Before the end of the last ice age, Britain was connected to continental Europe. The English Channel was dry land for most of the preceding Pleistocene period; an interesting fact considering its existence is usually regarded as a significant component in forming the essential character of the nation. The end of the last glacial period might count as prehistory, but in geological terms it is no time at all. Readers of Our Island Story by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall will know, however, that the concept of Britain, particularly England, begins with the Romans. Noting that what has happened since then makes it plain that geography is of tremendous importance in shaping politics and international relations. And yet, while a channel filled with water affects a nation’s idea of itself, all these other lands are still in proximity. The European mainland remains right there just over the other side, a mere 20.6 miles in the Strait of Dover.
Antony Jay, one of the creators of Yes, Minister, observed that the big political issues of his youth in the 1950s were the same big questions in the early 1980s when he created Hacker and Sir Humphrey with Jonathan Lynn. A reminder that part of the art of politics is to manage situations that are never completely resolved. Britain’s relationship with Europe was one of those issues, which Humphrey described pithily as a game for national interests. He was hostile to Europe, not an uncommon position for a pillar of the Establishment, though he did profess a certain sense of kinship with the Brussels bureaucrats. It was an attitude revealing of the manifold ambivalence that characterises the relationship at so many levels.
Our Island Story was David Cameron’s favourite childhood book, a suitable choice, one might argue, for a Tory grandee. As a politician, he has the advantage of not being overly burdened by beliefs or principles. Since his election victory last month, he has been presiding over a government in a hurry, mindful perhaps that political capital is a scarce resource which is likely to be expended long before he steps down before the end of this parliament. His re-election has ensured that there will be an in-out referendum on British membership of the EU, rendering the debate about whether to have a referendum redundant. The Conservative Party has been roiled by tribal passions on this issue for decades, and there has been overwhelming pressure for years to have such a referendum, believing it is necessary to “lance the boil”. Though it should be clear that advocates for an EU referendum are seriously in error if they think that will happen once “the people have spoken”. One only has to look at Scotland’s referendum last year to see that events such as these are no more than staging posts in an unending saga.
Plenty words have been spoken about the delicate strategy Mr Cameron will be pursuing as he tries the present the sops he will likely be offered in negotiations with his European partners as huge concessions. Meanwhile, a new generation of “bastards” in the Conservative Party are being similarly pro-active, and they plan to make life very difficult for the Prime Minister. Trying to penetrate the mentality of these “Conservatives for Britain” (as opposed to the other kind of Conservative, are we to assume?) is an exercise that can entertain even if it remains ultimately unrewarding.
The key point to understand is that their ideal is a relationship with Europe that doesn’t extend beyond the transactional. They claim that the British people thought they were only signing up to a common market in the 1970s, and that they have since been duped by the European project of ever closer union. But you would have to have been taking an extended holiday from history, wilfully remaining oblivious to past centuries during which major conflagrations were occurring once a generation – culminating in the horrors of the Second World War – to imagine a voluntary pan-European effort at cooperation was going to settle for being little more than a trading bloc. Besides, the world is evolving in such a way that many important functions can’t effectively be done by individual nations. From climate change to cross-border law enforcement, the regulation of trade, etc., there are myriad interdependencies that require inter-governmental collaboration. The EU to a large degree exists to fulfil this role. If it didn’t exist before, it would have to be invented now.
The Prime Minister appears to understand all this, but he leads a party heavily populated by people who don’t. A leader whose manoeuvres are usually motivated by short-term tactical gain, his actions on Europe have combined playing for time with appeasement of his troublemakers. But he can’t avoid trouble forever, mostly because the Outs want things they can’t have, and they will inevitably be disappointed. Britain may leave the EU, but will continue be subject to those hated regulations the EU sets on trade, regulations the UK currently has a say in drawing up. Some of the Outs fancifully suggest that Britain can pretend the “sclerotic”, “hidebound”, “inefficient” EU doesn’t exist, and instead focus on building trade relationships with the vibrant economies of Asia and the Commonwealth. And some imagine that population movements, a fact of life as long as mankind has inhabited the earth, and a principle enshrined in EU treaty for its citizens, can be switched off like a tap. But the time machine that will take UKIP and the UKIP-lite rumps in the other parties back to the 1950s isn’t likely ever to be invented.
As this blog has previously indicated, public debate tends not to come close to tackling the full range of issues that require a thorough airing. Europe is a particular case in point. The media-directed obsession with immigration and welfare is but one component of the debate. The British public’s sentiments here are more driven by the insecurities built into the economic system and the scandalous failures in housing going back decades rather than an informed conviction that EU membership is a bad thing.
However, for those of us enthusiastic about looking beyond the nation state and bringing Europe closer together, the manner in which it is being done doesn’t offer a great deal to enthuse about. The Eurocrats are doing almost nothing worthwhile to foster a European demos, upon which the project will ultimately depend. The savage punishments being inflicted on Greece, for example, and what it implies in terms of an absence of any true sense of European community at the elite level, should shake the confidence of any pro-European. The democratic deficit is a legitimate source of concern. That said, it needs pointing out that Euro-sceptic politicians protesting about EU diktats are mostly upset about the things Europe does which people like, such as the guarantees underpinning social rights and consumer protections. Further to that, this government has acted to undermine EU initiatives that would seek to prevent a debauched banking sector from running amok once again. Again, the public is largely on the side of the EU on this issue.
There are atavistic reasons one could speculate about – a suspicion of foreigners and a sentimental attachment to a particular view of British history – but sometimes one can’t but be curious about what is the precise problem the Outs have with Europe. Contrary to the caricature rendered by some Euro-sceptics, the EU on the whole is not a socialist experiment. Successive treaties going all the way back to the original Treaty of Rome in the 1950s have largely been right wing documents, and today the EU is ever more dogmatic about coercing privatisation and defending corporate privilege, as exemplified by the secrecy surrounding the EU-US TTIP trade deal. The institutions of the EU, and its most powerful member state Germany, have been the world’s foremost proponents of austerity, a self-defeating policy that is purposefully biased towards creditors and not the general citizenry.
David Cameron’s Bloomberg Speech in 2013, when he committed Britain to an in-out referendum were he to win a second term, offered a reasonably accurate presentation of the position of the British people on Europe. It sounded reasonable in lots of ways, and was an impressive of piece of hedging, one of his most impressive skills. His problem is that too much political will has been invested in the EU for it to go backwards, and the real world demands the existence of some kind of intergovernmental arrangement like the one that already exists. That means he can’t pacify his turbulent backbenchers for much longer. While he is likely to carry the country with him, the same probably won’t apply to his party. And that will make UK politics very interesting in the years ahead.