The pro-Brexit alliance in the Conservative party is often characterised as being obsessed with immigration. In reality, their thinking is more complexby David McKay / January 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
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
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
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)
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
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
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.