The use and understanding of history in the Foreign Office:  Sir Stephen Wall


Sir Stephen Wall had a long and distinguished career in the Foreign Office, acting as Private Secretary and adviser on foreign policy and defence issues to the Prime Minister, John Major, from 1991 to 1993, and to Tony Blair on European affairs from 2000 to 2004. He was British ambassador to Portugal from 1993 to 1995 and Britain’s Permanent Representative to the European Union from 1995 to 2000. He has also written two books on Britain’s relationship with the EU: A Stranger in Europe: Britain and the EU from Thatcher to Blair (2008), and the second volume of the official history of Britain and the European Community: From Rejection to Referendum, 1963-1975 (2012). Stephen Wall is therefore exceptionally well placed to discuss how policies pursued by leading British politicians, advised by senior officials at the Foreign Office, have been influenced by their understanding of history. This case study is based on an interview with Sir Stephen Wall by Dr Christopher Knowles in December 2018.


The decision to the join the European Community

Sir Stephen considers that, while some politicians had a specific interest in history or wished to know more about particular topics, the historical perceptions of the politicians he knew and worked with were formed mainly by personal experiences, especially in their early life – what they learned at school, from their family, from friends and colleagues, or about the history of their political parties – together with broader public perceptions rooted in longer-term interpretations of British history.

In his view, two ‘opposing tendencies’ help to account for the conflict between what he describes as the argument of the heart, to keep Britain separate from Europe, and the argument of the head, for closer political and economic integration. ‘The argument of the heart’ derived from widely held and long-standing historical narratives of Britain as an island nation, separate from the continent of Europe, and was reinforced by personal and family experiences during and immediately after the Second World War.

There has always been a tension between the British government and what you might call institutional Europe – the Commission and the Court of Justice and the Parliament. Our partners more or less accept the institutions as the key to the whole thing – after all, they invented them – whereas we always regarded them as a necessary evil. We had to sign up in order to be able join, but if you look at successive Prime Ministers, what they really wanted was an intergovernmental Europe. They wanted a Europe run by Britain, France and Germany. That’s what Blair wanted, that’s what Thatcher to an extent wanted, although she found it quite difficult to actually collaborate, and that was Cameron’s instinct and probably to an extent Theresa May’s.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many leading politicians and Foreign Office officials reached the conclusion that the decision not to participate in early initiatives that led to the creation of the European Community had been a serious mistake. This more recent historical perception served to bolster the ‘argument of the head’: that membership was in Britain’s best economic and political interests.

I think that really is the story of our unhappy relationship with the rest of the European Union and the fact that we are leaving now, because there was the decision of the head, that this was something that we had to be part of because it was successful and there wasn’t another way for us to exercise influence and to manage our prosperity, conflicting all the time with the sense that we had a different history, a history of resisting continental encroachment, a history of empire, a long history of parliamentary sovereignty, and a history of a uniquely close relationship with the United States, although we probably exaggerated to ourselves our importance in that relationship.

These conflicting attitudes were shared by British politicians in both major parties, and by officials in the Foreign Office, and were different from prevailing attitudes in continental Europe:

I think there is actually relatively little difference in fundamental attitudes from Harold Macmillan through to Blair or even Cameron and May. Britain has a long history of parliamentary sovereignty – we cut off the head of our king in 1642 in order to assert Parliament’s power over taxation – while most European countries emerged from the Second World War with national institutions either disgraced or more or less destroyed. Also in continental Europe physical frontiers are often meaningless or very porous, whereas in Britain the physical frontier was always very important. These differences created a psychological barrier that was reinforced by our wartime experience and the threat of invasion. For example it was Gaitskell who said at the Labour Party Conference in 1962, opposing proposals to join the European Community: ‘This will be the end of a thousand years of history’. He didn’t need to explain what he meant – the audience understood him intrinsically.

As evidence to support this interpretation of the British motivation for joining, or opposing, the EU, Sir Stephen refers to Michael Charlton’s book, The Price of Victory (1983). The book was based on interviews with senior politicians and Foreign Office officials, many of whom had been sceptical of the first attempts to create a European Economic Community after the war, but changed their views in the late 1950s and early 1960s. According to Sir Stephen, the earlier Foreign Office view, ‘to put it crudely, was that this project wouldn’t work because it was put together by a bunch of losers’. These negative views were superseded as the European Community proved to be successful, and senior officials came to believe that joining was the only way to preserve British global influence and protect British economic, financial and national security interests.

In 1964, for example, after the first British application to join the EU had been vetoed by De Gaulle, and shortly before the general election that resulted in a change of government and Harold Wilson becoming Prime Minister, Con O’Neill, British Ambassador to the European Community and later head of the delegation that negotiated Britain’s successful entry into the EU in 1973, sent a despatch to the Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home. O’Neill placed the possible future accession of Britain to the EU in the context of a long tradition of conflict between Britain and Europe, writing that ‘What the continental powers had failed to achieve by war over centuries they were now about to achieve by a stroke of the pen’.

But he then posed the question: Was this good for the UK? And his view was that in terms of our interests, in terms of our economy, and our influence in the world, joining was the only way to go. So that was very much an argument of the head, not the heart, and indeed it was an argument of the head that persuaded Harold Wilson to adopt the policy of joining the European Community.

By the time Britain joined the EU in 1973 and the decision was ratified in the 1975 referendum, the ‘argument of the head’ predominated. Many of the most senior and influential positions in the Foreign Office were now held by officials, whose view of the European Community was coloured by the perception that Britain’s earlier failure to join had been a huge mistake, that had to be remedied.

Those are things that are rooted in experience and a kind of received history. And they colour the attitude of the next generation, of people like me, for example, who worked for those senior officials. You absorb a kind of work ethos and a set of views that colour the way you behave. I remember in the Summer of 1985, when we were outvoted in the European Council over what became the single European Act – the first time the European Council had ever voted – I remember then that people like David Williamson, who was the head of the European Secretariat and the Cabinet Office, and other senior people, were really scared that our partners would go off on their own and leave us behind. And similarly in 1991 and 1992, when it came to the Maastricht Treaty and the single currency, one of the reasons why we allowed it to go forward, negotiating the opt-out, was we were afraid they would make a separate treaty on their own, without us. There was a gradual sense that as far as British influence was concerned, Europe was the only game in town.


The Official History of Britain and the European Community and the use of history in the Foreign Office

Stephen Wall’s first book, A Stranger in Europe, was written after he retired from the Foreign Office.

I thought there was a story to tell. I suppose I was also trying to make the case for Europe, from a British perspective. And I thought the difference in approach between the three Prime Ministers – Thatcher, Major and Blair – was of itself interesting; how they wrestled with the conflicts I describe as the arguments of the head and of the heart. But I was writing it from the perspective of somebody who thought that the process of reconciling those conflicting interests would continue, rather than come to a grinding halt.

His second book, the official history of Britain and the European Community, from the rejection in 1963 of Britain’s first application, to the referendum approving accession in 1975, was published in 2012.

When Alan Milward, who had written the first volume of the official history, became ill and couldn’t continue, I was approached by the Cabinet Office. I thought that on the one hand the book would provide a useful source, to save people going to the archives themselves, but the other thing I really wanted to do was to show how you can over-rationalise decisions. The instincts of politicians as well as the political constraints they are under are huge, huge determinants of the policies they pursued in office. I don’t know if I have succeeded, but I wanted to allow the reader to capture the story, as I did going through the documents, as it builds up through the file day by day. Even if you know what happened, for example when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, you can feel your pulse starting to increase because this was a moment of real danger and nobody knew then whether this was going to be World War Three or not. I wanted to try and recreate some of that excitement.

Although he hoped that his books might be read by some of his former colleagues in the Foreign Office or other government departments, he thought this was unlikely and his books would be of interest to a mainly academic audience. The government’s priorities, objectives and policies were now very different, which makes him question the relevance of his books in 2018, when official government policy is to leave, rather than to stay in the European Union. 

I know that A Stranger in Europe is used in some universities as a primer. I would love to think that both it and the official history could be of some use to practitioners. Eventually some people at the Department for Exiting the European Union [DEXU] did get round to reading it. One person I spoke to from DEXU told me the book was really interesting, really, really interesting, but he didn’t suggest it was directly relevant to what they were doing now. And why should it be? They are operating in a situation where we are leaving the European Union. They have to manage that. Managing joining and staying in the European Union, which I wrote about in the books, was obviously very different.

Having worked in the Foreign Office and as private secretary for two Prime Ministers, he also knew that colleagues in similar positions were unlikely to have time to read the official histories or other similar academic publications.

You have to think about the day to day work in the department, where people are drafting submissions to ministers, answers to Parliamentary Questions and answers to letters and so on. It is a bit like asking someone who is on the production line to think about the history of the motor-car.

We tried when I was in the European Secretariat working for Blair. We got academics in to talk around the subjects. I remember feeling at the time that what they had to say was very interesting, but I had to make a recommendation about something in the here and now. Blair needs advice by tomorrow and how does this help me? It was the same when I worked for John Major – there are much larger teams now – but at that time the person in No. 10 dealing with foreign policy, defence and Northern Ireland was me. I was the only person. So the opportunity for reflection was limited.

To counter his generally negative view of the relevance of the official histories at the highest levels of policy making – that they have the potential to be useful, but this is only rarely applied in practice due to time and other constraints – Sir Stephen does believe that historical evidence can make a valuable contribution to the work of the Foreign Office in other, possibly more routine areas. Examples include requests to the Research Department for specific historical information and ensuring that high-level international ministerial conferences run smoothly.

There is a Research Department at the Foreign Office and if you needed a particular piece of historical information, they would provide it and they certainly were a useful resource.

When Britain assumed the presidency of the EU in 1986, it was useful to be able to refer to a document, written by the Foreign Office officials who had been responsible for organising the previous British presidency:

In 1986, when I was head of the European Department, we had to run the UK Presidency. Having a document from the previous presidency, saying ‘this is what you need to do’, in great detail, down to how many knives and forks you need to buy, that was very useful. It was much less about the policy than about the nitty-gritty, but that’s still important. If your guests turn up and there aren’t enough hotel rooms, it’s pretty disastrous.

A third example – the highly regarded work of a former member of the Research Department, who used to act as interpreter at meetings in Moscow – illustrates another valuable contribution that, in Sir Stephen’s view, a greater understanding of history can make to the work of the Foreign Office: the provision of historical context to help politicians and officials understand better the meaning and significance of their discussions with foreign leaders.

His name was Tony Bishop. He was a Russian expert and he provided material before the meetings, including recent historical context. And afterwards he would write a note about his interpretation of what he had been interpreting, a kind of political perspective on the significance of what was being said and how it fitted in with Russian views of the world. That was hugely valuable because the real difficulty in the game of diplomacy is understanding ‘what did they do that for’? ‘Why did they do that’? His official brief was to interpret. But his reports were hugely valuable. They were always read. When I worked for John Major and he was meeting Gorbachov, they were always read.[1]


British Ambassador to Portugal

A further example of the relevance of history to the work of the Foreign Office is the need to understand how people in other countries perceive their history. In 1993 Stephen Wall was appointed British ambassador to Portugal. He had visited Portugal before but knew very little about the country. The Foreign Office gave him around two months to prepare, during which time he learned the language, attended various briefings, and read some published history, in particular on Anglo-Portuguese relations in the nineteenth century after the Peninsular War.

The standard view in Britain is that Portugal is our oldest ally, but when you read the history, and in particular when I actually got to Portugal and talked to people there, you realise that from a Portuguese perspective it is much more complicated. It is rather a love/hate relationship. There is a lot of resentment, which you need to be aware of, rather than the Portuguese feeling that their relations with Britain were all wonderful.

Even in 1993, several years after their former colonies in Southern Africa had gained independence (in 1975) and Portugal had joined the European Union (in 1986), the Portuguese perception of their earlier history still affected public attitudes towards Great Britain.

I think that understanding more about their historical perceptions enabled me to go from a rather simplistic to a more sophisticated view. The Portuguese resentments are historical partly because in 1815, after the Peninsular War, we more or less ran the Portuguese economy for the best part of seven years, as if Portugal was a British colony. There is an expression in Portuguese es so para Ingles ver, which means ‘this is just for the English to see’; in other words, to pay lip service to something; it’s what you say to the English to keep them happy. And then in the late nineteenth century we resisted Portuguese expansion in Southern Africa. We had South Africa and Zimbabwe, and they had Mozambique and Angola. When I was leaving Portugal, Mozambique, never a British colony, decided they wanted to join the British Commonwealth. The Portuguese were absolutely convinced that this was British Machiavellianism. We did it for economic reasons, but they thought we were trying to recreate something from the past. Their view was absolutely imbued by history.


British Prime Ministers and their understanding of history

While the broader outlook and high-level policies of the Prime Ministers he worked for were strongly influenced by historical perceptions learnt in early life, at school or from family and close friends, Sir Stephen could not recall their ever having asked him for historical evidence to help formulate or review policy, or make decisions. While Margaret Thatcher, for example, tended to trust her instincts, John Major was more pragmatic and rational in his approach to issues.

I wasn’t conscious of John Major thinking in historical terms. The difference between him and Margaret Thatcher was more a generational one, in the sense that she was a teenager in the war years. It is too strong to say she was anti-German, but there was a moment at the Fontainbleau summit, the one where we finally got the rebate, where she came out of a meeting and said to her officials ‘Don’t they have any appreciation of the fact that we saved their necks, and the only ones who stand up for anything are us and the Americans’. Whereas when it came to German reunification, for John Major this was the rational sensible thing to do. The whole vision of Europe, to which she was completely impervious, if not hostile, to him made perfect sense.

David Cameron, similarly, had little interest in history. He was more interested in tactics than in broader strategy.

Everybody I’ve talked to or who worked with Cameron, they all say the same thing. This is a man who, if you started talking strategy, his eyes glazed over. One senior diplomat told me that if you described a difficult issue to Cameron he immediately saw all the layers of it; he is intellectually very clever, but totally uninterested in strategy. I’ve had this from five or six people who have worked closely with him. So I think if somebody had plonked a chapter from my book down in front of him, I don’t think that for a second he would have read it.

Tony Blair, on the other hand was more prepared to read background material. Sir Stephen recalls giving him a copy of Michael Charlton’s The Price of Victory to read during the Summer holidays. But Blair’s freedom of action and scope to determine policy were constrained by his dependence on the Murdoch Press, which promoted a different perception of history, that served its own interests.

Margaret Thatcher’s rhetoric, reported in a newspaper like the Sun, which supported her and sold 11 million copies a day, fed and reinforced a kind of public Euro-scepticism. Then look at Blair, a guy without a problem in his own party of Euro-scepticism, at that stage, and himself a pro-European, but none the less wooing Murdoch to get Murdoch to switch sides, which he did. Blair then found that his policy was heavily constrained by the fact that he depended on the support of the Murdoch press and the Murdoch press was virulently anti-European.

Blair attempted to use the press, on occasions, to persuade the public to endorse his policies, most notably on Iraq.

When Blair was really up against it over Iraq, when he couldn’t get a majority in the UN Security Council, President Chirac gave his national broadcast, and said ‘As things stand, we will not vote for this, for this resolution’, to go to war against Iraq. It is very clear if you read the transcript that Chirac was saying that the grounds for going to war do not exist at present. And I remember walking down the corridor with Blair and Alastair Campbell, and they decided to brief the press that Chirac had said that in no circumstances would France ever go to war, which was not what Chirac had actually said. They knew that with the Sun, in particular, playing the anti-French card was a very good way of getting public opinion on side. It was done entirely for that reason.

In other words, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell thought that they were more likely to get support from the British public for an invasion of Iraq, if the French were portrayed in the press, not as willing to support the US and Britain in future, if conditions were right, but that they would never take part.

By briefing the press in this way, Blair and Campbell were exploiting long-standing, public perceptions of history, in which the French are portrayed on the one hand as the traditional enemy of Britain, and on the other as ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’, a phrase that originated in the United States but was widely adopted in Britain. Sir Stephen comments that:

My official history of Britain and the European Community really is a history of the Hundred Years War by other means. I remember my father telling me, when I was twelve years old, that France is our natural enemy. And it’s there. It’s all in that book. Every single day, it’s always the French. As my friend from DEXU said: ‘the people who are trying to screw us are the French’.

If such a partial understanding of history, widely shared by politicians, many government officials, the general public and the press, can thus lead to an emotional and irrational prejudice against the French, against Europeans and against foreigners, and to inaccurate and misleading briefings by politicians and their public relations advisers, the next question, for academic historians and all who seek to influence public policy, must be: how can a more accurate and balanced understanding of history contribute to more rational and pragmatic policies pursued by government, by politicians and their advisers, while still maintaining the benefits of a distinctive national identity and respect for national traditions that have served the country well for centuries, and so help to reconcile ‘the argument of the head’ with ‘the argument of the heart’? 



[1] Tony Bishop’s obituary in the Daily Telegraph is available on-line and can be viewed at:

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