The idea that the United Kingdom should withdraw from the European Union is so perverse that you have to dig a bit below the surface to find the real story. President Obama’s spokesman has made it clear where the American President stands and that he is in favour of “a strong UK in the European Union … we believe that all of us benefit when the EU can speak with a strong and a single voice and can work with us to advance our shared interests whether on security or prosperity,” And of course that is right. And across Britain the voices of authority say the same. Here is a brief list of those British institutions which encourage us to vote to “Remain” in the EU:
The British Government
Our main Opposition party the Labour Party
Our historic third Party the Liberal Democrats
The Scottish National Party
Plaid Cymru – the Welsh Nationalist party
The Green Party
The Trades Union Congress and all the major Trades Unions
The Confederation of British Industry and virtually every major British and Multinational Company
Most British Scientists, Lawyers, Accountants and other professionals
A majority of British Members of Parliament
… and so on!
So what is going on? Why is there are very strong campaign against Britain in the EU and who is behind it? A columnist in “The Times” explained it today. Matthew Parris, formerly a Conservative Member of Parliament and an acute observer of the British political scene summarised it succinctly. The wish to leave the European Union “…is and always has been a project of the Tory right”. “There is” he points out “a powerful correlation between those Tory MPs who want us to leave the EU and those most people would describe as a “right wing”
The political Right in Britain only once had a moment in the sun in modern Britain and that was during the eleven years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in the 1980s. (Many would argue that even those years were more centrist than the conventional wisdoms of the Right would allow!). As a nation we just don’t Government from the extremes of Left or Right – politics is the art of the possible and that forces gravitation to the centre.
Whilst we are governed mostly from the pragmatic centre – which had its apogee in the Blair/Brown years and during the Conservative/LibDem coalition which followed – that does not mean that the forces of the Right have faded away. Far from it! Those in the Conservative Party who believe that David Cameron has betrayed its core values – there are plenty of them! – have been strident voices of criticism ever since he took office six years ago. And this is an echo of the difficulties that John Major had during his period in office. The creation of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was the most dramatic illustration that conservatives run the gamut of political opinion from centrist and liberal (Major, Ken Clarke, Cameron etc.) to hard Right. Although only a small number of Conservatives active in the Party took the route to UKIP in the country at large there was sufficient support for the UKIP manifesto to gather four million votes at the 2015 General Election (having previously “won” the European Parliament elections in 2014.)
A substantial minority of Conservative MPs are further to the Right than the Government – and that would probably be a majority were the members of the “Payroll vote” (Ministers in office etc.) free to vote and argue against Government policy. And Europe is the policy area that gives focus to that opposition. The defectors to UKIP (two members of Parliament and a scattering of councillors and Tory activists) are comparatively insignificant compared with those that did not defect – the “Enemy within” if you like! The Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Daniel Hannan is one of the leaders of this group – nominally a Conservative but in effect a fellow traveller of UKIP and close to UKIP’s now only MP Douglas Carswell. Hannan has called for a Tory/UKIP electoral alliance. Whilst the likes of Hannan and Carswell use opposition to the EU as the main symbol of their politics they are also firmly in the hard Right camp on most other policy areas economic and to some extent social. The “Taxpayer’s Alliance” – an extreme neo-liberal free enterprise pressure group is supported by Hannan.
Europe is the main battleground for the conservative Right – including the extreme Right like the British National Party (BNP) and the neo-Fascist “Britain First” both of which support British exit from the EU. The collapse of public support for the BNP precisely matched the rise in support for UKIP for good reason. Most conservatives do not wallow in the bigoted and paranoid faux-patriotic world of UKIP or in the unquestionably racist world of those even further to the right. But they are not natural supporters of David Cameron either. To his credit Cameron has broadly been robust in his defence of liberal Conservatism and in particular of the “Britain in the EU” cause. Along the way he has lost Ministers like Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove as well as the opportunistic Mayor of London Boris Johnson. The support Cameron receives on Europe can be lukewarm and there are these days few if any real European enthusiasts at the top of the Conservative Party.
The most powerful opposition to David Cameron comes from the conservative media. The website “Conservative Home” is fiercely Eurosceptic and is a rallying ground for the “Leave” campaign. But it is also Right Wing on economic matters as well – its Executive Editor Mark Wallace is a former campaign director of the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Contributors like Daniel Hannan and Iain Dale among many others are firmly on the right of the Party on economic matters and on Europe. In the wider media the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Sun, the Daily Telegraph and (probably) The Times support “Leave” (The so-called “Brexit” campaign). Only the Mirror Group and the Guardian/Observer and the Financial Times can be expected to support “Remain”.
We don’t do political Coups very much in Britain. The only one in recent memory was in 1990 when the Conservative Party, and especially a Conservative Cabinet, got rid of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister! An extraordinary event and one that the Tory Right has never forgiven! Europe ultimately brought about Mrs Thatcher’s downfall as Prime Minister, as her increasingly anti-EU views led the pro-Europeans in her party to move to oust her. And that is why it is Thatcher who still today, a quarter of a century later, is the driving force behind the conservative Right’s attempt to carry out a coup – partly in revenge for the indignity shown to the “Blessed Margaret”. The EU Referendum is a convenient “Once in a lifetime” opportunity to do this. From UKIP leader Nigel Farage “I’m the only politician keeping the flame of Thatcherism alive” he says to Daniel Hannan who says bizarrely that she had a “…legacy of goodness and caring for the well-being of Britain, a once ailing nation she raised to back good health”. There is a lot more sentimental guff about Thatcher who in her later and declining years was of course increasingly Eurosceptic. The picture of Thatcher in her Iron Lady role in the Falklands is the ultimate image that today’s “Leave” campaigners relate to. In short to be fiercely patriotic you can’t let Brussels dictate what we do! This is gut-wrenching stuff because of its simplicity and superficiality – but underestimate its power at your peril.
There you have it. It is only the Right of British politics that wants “Brexit” supported by the Right in the media and the Right who spend happy hours in the Thatcher Memorial Garden. The list of the supporters of “Remain” above is pretty formidable. But the possibility of a Coup is very real and be under no illusion – the hard core conservatism in economic governance espoused by many of the Brexit supporters goes way beyond Europe and strikes at the very fabric of our mixed economy and our welfare State. That is the real prize they want. Cut off the shackles of the EU and we’ll rebuild Britain as a free-enterprise neo-liberal State.