journal said must be admired and followed.
It is an honest admission from Garton Ash who worked for the Spectator under Boris Johnson when the paper after 2000 was pumping out its poisonous anti-European myths. Tim was allowed his pages to write fluently about Europe but under William Hague and David Cameron the Tories became an anti-European party long before Nigel Farage had his weekly slots on the BBC Today or Question Times programmes.
The post-1945 construction of Europe was based as much on social Europe as free market or liberal Europe as his great friend Ralf Dahrendorf kept pointing out in the Davos years but no one paid attention.
Now Poland and Hungary are rejecting the liberal international order the EU was meant to incarnate. So too as Garton Ash reports are others nations refusing to take in refugees fleeing despair from Africa and the Muslim world.
Britain has set its face against Europe with even little French school children turned away by Home Office bureaucrats refusing to let them join school visits.
And then there is Russia and Putin about whom Garton Ash warned again and again to no avail as the ruling British political and financial elites loved the money Putin oligarchs recycled through London, its lawyers, banks and the Conservative Party as well as putting top Germans on his payroll.
Garton Ash’s father landed on a Normandy beach on 6th June 1944. He could rightly claim to have freed Europe. I wonder if that date will mean anything to my two recently born grandchildren when they are grown up. The Europe created after 1945 and then renewed after Soviet imperialism was ended thanks in part to writer-activists like Garton Ash gave his and my generation the best Europe that ever existed in history.
But will the future of Europe be as bright?
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister of Europe. He wrote the first book in English on Polish Solidarity in 1981 followed by the first biography in English of François Mitterrand in 1982. He has been writing about Europe ever since.