Various people are rumoured to be members of the ERG. But what holds the group together? Photo: Prospect composite
What is it that drives the convictions of the European Research Group (ERG), the alliance within the Parliamentary Conservative Party that is so vociferously intent on the UK leaving the EU? In December 2018 Philip Hammond the Chancellor of the Exchequer famously referred to them as ‘extremists,’ thus implying that their views were beyond the acceptable range of opinion within the Party. Yet the ERG world-view has been central to the thinking of prominent British Conservatives for many decades (and possibly many generations).
It would be all too easy to conflate their perspectives with those of the anti-immigrant right as represented by UKIP and their fellow travellers. Yet hostility to immigration is only tangential to an anti-Europe sentiment within the party that can be traced back to at least 1945.
Even as late as the 1990s, when John Major referred to the anti-Maastrict rebels as the ‘bastards,’ immigration was not the dominant concern. It was the Monday Club, founded in 1961 by a grouping of far-right Tories including many MPs, that was opposed to immigration and went so far as to advocate forced repatriation. On Europe, however, its members were split—so much so that until 1980 it decided not to take a position on the subject.
While anti-immigrant sentiment is certainly widespread among ERG adherents, then, I would argue that it is not what really drives their ideological passion. Instead they are driven by three interrelated strands of thinking: a hostility to government and especially supra-national government; a conviction that Britain (essentially England) is inherently superior to other countries; and a distrust of reasoned compromises and bargained solutions and especially those informed by expert opinion. In will abbreviate these as anti-statism, chauvinism and anti-intellectualism.
While hostility to the role of the state is part and parcel of Conservative thinking, the ERG’s critique of government has certain unique characteristics. For although they believe that, as a general principle, the less government the better, they hold a particular contempt for certain forms of government.
Any established authority beyond the nation state is, to them, essentially corrupt and inefficient. People who serve in such organizations as the United Nations and the EU are by definition serving their own rather than the public interest.
To the ERG this is ipso facto the case. For while the originators of such organizations may have had noble intentions, the lack of accountability built into their structures inevitably leads to rent seeking and corruption. And the larger the membership becomes the more corrupt the organization becomes.
The likes of Jean-Claude Junker and Michel Barnier, therefore, are self-serving apparatchiks whose interest is to keep intact the vast organization that rewards them so handsomely.
In effect, any level of government beyond the nation state will do more harm than good. If a problem is perceived to be international in scope then only national action or market mechanisms can work to ameliorate it. This applies not just to EU wide issues such as migration, fiscal discipline or trade policy, but also more global issues such as climate change.
The ERG has an even more idiosyncratic view of the nature of the British state: only the government at Westminster is truly legitimate, for uniquely it has evolved after centuries of incremental change reinforced by hard won traditions, customs and mores. All other governments are either artifacts resulting from mistaken political expediency (the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies) or are necessary evils set up to deliver local services (local and county governments).
The latter are, to them, staffed by a lower class of politicians and officials whose policy remit and powers can be increased or diminished at the will of Westminster. The only exception within the UK is Stormont, that has a special status as the protector of the Protestant majority on Northern Ireland and which acts as a sort of surrogate Westminster designed to defend peculiarly Irish Protestant Conservative values.
By entering into a close union with 27 European countries, the British have, so the ERG believes, devalued their status by associating with states that are intrinsically inferior. These sentiments are not, of course, based on an assumption of natural superiority in intelligence, enterprise or any other human trait, but rather on the conviction that the British political system is uniquely advantaged in relation to its Continental counterparts.
Put bluntly, three of the four major Continental states—Italy, Germany and Spain—are hardly “proper” countries at all. Italy was cobbled together out of separate states as recently as the 19thCentury and has barely functioned as a workable democracy (if at all) ever since. Germany, too, was created in the 19th Century and for more than a hundred years thereafter was beset with the worst sort of pathologies imposed from within and without. Spain swung from despotism to unstable democracy and back to despotism for the 300 years down to 1975.
The status of France is somewhat different—but to the Tory Brexiteers still inferior to that of Britain, for France has a long tradition of centrally-imposed dirigiste taxation and regulation. Worse, the supreme arrogance of the Grande Ècoles-educated elite that runs France has allowed them to manipulate civil society into accepting wrong-headed federalist EU innovations, such as the Schengen free travel area and the disaster that is the Euro.
Of the remaining EU states some are small, often parvenu irrelevancies (Slovenia, the Baltic States, Malta, Cyprus) while others are mired in corruption and/or incipient authoritarianism (Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland). The Brexiteers would concede that the Netherlands and the Nordic states do have ‘proper’ governments and longer traditions of democracy. But many of them are small in population or, historically, have had their sovereignty compromised by the irredentist tendencies of larger regional powers (Russia, Germany).
In sum, the very idea that the British Parliament in London should be subservient to this rag-bag collection of countries thrown together by a self-serving and effectively unaccountable cadre of Eurocrats is tantamount to a willful betrayal of British (English) sovereignty.
The third characteristic of the Tory Brexiteers is one which, to some extent, they share other members of the English political elite: a profound distrust of ‘so-called’ expert opinion.
This shows itself in a number of ways—from the outright dismissal of Treasury and academic projections of the economic effects of Brexit to a belief that radical decisions informed by clear thinking are superior to carefully thought through compromises resulting from deliberation and careful research. One aspect of this tendency is related to their anti-statist individualism: whether knowingly or not, academics engaged in forecasting have a vested interest in the resilience of their research paradigms.
Whether it is economic models, climate change projections or research into the technology enabling ‘frictionless’ border crossings, researchers will favour outcomes that advance their careers in terms of reputation, promotions and pensions. In other words, their findings should be taken with a pinch of salt and simpler alternative solutions to complex problems are readily at hand if executed in a decisive and determined manner.
There is just a touch of the Churchillian to such thinking. Churchill was notorious for his frequent dismissal of informed expert opinion, whether coming from academics or professionals. From the Sydney Street
So what Boris Johnson, David Davis, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the hard Brexiteers want is "the smack of firm government"—a term first used in the 1950s but since associated mostly with Margaret Thatcher—or policies that dismiss the reservations of the ‘wets’ and feeble naysayers and instead advances bold solutions to allegedly complex issues. To
A deeply embedded way of thinking
Members of the ERG are not typical of British politicians as a whole, but they do represent a strand of thinking that is deeply embedded in British political culture. We should not underestimate their importance. It was they and they alone who were responsible for the Tory manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership.
And it is they who may yet achieve their goal of leaving the EU in the absence of a negotiated deal. Their hostility to government, chauvinism and anti-intellectualism constitute a world view that believes that firm leadership operating in a strictly majoritarian institutional context is the best combination to ensure the delivery of their desiderata: free enterprise, individual freedom and open international trade unfettered by statist cartels such as the EU.