The case for Europe in the 1970s was based on British failure. The anti-Europeans still feel beleaguered, the rest of us have moved onby Sunder Katwala / July 24, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
Before the European election, the need to win a once-in-a-generation public debate about Europe had become a commonplace among those frustrated by how Eurosceptics have set the terms of British public debate over Europe for over a decade. Yet Ukip’s success has left many pro-Europeans fearful of whether they can ever win the public debate. Tony Blair once spoke of Britain’s destiny lying in membership of the euro. Now, following his inelegant U-turn on the European constitution, he seems to have put British membership of the union itself at risk. If we are losing the debate to Robert Kilroy-Silk and Joan Collins, it must be time for pro-Europeans to go back to the drawing board. Those backing a yes vote for the constitution referendum like to pick over the lessons of 1975 and debate whether the 25 per cent swing from no to yes during that campaign can be emulated despite the different balance of media and political opinion this time. But we don’t live in the Britain of 1975. The electorate is less likely to defer to the views of the great and the good even if a similar cross-party and cross-interest coalition could be constructed. It was precisely the loss of confidence in political elites that left the government unable to defend its anti-referendum position and that, despite the U-turn, stoked the Ukip protest vote. The campaign for Europe now needs to find generals who will not fight the last war but who can articulate the next-generation case for participation in Europe. For Britain has changed. It is not only less deferential than in 1975, it is also a great deal more successful on many of the measures that matter – perhaps above all public perception. The historic argument for Europe in Britain was an argument from decline, and pro-Europeans have not yet found new arguments to speak to a more self-confident Britain. For Britain, participation in the EEC was always, in a sense, a defeat. We did not join the initial moves towards continental integration in the 1950s because the European project’s founding experience – the second world war – was different to ours. Britain had won the war. Our institutions had been tested and emerged triumphant. “Never again” was largely a domestic injunction to avoid the unemployment and social division of the 1930s. The nation had united politically in the wartime coalition. The welfare state would answer the social question and we would carry on as before. The mood in continental Europe to try something entirely new was fine for others; it did not apply to Britain. Yet Britain’s status at the top table proved illusory. Churchill may have declared in 1942 that he had “not become the king’s first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British empire.” But he was wrong. The war saw Britain trade in much of its empire and a quarter of the national wealth. This was a choice for Europe – albeit not a conscious one. And so a couple of decades later, it was a defeated, disillusioned Britain which reluctantly accepted the need to join Europe after all. By the time the public was asked for its view, the mood was one of fear and caution. Christopher Soames famously declared during the 1975 referendum that “this is no time for Britain to leave a Christmas club, let alone the common market.” Economically, many had come to think of Britain as a basket case. It was unfortunate for the European cause that the moment of decision came amid the trauma of the three day week and the oil crisis, with unemployment rising fast and inflation at 25 per cent. Europe was a liferaft to cling to. If there was also a more progressive, internationalist aspect to it, it was still at heart a defeatist choice: the hope that European participation would somehow enable class-ridden, inward-looking Britain to emulate the economic success of the new Germany. For the original core Europe of six, the creation of this new political entity was a triumph over history. For Spain and Portugal, Europe was about ratifying democracy and modernity, and an end to international isolation. For Ireland, it offered a chance to step out of Britain’s long shadow and to shape a new national identity. For the new members who have joined the Europe of 25, this historic enlargement has been about the return to Europe. That positive choice to embrace the EU has largely shaped most of the political and economic choices made over 15 years in central and eastern Europe. For Britain, the choice has remained at best an ambiguous one. In most of continental Europe, national identity is based primarily on language and culture. British identity, by contrast, has depended more on political institutions – institutions that are now subject to reform or domination by European ones. The ambiguities have not disappeared with the passing of the declinist spirit; if anything they have become more acute. Britain is no longer a country in crisis; the great ideological wars in domestic politics seem to have been replaced by debates about funding university expansion and arguments about speed cameras. This is a more confident, more relaxed country, economically successful and, in the Blair era, with a wider degree of social and political consensus than before. Even relative economic decline has been partly reversed. The treasury hardly looks enviously at the high levels of unemployment in France and Germany or the problems of the eurozone’s growth and stability pact. This should not be the cue for British triumphalism – many of the European economies outperform us on investment and productivity and few on the continent would trade public services with us either. But there is hardly a sense of a Britain with everything to learn and nothing to offer. So what does this mean for the pro-European argument? It means a hard-headed defence of the status quo. If European Britain is working, why do we want to risk changing our place in it? Why return to the Major years, impotently shaking our fists from the sidelines? Under Blair, the British have learnt to play the European game – to join in the shifting alliances which will determine outcomes in the Europe of 25. The anti-Europeans confuse the symbolism of the EU’s flag, anthem and constitution for substance. In fact, the EU is now closer to the economically liberal grouping of nation states that suits Britain’s history and interests than at any time in the past 15 years. Is it possible to think of any serious new measure since 1997 that has been against Britain’s interests? And what is the next great European project? If anything, it must be defence and security, to which Britain is central. The constitutional debate should be about locking in these gains and challenging the frivolous anti-Europeans with the anti-prosperity, anti-influence logic of their position. A new, more confident pro-European campaign needs to show that it is the anti-Europeans – Ukip’s little Englanders – who remain stuck in the era of Britain in decline and under siege, seeing a threat to Britain’s existence in every Brussels directive. After decline, most of the rest of us have moved on.