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.