How Britain’s Pro-Europeans Lost the Argument

Posted on 11 December 2011

By Sunder Katwala

England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has in all her doings very marked and very original habits and traditions.

In short, the nature, the structure, the very conjuncture that are Englands differ profoundly from those of the continentals. What is to be done in order that England, as she lives, produces and trades, can be incorporated into the Common Market, as it has been conceived and as it functions?

It was David Cameron who said ‘Non’ in Brussels in 2011. Yet, as he wielded Britain’s veto in the small hours of Friday morning, the British Prime Minister could easily have taken his script from Charles de Gaulle’s famous 1963 press conference in which the French President explained why, since we could never be good Europeans, he was keeping Britain out.

Plus ca change. Now, pro-Europeans like Charles Grant who despair at Britain’s place on the edge of Europe and Eurosceptics like the Daily Express who believe victory in our crusade is near’. agree that the events of the last few days have been momentous. What happens next may well be messier and more complicated, but the nature of this crisis does reinforce a core Eurosceptic meme – that, ultimately, our identity and interests are different from theirs. There are many cogent and plausible arguments against this view, as a matter of rational interests, but the history of Britain’s reluctant Europeanism might now also be seen as the failure, across sixty years, to make that resonate, emotionally, as a matter of identity.  As a result, even many pro-Europeans may well begin to feel that there is a certain sense of inevitability to Britain, consistently the most reluctant of the European nations, opting to remain in its recurring comfort zone of semi-detachment.

Downing Street briefings push the idea that it was all a deliberate French trap to push Britain out of the door. Blaming the French will always have some resonance, even when the truth is more complex. It distracts attention from why the other 25 were onside, nine of them non-Euro members. (The last Labour government tried it too, blaming Jacques Chirac when there was no security council majority for a second resolution over Iraq.  And even Brits who agreed with Chirac over Iraq didn’t trust the French President’s motives). At one level, the British and French narratives and briefings are the mirror image of each other – with all of the fault on one side and only sweet reasonableness on the other. Was perfidious Albion typically uncommunitaire in seeing Europe’s problem as England’s opportunity, or did the sneaky French lace the proposed Treaty with booby-trapped red lines the British could never accept? As each government spins one half of this story of mutual mistrust, so the British and the French narratives converge on the common ground that these are irreconciliable differences, as a matter of identity, so that we can never really be any more than the best of enemies.

So the most eye-catching quote of this summit was that of an unnamed French government source who declared that David Cameron was “like a man who turns up at a wife-swapping party without his wife”. To British ears, this sounds quintessentially French, albeit amoral, sexist and broadly incomprehensible, approaching the Cantona ‘sardines and trawlers’ class of Gallic insouciance. If you attempt to decipher it, it would not appear to offer the most attractive image of the European project, perhaps that getting the chance to screw others depends on bringing along your own people to get screwed.

But the argument for British exceptionalism, which appears to have defeated pro-European efforts for now at least, runs deeper. It is a matter of national psychology, of political culture, and of what the European project was about, including whether it should have any final destination at all.

Firstly, the British psychological contract with the European project has been different, and less positive, than for its European partners. Just about every other member of the European Union gained something important, in its sense of itself, when it made the choice for Europe. For France and Germany, it was the foundation of their ‘never again’ compact after seventy years of recurring conflict, giving security to France and rehabilitating Germany in a constructive and peaceful role for a democratic federal republic. Ireland used Europe to escape the shadow of England, and emerged a more confident young country.  For Spain, Portugal and Greece after the dictatorships, joining Europe was a sign of modernity and democracy, while the central and East European countries were completing the dissolution of the iron curtain which had isolated them from the other half of the continent, by choosing to join when the wall fell in 1989.

For Britain, ending up in the European club was a story of disappointed post-war hopes and the need to face up to the reality of relative post-war decline. Britain had been in favour of Europe for the other Europeans, as a benign outsider while itself having bigger fish at the top table of geopolitics. After 1956, that was clearly a mistake, yet it took another generation of agonised uncertainty, first about whether to join, and then whether we would be allowed to do so, leaving an indelible sense that we were turning up to a party that somebody else had organised. We joined because we had no choice. And we stayed in, in 1975, around the psychological nadir of British fortunes, not so much with Beethoven’s ninth in our hearts, because relative economic decline meant that it was no time to leave a Christmas club, still less the Common market.

Secondly, Britain does politics differently. “England does not love coalitions”, said Disraeli. The European Union is above all an exercise in the politics of coalition, across 27 countries no less. But our institutions and culture are winner takes all, not give and take as being in our enlightended collective interest. We look at our first peacetime coalition for decades primarily through the lens of whether the LibDems or the Tories are guilty of the greater betrayal of their principles or their followers through the necessary evil of political compromise. Offered a more pluralist political system, voters rejected it, fearing it would introduce more messy compromises. It is hardly surprising that our history of engagement with the European Union, whichever party is in power, is dominated by the shadow of the handbag, ‘game, set and match’ to Britain, and the apparently irresistible urge to see European diplomacy as the continuation of war by other means.

Thirdly, the British have never believed in “ever closer union”. A European crisis usually looks like a moment to slow down, and to ask whether the EU has bitten off more than it can chew. But the instinctive answer of other European governments is that the answer to a faltering Europe is usually ‘more Europe’ to try to make the system more effective or more legitimate.

A lack of democratic connection because Europe has been built from above? Elect a European Parliament. Write a Constitution.  The common currency in peril? Fiscal union. The metaphor of the bicycle which must keep going or fall over is popular.

The irony here is that this was the big argument about Europe’s direction which the British were winning. Over the last decade, the federalising instinct appeared to be past its high water mark. The widening of the EU to eastern and central Europe changed the balance of forces over whether it could get ever deeper too. Europe was in many ways becoming closer to the British vision of it. As the French worried about the dominance of the English language in Brussels, the British had an important opportunity to create new alliances, bolstering the traditional support of the Dutch, Swedes and Danes for close British involvement as a vital counterbalance to an excessively strong Franco-German motor of ‘core Europe’. A growth in public Euroscepticism, in Scandinavia and Germany, narrowing the differences which had underpinned the historic sense of British exceptionalism. There was a move away from a focus on flags and anthems as the EU seemed to be settling down into something the British could, grumblingly, live with – but the current crisis has seen the Franco-German motor, eventually, splutter back into life.

There is still, probably, grudging public and political consent for remaining in the club., though Thatcher’s children in the Tory class of 2010 are considerably more Eurosceptic than their heroine was in office. An in or out referendum would more likely be won than lost, especially in times of high economic risk. But there appears to be no political appetite or legitimacy for Britain to engage in deeper integration. If the club changes shape, we can’t keep up with it.

So David Cameron was naked in the conference chamber in Brussels. Had he thought there was a deal which was in Britain’s interests, he could not have brought it home and survived, without perhaps irresistible internal pressure for a referendum. Being the toast of the 1922, the Mail and the Express, and even Norman Tebbit was the safer course. (There ought to be some Progressive Conservatives saying to him, that “all of the wrong people are cheering”, as Dora Gaitskell did to her husband after his tub-thumping “thousand years of history” speech in 1962. But the Cameroons have always been quiet Eurosceptics, more concerned about the perceptions of a party that seems obsessed with ‘banging on’ about Europe than necessarily. Among the uber-modernisers, Steve Hilton drops heavy hints that he thinks Britain would be better off out. That used to be blue sky thinking. Now, who knows?

But it would be a mistake to think this hardening of the sceptic arteries in primarily an issue of party politics. In the post-Blair era, it seems likely that any British government would do something pretty similar to Cameron in the end – before picking a row with the French to cover it up.

That the alternative case is weak reflects the deep failure of pro-European advocacy in Britain over the last 20 years. Tony Blair made the case occasionally, almost always in pro-European speeches in Brussels and Warsaw and almost never in Britain. Michael Heseltine was on the Today programme this morning, retelling the story of missing the boat at the Treaty of Messina., using soundbites which have not changed a jot since the early 1990s. But Heseltine and Ken Clarke have no obvious successors in the Tory party to whom they will pass the Europhile torch. The Cameron government resurrects the tensions of the Major government by an external coalition after the Tory internal coalition narrowed. Labour had a passionate pro-European generation among the social democrats of the 1960s and 1970s. David Miliband may be the only fully engaged serious pro-European of the Miliband/Balls generation. But were the opposition led by the elder Miliband, I expect his shadow Foreign secretary would be saying exactly what Douglas Alexander has been saying, which is broadly as little as possible, beyond ‘we wouldn’t start from here’. The Liberal Democrats have been our most sincerely committed pro-European party. That was the issue which did most to determine that the young Nick Clegg could not be a Conservative. But they are muted this weekend not only because of the Coaliton – which ought not to be any impediment to David Laws, Ming Campbell or Charles Kennedy – but because it is not clear what convincing alternative narrative pro-Europeans have, especially if looking for something that plays beyond a small if committed liberal pro-European elite. (And the political and media debate rarely reflects the that the public are actually considerably more pragmatic about this than the political classes. Fabian Society pollingpublished a year ago found that the public combine anxiety about the idea of Europe with pragmatic support for more Europe on the economy, the environment, jobs and growth and foreign policy).

But the European debate has always been about identity as well as interests. There has been an alternative history, which understands that Britain is more European than we habitually think. Paul Kennedy points out that the central priority of British foreign policy since 1066 has been to prevent any single power dominating the continental European landmass. The choice to fight the second world war, clouded in Churchillian cigar smoke and the magnificent rhetoric of “never surrender” national independence was, above all, a choice for Europe, for which the price was to trade in the Empire, even if Churchill declared that he had “not become the king’s first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British empire. He was wrong; that was the price for opposing appeasement, but we have never fully understood the choice he made either, which is why The Sun dresses Cameron as Winston on its front-page this morning.

It is a story told magnificently in Hugo Young’s magisterial account of our reluctant Europeanism, not insignificantly titled “This Blessed Plot”. For Young, it is the story of “how Britain struggled to reconcile the history she could not forget with the future she could not avoid”. But nothing is inevitable in democratic politics without political consent. It now looks as though Britain’s pro-Europeans have failed to secure sufficient political consent to be more than half-way in to the new Europe now being sketched. Without one day winning a referendum – whether ‘in or out’ or something else – it is difficult to see how this would change. And perhaps it is too late for that now.

Perhaps one of the reasons Euroscepticism resonates more is that British identity has been a curious mix of having perhaps the most global and the most insular identity of any major nation. Britain had the world’s largest Empire, yet always liked to believe it had been acquired, by accident, in a fit of absent-mindedness. We invented most of the world’s sports, and exported them everywhere, yet always seemed to begin by saying no when invited to take part in new-fangled World Cups or European Cups, as if we couldn’t see the point of playing with foreigners or, more accurately, weren’t prepared to take part in such multilateral initiatives when the rules were not invented here (and, sometimes, as with the European Convention on Human Rights, even if they were!). A large part of the psychological appeal of Euroscepticism is that it can simultaneously access these different motivations. It has an undoubted appeal to the Little Englander, and yet can deny that by pointing to broader global horizons.

It will take a long time for the dust to settle on what the new shape of Europe might mean for Britain’s place in the world. But the fallout seems likely to strengthen the sense that halfway in and halfway out is where the British will always feel most comfortable.

This article was first published on the Iain Dale blog, www.iaindale.com. View the article here.