Labour's strategy for getting Britain into the euro is still too passive and economistic. Ministers should read this book, says former Robin Cook adviserby David Clark / November 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
As director of the single currency lobby group, Britain in Europe, Simon Buckby has one of the least enviable jobs in British politics. Launched two years ago to a fanfare of heavyweight support from Tony Blair, Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine, Britain in Europe has struggled to make headway in the face of unrelenting public opposition to euro entry, visceral media hostility and the refusal of the government to provide leadership on the issue.
To cap it all, Tony Blair’s first tentative steps towards a proper debate on the euro, heralded in his undelivered TUC speech of 11th September, became an early casualty of a war that is set to absorb government energies and media attention in the months ahead. Into this uncertain environment comes Made in Britain, Buckby’s attempt to set out a pro-European vision capable of mobilising a popular majority for euro entry.
Made in Britain fulfils its mandate to provide a readable, single volume summary of the argument for Britain’s wholehearted engagement in Europe, and does so with style and passion. Complex issues of economic and monetary union are made accessible. Euromyths are confidently debunked and post-imperial illusions exposed. The mantle of patriotism is snatched from the little Englanders and claimed for those who see the EU as a platform for greater national achievement. In place of the Treasury mantra of “prepare and decide,” and “five economic tests” is a desire, at long last, to treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves as the most fundamental strategic choice to face Britain in a generation.
Buckby’s starting point is the debate on national identity, and a frontal assault on the English exceptionalism-masquerading as Britishness-that informs the Eurosceptic view. Constructed on a series of national myths, this combination of insularity and superiority has exerted a distorting influence on Britain’s post-war approach to continental Europe.
At every stage, we have shunned European developments only to conclude at a later date that we cannot afford to be left behind. In doing so, we have failed to shape those developments. As Buckby points out, this reactive posture has been a betrayal of the national interest. His analysis stands as an important corrective to the false debate about Europe and its implications for national sovereignty. Successive British leaders, including Margaret Thatcher, have been inexorably drawn to the realisation that our most important interests are determined by events beyond our borders. It is not our ability to take our own decisions, but our ability to influence the decisions of others that is the true measure of national power. Sovereignty, in the sense that Tory Eurosceptics talk about it, is a meaningless abstraction. What matters to the British people is the power to determine their own fate, or what Buckby calls “effective sovereignty.”
Made in Britain has its omissions. Buckby is too sanguine about the effects of European integration on transatlantic relations. It is true that successive US governments have urged stronger British engagement in Europe, but there has also been an underlying ambivalence in American attitudes to the European project. Behind the yearning for an answer to the Kissinger question (“When I want to speak to Europe, who do I call?”) is the fear that Europe might then speak back. They want Europe to take a greater share of the burden of global leadership without necessarily gaining a commensurate share of the influence that goes with it. It is a contradiction Americans must resolve for themselves. The only sensible option for Britain is to press ahead in the knowledge that Washington will come to appreciate the advantages of dealing with a stronger and more coherent partner.
Buckby also sidesteps a central fault line of the debate on Europe: namely, what model of society do we aspire to build? On choices about the organisation of society and economy, the appropriate role of government, and what constitutes the public realm, British attitudes fall within the European mainstream. But for domestic reasons, the government has been too willing to abandon this territory to those who wish to portray the European model as a sclerotic failure.
Buckby’s is a compelling case for British membership of the euro. Regrettably, there is, as yet, no evidence that the government is willing to accept it. A great deal was made of Tony Blair’s Labour party conference speech in which he said the government would call a referendum if the economic tests were met. There was, in fact, little to justify the excitement. The only test that counts is whether Tony Blair thinks he can win the referendum and there is still no indication that he is prepared to lead the sort of campaign that would make that possible.
To the extent that the government has a strategy for getting Britain into the euro, it is passive and contingent on events. The hope is that the introduction of euro notes and coins next year will go smoothly, leading to a surge of confidence in the eurozone and a sense of historic achievement. Familiarity with the new currency and a deepening sense of inevitability will start to erode British hostility. A good outcome at the Barcelona summit on economic reform in March will provide the final impetus, enhancing Tony Blair’s standing and proving that the rest of Europe is moving in Britain’s direction. With public opinion beginning to soften, the way will be clear for a six month campaign and a referendum in the autumn of next year.
There are obvious pitfalls in this approach. First, the case for British membership of the euro stands irrespective of whether the introduction of notes and coins is judged a success, or Tony Blair gets his way in Barcelona. Second, the government is relying on optimum outcomes it is unlikely to achieve in practice. Whatever the reality, the British press next year will be full of stories of defenceless French pensioners being short changed, and money launderers exploiting loopholes. The picture that emerges will be mixed at best. At Lisbon, the French presidential elections will make any substantive progress on economic liberalisation almost impossible. The most important decision of Tony Blair’s premiership has been entrusted to a very uncertain fate.
Third, a six month campaign may not be enough to turn public opinion around, even if the optimum conditions are in place. The 1975 referendum, which the government uses as its template, provides a weak precedent. A “yes” vote in 1975 was a vote to ratify the status quo of Britain’s EEC membership, backed by almost the entire establishment. A euro referendum will involve the task of persuading the British people to accept radical change. After a decade in which successive governments have swept the issue under the carpet, the electorate is likely to react with incredulity to the suggestion that it has suddenly become a question of overriding national importance.
In one vital respect, however, events have started to run very strongly in favour of the pro-European case. The terrorist attacks on the US and the ensuing international crisis have demolished the illusion of national invulnerability. The long-term political consequence of this conflict will not be an upsurge of Atlanticism at the expense of Europeanism, but an end to the old certainties on which Euroscepticism has been built. Even the most powerful nation on earth cannot shut the world out or go it alone. The narrow defence of sovereignty offers little protection at a time when nation states can only find security by working in concert.
It is the theme of interdependence, which runs like a thread through Made in Britain, on which the government must now construct its case. To convince the British people, Tony Blair will need to dispense with his assertion that the constitutional arguments have been “settled” and set out a political vision of Britain’s future in which Britain’s membership of the eurozone is an integral part. If he chooses to do so, Made in Britain will provide him with a good starting point.