It’s crunch time for Britain in Europe We have a tremendous opportunity to reconfigure our place in the EU. Does David Cameron have the courage to seize it? by iain martin
When David Cameron became leader of the Conservative party he was determined to avoid a subject that had proved fatal to his predecessors. The European question would not derail his leadership, as it had that of Sir John Major and before him Margaret Thatcher. Isn’t it great, he was fond of saying several years ago, that the Tory party isn’t having the usual row with itself over Europe.
In the event it turns out that on Cameron’s watch it is crunchtime for Britain and the European Union. We will be compelled in the next few years—quite possibly even months—to choose what kind of relationship we want with those in charge of a new hegemony on the continent.
lamenting that Cameron had left Britain isolated in Europe. Although, as Terry Smith, the pugnacious and hard-headed City CEO, put it: Britain is isolated in the way that a man on the Southampton quayside who has turned down a ticket on the maiden voyage of the Titanic is isolated.
Suddenly there is Tory optimism that on Europe Cameron is on the verge of achieving something important. He has, it seems, found his “game-changer” and gained the opportunity to revivify his premiership. To understand why, and to fully appreciate the enormity of what he appears to have started, one has to examine the post-war history of the Conservative party and the profound shift in its attitude to Europe.
Much of post-1950s Conservative policy has been predicated on avoiding having to make precisely those kinds of stark choices about Europe. At the heart of it was a very British self-delusion, rooted in the notion that the pro-Europeans running other countries didn’t really believe in what they said they believed in. Britain would be “in”, but whenever criticism was voiced governments claimed that this was fine because our continental partners were not serious about realising their founding father Jean Monnet’s integrationist vision. Or if they were serious, they could be blocked or slowed.
Edward Heath was always the Tory exception. Here was a leader more gripped by pro-European fervour than possibly even Monnet himself. His war experiences, and the failure of his efforts on behalf of Macmillan to negotiate EEC entry, meant he was eventually prepared to accept dreadful terms dictated by the French on fishing, agriculture and financial contributions. As Robin Harris notes in his magnificent new party history, The Conservatives: “Few political lives in modern Britain brought such unhappy consequences as the life of Edward Heath.”
It always was a poor Foreign Office-designed argument at odds with the evidence. Now, after the crisis of the Eurozone it becomes impossible to make the case with a straight face. The grand historical error that was the creation of the single European currency is being compounded by a drive to some form of common economic government by compulsion in the Eurozone.
Cameron, being an establishment figure who has liked to see himself above petty party politics, originally attempted to pursue a policy in line with the pragmatic tradition.
Yet on December 9 last year, at what was then the latest “Save the Euro” summit, he did something rather extraordinary. Wielding the veto, he broke the historical continuum by which Britain moved gradually from a trading relationship to deep immersion in an integrationist project. Britain would not sign up to France and Germany’s treaty facilitating a fiscal union, the prime minister told his fellow EU leaders. It was one against 26, the 17 of the Eurozone and the other nine EU members, many of them slated to join—eventually. The 26 will press ahead, while Britain stands (not for the first time in its history) alone.
Beyond Heath, British involvement with the EEC, the EC and then the EU has been presented by the Conservatives mainly in terms of a fudge, with the economic benefits of membership hyped up and the downsides either not acknowledged or only rarely dealt with. Where there were concessions to be made, it was intoned gravely that they were “in the national interest” (one of the most bogus of phrases in politics). Outside the battle for national survival in a major war, the “national interest” is usually a cover for establishment groupthink and sly deal-making, devoid of principle.
Tory ministers tended to talk about Europe either in terms of dull technical practicalities and regrettable compromises made in search of illusory “influence” or, occasionally, as the free-trading wave of the future and economic modernisation.
Tory pragmatism explains the approach of John Major during the Maastricht negotiations in 1991-92 and of Margaret Thatcher for much of her premiership. If there were supposed benefits, and in the case of the single market there obviously were economic gains, those raising objections could be dismissed as fundamentalists who were out of touch with the modern realities of cross-border cooperation. Before the end of the Cold War there was the example of Nato to point to. Didn’t it involve a pooling of sovereignty for greater defence security? Wasn’t the coming European Union just the
When Cameron unexpectedly broke free of the old thinking and vetoed it was like a dam bursting. His overwhelmingly eurosceptic party, which had been fractious and mutinous, was overjoyed. Polling has suggested strong backing from the public. Pro-EU forces in Britain, including the Conservatives’ coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, went into an extended period of mourning,
‘Led by Germany and France, a large number of countries want to go where the UK has little or no inclination to follow’
economic equivalent of Nato?
The attitude of the senior civil service was pivotal. In 1998, in This Blessed Plot, Hugo Young revealed to devastating effect how senior officials in the Foreign Office and elsewhere had run a shadow policy, propelling Britain towards much