Hugo Young was head boy at Ampleforth when I was a lowly fourth former. I never spoke to him when I was at school. I left prematurely at 16 (there were no girls) and, after three months cramming with a tutor in London and gaining a place at university, I went to live in Paris.
I enrolled in a Cours de Civilisation Française at the Sorbonne, where Hugo, on his gap year, was a fellow student. We were both Yorkshiremen, Catholics, old Amplefordians, and knew almost no one else in Paris. It was a dramatic moment in French history – the government was at odds with the army over Algeria. A military coup was imminent: tanks were stationed in the Champs-Élysées to thwart the landing of paratroopers from Algiers. Demonstrations were banned. Hugo and I joined the throng of socialists and communists on the Place de la Bastille shouting “De Gaulle au poteau!”. We were arrested and flung into a Black Maria but, after showing our British passports, released.
For me, this experience confirmed my belief that I was a European. I was predisposed to do so by some German and Italian blood in my veins; and as a child there were frequently Germans or French exchangers staying at home. I had always preferred the novels of Continentals – Dumas, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Stendhal, Fontana, Manzoni, Proust – to those by English authors such as Dickens, Trollope or Hardy. Continental history was also more exciting – the French Revolution, Napoleon, and now the death throes of France’s Fourth Republic.
Hugo was different. He was quintessentially English, the eldest son of a Sheffield steel master. His father hoped he would take over the family business, but Hugo chose to become a journalist – working first on the Yorkshire Post, then the Sunday Times as its political editor, and finally becoming a regular columnist on the Guardian and chairman of the paper’s owner, the Scott Trust. He ascended Mount Olympus as one of the Great and the Good, but we remained close friends, and it was both a personal and public loss when, in 2003 at the age of 65, he died of cancer.
It is difficult now to convey to the young the influence Hugo once exercised through his column. His roots were provincial, capitalist and conservative, but a generation of Guardian-reading liberals hung on his every word. He was broadly supportive of New Labour but turned against Blair over the invasion of Iraq.
He remained a Catholic, close to his former housemaster at Ampleforth, Cardinal Basil Hume. He was a Küngist rather than a Ratzingerian, as critical of St John Paul II as he was of Margaret Thatcher. Hugo’s clear, trenchant style was found not just in his columns but also in a number of books, among them a biography of Margaret Thatcher, One of Us. To my mind his best, and of particular relevance today, was This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair – a superb account of the shilly-shallying of successive British governments over Europe.
Hugo remained an enthusiastic Europhile but understood well the mentality of the Eurosceptics. For the founders of the Common Market, he wrote in This Blessed Plot, “it was a triumph: out of defeat [in World War II] they produced a new kind of victory. For Britain, by contrast, the entry into Europe was a defeat: a fate she had resisted, a necessity reluctantly accepted, the last resort of a once great power, never for one moment a climatic or triumphant engagement with the construction of Europe.”
Both Hugo and I voted to remain in the European Economic Community in the 1975 referendum. Were he alive today, what would Hugo write about the second referendum on June 23? He loathed the Eurosceptic “bastards” in John Major’s cabinet, and would no doubt have felt the same about today’s Brexiteers. Like me, he would have been disappointed by some aspects of today’s European Union, such as the appointment to high office of failed statesmen and political placemen.
The lack of direct democracy would not have surprised him: the EU was always going to be run on Napoleonic/Bismarckian lines (it might have been different had we been there at the start). Would he have minded, as I do, that a secular political correctness has replaced the Christian ethos of the founding fathers? Would he have objected to the EU’s ham-fisted intervention in Ukraine? What about the state of the euro? How I wish he was alive to give us the benefit of his common sense.
What seems beyond doubt, however, is that he would have retained the conviction we both formed all those years ago that the European Union was a good thing, and so advised us to stay in.
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