Winston Churchill once famously said to Charles De Gaulle “When I have to choose between you and Roosevelt, you should know that I will always choose Roosevelt. And when I have to choose between Europe and the wide open seas… I will always choose the wide open seas.” 2011 may be seen as the year that Britain chose the wide open seas and did so at a time when it was least appropriate to do so. The “Special relationship” with the United States that Churchill alluded to with the French leader always features in Summits between the two great Anglo-Saxon nations and it had a brief outing when British Prime Minister David Cameron met President Obama in September. However this was ritualistic and on a day to day basis Obama probably rarely thinks of Britain, the country that tortured his grandfather; why should he – for on its own Britain is a significant but rarely game-changing player in Global politics. For Obama the principal dialogue is with those nations or groups of nations who play an increasingly important part on the international scene and which impact upon the United States – Brazil, Russia, India, China and, of course, Europe. Collectively the European Union (EU) has a GDP of around $16 trillion – ahead even of the USA’s $14.5 trillion and for the US to deal with this entity rather than have to have bipartisan dialogues with its member nations, including Britain, is obviously preferable.

The origins of the EU were political and whilst much of the emphasis in these troubled times is on the economics it was the political imperative which was, and indeed is, more important. For Britain the economic case for free trade was strong and to be part of a Europe without tariff walls was never anything but desirable. But the political element was, and is, much more problematic. When Churchill supported the move towards a united Europe as long ago as 1946 he did not see Britain as being a full member of it. He saw the post-Imperial “Commonwealth” and the “Special Relationship” with the USA as making Britain different and not really European at all in the sense that the non-Imperial and polyglot continental Europeans like France, Germany and Italy so obviously were. Britain was not a member of the forerunner of the EU the European Economic Community until 16 years after its foundation in 1957.  As we have seen the special nature of Britain’s relationship with the USA is at the very least highly questionable today and the Commonwealth is a toothless anachronism that has little influence on anything that really matters at a Global level. This leaves us with Europe – unless, of course, we have the conceit that we really can choose the “wide open seas” as Churchill once suggested.

It is with Europe that we have to start if we want to try to explain British politics today. Over the years, and especially in recent times, there has been a growing trend of anti-Europeanism in Britain that is virtually unknown in mainland Europe. Across the continent the European flag flys alongside the national flag on many official buildings and the idea that you can be both (say) patriotically French and also an enthusiastic European is uncontentious. In Britain the EU flag flys nowhere and for many the very idea of being European is anathema. The origins of this Europhobia are both narrowly nationalistic and a consequence of the still commonly-held illusion that the United Kingdom has viable and worthwhile transatlantic and commonwealth alliances that make us different. The fact that nationalism is a self-defeating and dangerous ideology, that the Commonwealth doesn’t matter and that the United States doesn’t care hasn’t really got through to many British citizens – and a strident and xenophobic popular media takes full advantage of this. It was as long as 21 years ago that “The Sun” ran its infamous “Up Yours Delors” headline to stir up indignation that Britain should sign up to monetary union (then called the “ECU”) and the loss of sovereignty that this implied. And since then, and especially in recent times, Europe has been the popular villain and a target for these media, for small and nationalistic political parties like the BNP and UKIP and – most significantly – by large parts of the Conservative Party. That many Conservatives are anti-Europe is neither surprising nor new. The principal ideological base of the Party is traditionalist, middle-class and rural – pseudo-patriotic flag-waving by this group is to be expected. The Union Flag is of course the flag that is waved not the one with the twelve stars on it (except during the “Ryder Cup”).  

Over the years Conservative leaders, especially in Government, have had to struggle with the challenge of reconciling their fiercely Eurosceptic supporters with the reality that Britain needs, for both economic and political reasons, to remain a member of the EU. The last Tory Prime Minister before David Cameron, John Major, was constantly abused and demeaned by the Eurosceptics in his Party – a source of frustration that led to his referring to one particularly trenchant opponent, Sir Richard Body, as always evoking “the rustle of men with white coats flapping”. Major, just about, got away with trying to marginalise his Party opponents as being on the lunatic fringe – though they wore him down by their sniping, and that hardly helped his re-election prospects in 1997.

Relived of the burden of power the Conservative Party in the Blair/Brown Labour government years adopted Euroscepticism as a mainstream ideology. This had, inter alia, the effect of ensuring that the Conservatives in Parliament became more and more anti Europe with each new intake. David Cameron himself was a pragmatic Eurosceptic (he had to be to be elected leader) and an early adopter in the Party of the view that Britain should never join the single currency the Euro under any circumstances. In 2007 he gave a “cast-iron” promise that a Conservative government would hold a popular vote (referendum) on the Lisbon EU Treaty. However in 2009, before he even became Prime Minister, he rapidly realised that the idea of Britain existing outside of the EU was fantasy and that to put this at risk by holding a referendum would be irresponsible. Many of his Eurosceptic critics saw this as a betrayal and continued to argue the case for a plebiscite on the subject culminating in a debate in Parliament in October 2011 at which over 80 Conservative MPs, the majority of the non-payroll vote, opposed the Government’s position. This was a low point for Cameron and the sabres of the Eurosceptics began to rattle as they sensed blood. However a few weeks later with one bound Cameron was free, leaping in the opinion polls and hailed as a saviour of the nation. This was not because his use of the veto in Brussels could be really seen as being in the national interest  – not least because not one of the 27 other members States backed his position. As the “Financial Times” put it Britain “…wielded a veto and gained nothing in return.” But in the tabloid world that indisputable fact counted for nothing because they were still in the world of “Up Yours Delors” – although this time the villains were the solidly right-of-centre leaders of Germany and France, the Christian Democrat Angela Merkel and the Gaullist Nicholas Sarkozy.

Politics can be noble but it can also be messy and sordid – full of petty compromises and pragmatic horse-trading. Many political issues are immensely complex, not least European integration, and it is certainly true that Britain’s future role in Europe cannot be reduced to any simple question that could meaningfully be couched for a referendum; Cameron must have realised this and that is why he shied away from his once commitment to hold one. His opinion poll boost for “standing up to Europe”, even though he did nothing of the sort, shows that he is quite capable of taking a position which appeals to the gut instinct of the masses rather than to the intellect of those equipped to get their minds around the complexities of the subject. What is sad, even deplorable, is that the “European project” as it is called by some opposed to it is actually rather a noble venture and one that would be quite astonishing to those of my parents’ generation (and there’s) who spent the first half of the 20th Century fighting the “Boche” and their allies. Yes of course the EU is political and of course it requires some surrendering of nationals freedoms. But the more one travels through the nations of Europe the more one realises that the core elements that make them different have not changed and will not change. A French town is utterly unlike a German town a few miles away despite their having been part of an economic and political union for over 50 years!

Britain’s membership of the EEC/EU since January 1973 (a time only marginally less economically woeful than today) has brought benefits that Cameron and his Government will be well aware of. And like the French and the Germans and the rest we are no less British for being partners in Europe and it is disingenuous and mischievous to say that we are. But, of course, that will not stop those who get comfort or seek readers by playing an unashamedly jingoistic and xenophobic card. In his resignation speech as Prime Minister Tony Blair brazenly played to the gallery when he said “The British are special. The world knows it. In our innermost thoughts, we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth.” But he also said “…in time, you realise putting the country first doesn’t mean doing the right thing according to conventional wisdom or the prevailing consensus or the latest snapshot of opinion. It means doing what you genuinely believe to be right.” Blair was almost certainly alluding mainly to his unpopular foreign wars when he said this and whether you think that Blair was right or wrong to get involved in these lethal adventures it is reasonable to agree with him that he did what he believed to be right.

The problem with David Cameron’s actions in Brussels recently is that it is difficult, contrary to what he claims, to discern any real national interest in what he did or any Blair-like bravery either. At an international level Cameron’s storming away from the table looks petulant and unstatesmanlike – a denial of the obvious reality that members of the EU, whether in the Euro or not, are “in this together”. Nationally for Britain to “opt for the empty chair”, as the FT put it, is the most isolationist action in modern history at a time when the complexity and gravity of the problems demand collaboration. Of course Britain will soon be back at the table – it is inconceivable that even Cameron could sustain the illusion that we do not need to be part of the striving for a solution. Whether our European partners will be forgiving remains to be seen! With centre-right Governments in all of the major EU economies it is bizarre in the extreme that a centre-right British Government has walked away – talk about being friendless, except perhaps for the “European Conservatives and Reformists” group in the EU Parliament of which the MEP Conservatives are members. This group was memorably called “nutters, anti-Semites and homophobes” by Nick Clegg and Cameron’s alliance with them has long been a source of understandable irritation to Merkel, Sarkozy and the other European mainstream conservative parties.

David Cameron has failed the test that Tony Blair passed – that of not doing the thing that “conventional wisdom” would want you to do but of doing what is right. The “usual suspects” in the media – most of the tabloids and Murdoch’s Times newspapers – rushed to praise Cameron post Brussels. As of course did the Eurosceptic, and dominant, wing of the Conservative Party who to their surprise have a Government action about which to rejoice – and boy aren’t they rejoicing! And in the country as well there is little doubt that this unashamed playing of the patriotic card went down well. But before long Real Politick will require Cameron to return to the discussions and whilst the Merkozy alliance might make life difficult for him they too know that Europe’s third largest economy has to be part of the solution. But any chance that Cameron might have had of negotiating even a symbolic repatriation of power from Brussels to Westminster has gone for a very long time. Losing your rag can be quite effective – but you can only do it once if you want to be seen as credible rather than just a noisy troublemaker. And as these realties begin to become apparent to the Eurosceptics they will once again turn their fire on Cameron – and this time he will have no more cards to play.


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