John Major begged his party not to tie his hands, Geoffrey Howe assassinated Mrs Thatcher by accusing her of sending him to the crease with a broken bat, and Mr Tony Blair expressed his love for the EU by siding with a savagely right-wing US administration against it, and then blaming the French. If there has long been an element of mania about our relationship with the EU, it is finally hurtling towards a juddering climax under David Cameron. He started out as leader by warning the Tories to stop obsessing about Europe, and is now being led to the cliff edge of withdrawal by the Tory Lemming Army whose pitiable captive he is.
When Mr Cameron goes to Brussels tomorrow to posture in pursuit of freezing our contribution to the EU budget for 2014-2020, we may expect all the cool-headed courage of a hostage walking a tightrope with a bomb strapped around his waist and his backbenchers’ twitchy fingers hovering over the trigger.
No one has a clue what, if any, this PM’s European principles might be, as a Telegraph columnist wisely observed yesterday, and no wonder when he restricts his utterances to infantile crowd pleasers like this week’s gem about the EU picking its citizens’ pockets. But if he must engage in the sort of brinksmanship that may take us over the brink, via a referendum certain to be won by the secessionists, it would be awfully decent of him to tell us why.
No one would be so rude as to harry him when he’s frantic, yet the dictates of good manners work in both directions. However trivial Britain’s future may seem compared with his own as its PM, we deserve a cogently argued case for what would be an epochal event rather than incendiary soundbites. There is one regard in which he is driven by logic, of course, which is the cold calculation that his survival depends on placating a Europhobic party. Even that parochial rationale gives him the edge over the rest of us who rely purely on nebulous emotion.
Approach a bunch of commuters and ask if they want out, and current polling says that more than half will. Ask that majority why they hate the EU, and they would probably mutter some half-baked memes – loss of sovereignty, forcibly straightened cucumbers, overpaid Eurocrats, human rights, the assault on imperial measurements, and so on. Ask how their lives are ruinously impinged by buying sausages by the half kilo or Abu Qatada’s continuing stay with us, and I’d bet they would murmur something about being British, and that no one else has any right to tell us what to do, nor nuffink, nor not.
In the absence of a credible alternative, this is surely what the burgeoning isolationist instinct is about. There are, of course, sound reasons to mistrust aspects of the EU. Its democratic failings are many, the agricultural budget is bloated, and Brussels is subject to endemic, low-level, expenses-fiddling corruption of the sort unimaginable here. Yet these objections, much like Britain’s contribution to the overall EU budget, amount to such comparative peanuts that they cannot explain the hysterical antipathy.
Tellingly, the PM recently compared the Eurozone crisis to war. On some weird, atavistic level, the Tories seem desperate to party like it’s 1940, with Britain standing alone against the evil, serried ranks massed across the Channel.
One could argue that we have already reached a fine accommodation with Europe, enjoying the fruits of free trade without being lumbered with the euro; that succumbing to European laws – ones that drastically cut air fares as well as protecting nasty men from torture – is a banal diminution of sovereignty for a country that long ago yielded control of its nuclear arsenal to the Americans. It would fall on deaf ears because this debate, if it deserves so grand a title, has nothing to do with reason, and everything with the ongoing confusion about our place in this world.
At first toying uncertainly with becoming Europeans, then becoming ever more culturally Americanised, now flirting with a lone path, for six decades Britain has been riven by the crisis of self-identity that inevitably afflicts a traumatised post-imperial nation. The addiction to play-acting at great power status may have ended with the Army being routed in Basra and the notion of the aircraft-free aircraft carrier. But the angry confusion about Britain’s global role, born of the muscle memory of empire and bred by natural resentment at winning the war but drastically losing the peace, lives on.
Perhaps a referendum is the only way to resolve it. If a majority believes isolationism is the answer, what grounds can there be to deny the democratic will? Yet before we reach that gigantic fork in the road, we need a debate worthy of the name. Britain is not, as Mr Miliband lazily put it, “sleepwalking” towards the exit door. It is lurching towards it like a crazy drunk in a blindfold, when it should be soberly discussing what leaving the EU would mean in terms of both the geopolitical ramifications and the best economic projections available from Treasury simulations. If the Prime Minister could carve an hour or two to share his thoughts once he recovers from the draining histrionics of the next couple of days, that would, as I said, be most frightfully considerate.