Read Tristram Hunt’s piece from Prospect’s February issue: Should we reimagine our colonial legacy?
Tristram Hunt has little sympathy with Labour MPs who want us to leave the European Union: “many of them have a Bennite vision” that the EU is “run by big banks and companies.”
They have “a tired belief in the nature of Europe” that “fails to appreciate the ways in which it has been a force for social democracy.”
The Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent and former Shadow Education Secretary’s words are highly significant. The Conservative Party’s split over Britain’s membership of the EU—to be voted upon in a referendum on 23rd June—is widely acknowledged. But the Labour Party’s split over Europe has been given less attention. Hunt’s comments shed new light on this divide.
Directly addressing Gisela Stuart, Labour MP and Co-Chair of Vote Leave, who has recently written for Prospect that Labour’s commitment to the EU puts it on the “side of the FTSE 100,” he said: “I disagree with Gisela if she thinks it’s just a reactionary bosses cabal that isn’t a positive force on the world stage.”
“Even with centre-right parties in Europe… I regard Europe as a force for social justice and good.” MPs such as Gisela “like big government normally—but not in this case.”
Hunt does not reserve the criticism for his own side. He argues the “Tory-Ukip dream” of what Britain would be like outside the EU bears little connection to reality. “They think it would be ‘England unchained’ and we would be unleashed again. In fact we’d be blowing our foot off.”
A post-Brexit Britain would, Hunt said, be “an offshore-city state, built around the London economy.” We would be “the Hong Kong to Europe’s China…It’s just not how you build a successful and prosperous economy in the 21st century.”
In April, Barack Obama visited the UK to warn of the dangers of Brexit. Of this visit Hunt said: “It absolutely knocked [Brexit] out of the park. Obama—and every grownup in Washington, apart from Ted Cruz—is saying “you’d be at the back of the queue in trade deals, it’s not what we want. We want Britain in Europe. We think you’re stronger there.”
“We weren’t ensnared by this seductive political option in 1975 (when Britain joined the European Economic Community); we were desperate for over a decade to get in there because we realised that there were really solid economic grounds for it.”
Hunt, who in addition to being an MP is a lecturer in Modern British History at Queen Mary University London, continued: “There’s a cultural argument about how Britain has been part of a European tradition—of European culture, and obviously you can go right back to the Middle Ages and before and see the way in which our culture interacted with French and Dutch culture. And so [we should] conceptually understand ourselves as part of Europe.”
“In political terms the EU was also a formulation whereby Britain, rather than denying its history, was actually exerting political strength on the world stage. Britain has played an important part in the history of the continent—both diplomatically and militarily—for hundreds of years, but also politically in recent decades. And so this notion that we would reclaim our nationhood—that we would find ourselves again once we were free of Europe, just doesn’t add up to me.”
“Now, I’m quite willing to accept that we don’t have a blood-and-soil World War Two horror at the heart of the European project… But as we come up to the anniversary of the Somme we should not forget that we spent a lot of blood and treasure on the continent… and people on the continent value that contribution. It’s good for us, and I think it would be crazy to turn away from it.”
Addressing Michael Gove’s recent argument in favour of Brexit, Hunt said: “Michael particularly went on the idea of…Britain as the mother of parliaments and [emphasized] the importance of sovereignty.”
But, Hunt argues, “Michael Heseltine puts its very well: he said ‘the man in the desert is fully sovereign.’ He has absolute control over everything he does, yet he’s dying of thirst… I think this is the only credible argument for Brexit: that we will be free, but poor… But then, where does that take you? Do you withdraw from the United Nations? Do you withdraw from Nato? Do you withdraw from the European economic area? You end up with a North Korean vision of sovereignty.”
Labour MP Kate Hoey wrote in the April issue of Prospect that Britain should leave the EU—and that Scotland would not dream of throwing away its union with the UK if we left the EU. Addressing Hoey’s claim, Hunt said “Well, they did dream of throwing that away! Quite a large percentage of them! [Some MPs] have this idea that the Scottish nationalists wouldn’t want to have another referendum at the moment. I’m not sure about that. I think if England votes to leave, Scotland votes to stay in Europe, Wales votes to leave, where do you end up?”
“Within 18 months Britain would potentially go from being the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, leading member of the EU and leading member of Nato, to being ‘England.’”
In his capacity as an academic, I ask Hunt whether he’s thought about what Brexit would mean for Britain’s universities. It would, he said, “cripple one of our most successful industries.” “Particularly in science spending, there is an importance to being part of Europe that would be really crazy to throw away. We’re good—we get far more than our fair share of.. expenditure and pure science research funding.
“It’s very good to see Boris’s much better brother Jo Johnson, Universities and Science minister, making that case,” argued Hunt. “He’s the clever one.”