Daily catch-up: how a Labour MP kept Britain in the European Union

A book by Labour former Europe minister Denis MacShane provides a guide to next year’s possible referendum

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The Independent Online

It has taken me a while to get round to commenting on Denis MacShane’s book, Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe. It was published before the election, since when his pessimism as a supporter of EU membership needs amending in some ways.

One is that the referendum on Britain’s membership will definitely happen, quite possibly next year. MacShane regards this as both taking an irresponsible risk with the nation’s future and inevitable. Now it is merely sooner rather than later.

Another change is the sudden disappearance from the stage of Ukip. It hasn’t gone away: opinion polls find that 13 per cent of people would still vote for it, as they did in May. But Nigel Farage already feels like a pointless answer in a 2019 edition of the BBC game show.

The third change is the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, first elected to Parliament on a platform of pulling out of Europe in 1983. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that he suggested that might no longer be his view, although what his policy actually is remains obscure. Even so, it is hard to imagine that Labour would campaign for a No vote.

I think MacShane’s pessimism was overdone, however. Referendums and referendum campaigns may be volatile, but the probability of Britain voting to leave the EU seems low. But his book is well worth reading, both as a serious argument about Europe, which is rare enough, and as a personal memoir of his time as a pro-EU MP and Europe minister under Tony Blair.

For much of the time, MacShane was frustrated, as many pro-Europeans were, by what he saw as Blair’s timidity on Europe. I have never been convinced by their argument. Blair was right to be pro-EU in principle but cautious in practice because the British people are sceptical, in the proper sense of the word, about the EU. And they are right to be. MacShane complains that “in countless Cabinet committee meetings Europe was seen as a problem, never a solution”. Why should that be, I wonder?


There is one particularly good story of how MacShane chatted to David Cameron in the changing room in the House of Commons in the summer of 2005. They had come out of the showers, MacShane after a game of tennis and Cameron after a bike ride from his home in Notting Hill, and as the soon-to-be Conservative leader towelled himself dry MacShane lectured him on his responsibilities:

“You know, Dave, if you do become leader, which I think is likely, you will have to do what all big leaders of major parties do when they take over and that is sacrifice a sacred cow or bury a shibboleth the party believes in.”

MacShane urged him to “drop the manic Euroscepticism” and recounts Cameron’s response:

“He looked at me with a quiet, friendly smile – Cameron is one of the most polite senior political leaders I have dealt with – and said: ‘Thanks, Denis. But I am much more Eurosceptic than you imagine.’”

Except that now, without repudiating Euroscepticism, Cameron is preparing to take his party through a referendum that will keep Britain in the EU. Partly, he has exploited a confusion about the nature of Tory Euroscepticism. It was always furiously opposed to adopting the euro, and, less furiously, to further integration of Britain into EU structures. But it was never – despite Margaret Thatcher’s later view, expressed in her 2002 book Statecraft, which MacShane quotes, that the EU is “fundamentally unreformable” – serious about pulling out.

It is almost as if Cameron took MacShane’s advice after all.