In a climate in which Nigel Farage has become the man to beat in next year’s European elections, Nick Clegg is doing something rather daring, and making the most strongly pro-European speech by any party leader since 2010. His “call to arms” in a letter urging British businesses and other institutions to proclaim the benefits of EU membership is a timely use of his platform as Deputy Prime Minister.
The constraints on David Cameron hardly need enumerating. True, the weekend attempt by the ambitious Tory backbencher Adam Afriyie to force on Cameron an in/out referendum on Europe ahead of the 2015 general election is struggling to gain traction. But that’s only because Cameron has already bowed to his backbench dissidents by agreeing to support a probably fruitless Bill, enshrining in law his promise of a referendum by 2017, which might actually be derailed by the Afriyie amendment.
But while there is little in Clegg’s speech that he would disagree with, Ed Miliband has also for now forsaken any role as a champion of Britain in Europe – a subject he hardly mentioned in his conference speech. While Labour politicians argue that the voters are not talking about Europe, there is also the little problem that it has not yet decided whether to follow Cameron by promising an in/out referendum in the next parliament. As it would be continually reminded if it chose to highlight the issue now.
As he will variously put it, Clegg is ready for – and confidently predicting – an in/out referendum “when a serious change to Europe’s rules, affecting the UK, next arises” and in the event of “treaty change” and one, of course, in which the Lib Dems will be a “party of in”. But while making a strong case for Britain to lead the debate for necessary EU reform, he contrasts Cameron’s approach of unilateral negotiation, under the threat of an exit, and in terms under which Tory “sceptics, emboldened and off the leash” may decide the outcome does not justify membership. In the process Clegg will cite as positive models the leadership in Europe shown by Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.
The mention of Blair is unsurprising, if arguably a little exaggerated. The mention of Thatcher seems stranger. In fact it is highly relevant. As every red-blooded Europhobe knows, this autumn sees the 25th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges Speech, often seen as the starting point of the Tory backbench slide towards one in favour of withdrawal, or at least of withdrawal unless substantial powers are clawed back from Brussels. The Bruges Group, founded within a few months of the speech being delivered and, while retaining close links with the Conservatives, was also an intellectual mainspring of both Sir James Goldsmith’s short-lived Referendum Party, and Ukip itself.
Yet it’s a fantasy to suppose that Margaret Thatcher envisaged any of these developments when she made the speech. What’s striking, on re-reading, is that while it is a concerted effort to change the direction of the EU, it is one launched from the heart of the EU rather than from its touchline. There is no mention of unilateral reform or even of a two-speed Europe. Tory Eurosceptics love to quote from it: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state….” They ignore its unequivocal support for the single market and her declaration that “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”
At a recent European Parliament-convened anniversary discussion of the speech, between Lord Powell, who was her most trusted No 10 official, and Sir Stephen Wall, a key Foreign Office official at the time, Lord Powell was adamant that Mrs Thatcher did not intend to start a Eurosceptic “chain reaction” in British Conservatism. Of course her attitudes subsequently changed. But he implied that her subsequent adoption as the figurehead of hardline anti-Europeanism in the party, amid the trauma of her loss of office, was as much because she was persuaded by others as that she persuaded them. And Lord Powell, who wrote the speech, remains a convinced supporter of British EU membership. This is not going to change the minds of Tory Eurosceptics. But it does set a context for their constant invocation of Thatcher as their pathfinder.
So where does Clegg’s speech leave Labour, now faced with a new temptation in the shape of Afriyie’s amendment? While there is no sign that Ed Miliband’s is one of them, there are siren voices in the shadow cabinet in favour of embarrassing the Tories by supporting it. The case against them is overwhelming. As Douglas Alexander has pointed out, it would hand the pro-EU Alex Salmond a perfect target in next year’s Scottish referendum. It might fail, given the lack of support that Afriyie has attracted. And beside Clegg’s ringing call today it would look even more opportunistic than otherwise.
Clegg’s formulation on a referendum could probably be glossed into a Coalition agreement with either Labour or the Tories. But what he has done is decisively – and not before time – open the argument on the side of staying in. As he will say, the “moderate and rational” pro-European voices have been too quiet, too long.