Chris Bryant: Here we go again, heads in the sand over Europe

A Political Life
  • @ChrisBryantMP

We're doomed, Captain Mainwaring, doomed. Off to hell in a handcart.

The economy is tanking; the banks are on the verge of collapse and every graph is pointing downwards. Needless to say, it's all the fault of those pesky Europeans. What a shower. First they created the euro, then they broke all its rules and now they refuse to sort it out. With Berlusconi fiddling (ahem), Merkel dry-lining her coalition and Sarkozy solely concerned about his own re-election, Europe is a disaster zone.

Can't you just hear the eurosceptics cackling? They've been salivating away like Pavlov's dogs at every twist of the eurozone's recent travails. They've even formed a new group in Parliament where they are busy practising framing the words "I told you so" like debutantes learning to pout, while they hope against hope that they are witnessing the twitching corpse of the European Union.

How wrong could they be? Surely the message we should be taking from the current economic malaise is that our economies are all intimately entwined. When Americans stop flying, people get laid off in the aircraft production line in Nantgarw. If German consumers stop shopping, British businesses suffer. And however magnificently self-righteously we remain outside the eurozone, if Greece defaults it will cost British banks billions of euros and the knock-on will be felt in terms of yet more austerity here at home.

If anything, the problems in the eurozone are the result of a lack of European integration. If Greece had been forced to open its books properly, it would not have been allowed to join monetary union and its conservative government would not subsequently have got away with fake statistics.

Eurosceptics howled down the idea of enforced EU audits, of course. If France and Germany had abided by the Stability and Growth Pact and if the European Commission or the Council of Ministers had been given powers to intervene when the pact was being flouted, then Europe might have avoided the shared misery and uncertainty of today. But oh no, proud national autonomy meant that we campaigned for the weakest possible set of rules.

I confess I'm more pro-European than most. I've never bought the idea that the EU was just about a common market and not a political union. For me it was always about entrenching peace instead of building trenches. And, anyway, markets are profoundly political.

But even though voters care more about jobs and inflation than Europe, we simply can't put our heads under our wings like elegant British swans and hope the storm will go away. We should be getting stuck into the European debate and helping further integration, not hindering it, even if it means we remain permanently outside the euro. That may mean a new treaty – even a referendum – but we cannot avoid explaining the truth to the country. We stand a chance of survival in the economic battle with China, Russia and Brazil only if we are solidly part of the second largest trading bloc in the world, and we are stronger for our membership of the EU, not weaker.

That's why we can't let Europe remain the love that dare not speak its name.

Cameron plays loose with history

I fear Cameron needs a few history lessons. Last year he said that Britain was the junior ally to America "in 1940 when we were fighting the Nazis" and that the United States was our "oldest and best ally". He repeated this last (old Blair) gaffe in the Commons in February, even though Portugal has been our ally since 1373, long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. The Cameroonian "facts" I find more disturbing, though, are his recent reference to America as part of the European Union (I kid not) and his assertion that growth in the UK is higher this year than in the eurozone. Even with dire warnings in Italy and Spain the eurozone is outstripping us with a growth rate of 1.6 per cent to our 1.1 per cent

Ghosts of child chimney sweeps haunt Tories

It's always dangerous using historical references in politics. This week Vince Cable referred to the Tories as "ideological descendants of those who sent children up chimneys". The blogger Guido Fawkes promptly laid in, saying that it was the Tory Lord Shaftesbury who put an end to "climbing boys" with his 1864 Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweeps. Not quite, m'lud. For a start there was a Liberal government in 1864, not Tory, and it introduced the bill as a direct response to the campaign led by the Christian Socialist Charles Kingsley, whose 1863 novel The Water Babies is about a chimney sweep – and Kingsley was following in the footsteps of other Liberals and Whigs. Moreover, thanks to Tory opposition, the 1864 Act was so ineffectual that it was only when 12-year-old George Brewster got stuck up the chimney of Fulbourn Hospital and died soon after having the whole chimney pulled down around him that Shaftesbury was finally forced to take decisive action in 1875. Mind you, if Tories are now going to support health and safety laws, I'm happy.

Laws do influence behaviour

People wonder what MPs do during the recess. In my case, Tuesday was entirely educational. In the morning I visited the impressive Treorchy Comprehensive. It was absolutely tipping down in a thoroughgoing Welsh Valleys way. The school consists of 13 separate buildings, which means that pupils get sopping wet every time they change class. Apparently, when it was built in the 1960s, it was modelled on a school in California. In the afternoon I attended a course in Cardiff on how to drive slower. You guessed it: this was not entirely voluntary. It brought home to me how legislation does change social attitudes. Two generations ago, drink driving was thought normal. Now it is rightly condemned, largely thanks to the strict enforcement of the law. So too with the ban on smoking in public places, the single Labour measure of the past five years that probably saved more lives than any other.