The Europhobes who threaten Britain

Peregrine Worsthorne in his Spectator column, reprinted here, warns of the consequences of a Cold War with Europe
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When asking us to give sympathetic consideration to the possibility of withdrawing from the European Union, Euro-sceptics are less than frank about what this might mean. They suggest that an independent Britain could remain on good terms with the Union, each going its own separate way. This is widely optimistic. More likely, relations between the two would be implacably hostile, for the last thing Brussels would want to see is an independent Britain doing well, since that would tempt other members down the same path. Independent Britain's success would be a permanent challenge to the European Union, inviting dreams of secession in their ranks, and the Union's success a permanent challenge to Britain, promoting federalist heresies in ours. Federal Europe and independent Britain, like it or not, would be locked in a protracted conflict, a kind of Napoleonic Cold War. Either their success would be the end of us or our success would be the end of them. Without a shot being fired it would a war to the death.

Even if Britain won, however, and remained an independent nation state, I doubt if the kind of society which emerged would be one in which any civilised Tory would want to live, for the degree of nationalist fervour a Euro-sceptic government would have to whip up to win the referendum getting Britain out of Europe would be as nothing to that required to mobilise the British people behind a long Cold War struggle against Europe. Conceivably, Rupert Murdoch willing, this necessary degree of nationalistic fervour could be sustained at the grass-roots, but certainly not among the educated cosmopolitan elites, great swathes of whom - judging by their present attitudes - would be supporting the federalist enemy.

How much tolerance would a Europhobic government - for that is what, as the struggle proceeded, it would be likely to become - show to them? During the Napoleonic wars "Napoleonists" like the Whig leader Charles James Fox - the 18th century's equivalent of Roy Jenkins - did get away with virtual treason, as many Jacobites, privately drinking to the King over the water, had before them. But 20th-century nationalism is made of sterner, more thuggish stuff and it is difficult to imagine potential fifth columnists like Lord Jenkins and, even more so, Sir Edward Heath, receiving the same kid-glove and gentlemanly treatment - not at any rate if that splendid bruiser Norman Tebbit had anything to do with it.

The climate would, I fear, soon have far too much for comfort in common with fin de siecle France, where right-wing intellectual firebrands like Charles Maurras, founder in 1899 of Action Francaise, accused any Frenchman of treason whose ideas of La Patrie differed from his own. Already comparably dogmatic definitions of what it requires to be fully English - as against British - are beginning to be heard here. No journal as rabidly nationalistic as Action Francaise has yet hit the streets, but when it does I can think of several right-wing intellectuals among my friends who would be only too happy to contribute.

Nor would this increasingly nationalistic climate be dissipated once Britain had taken the plunge and decided to withdraw, for short of deporting Euro-enthusiasts and purging them wholesale from the public service - where their influence is very great - they would still be here, "the enemy in our midst", handy to take the blame once the pains of independence began to bite. In fin de siecle 19th-century France cosmopolitan Jews were the scapegoats. In fin de siecle 20th-century England it would be cosmopolitan Euro-enthusiasts.

That would not be the worst of it. For the radical right would not be the only lot of ruthless ruffians eager to climb aboard the patriotic bandwagon in the hope of steering it in their direction. Equally eager would be the radical left, as they were during the Second World War. Then the "Guilty Men", excoriated by Michael Foot in his famous Gollancz special of that name, were the Establishment appeasers of Berlin; this time, some contemporary Michael Foot, Paul perhaps, would put the boot into the Establishment appeasers of Brussels. Then it was only the radical left which used patriotism as a cover under which to prosecute the class war. Now that ploy would be used by both the radical right and the radical left. Not only would the Daily Mirror have plenty of opportunity to peddle its kind of anti-Establishment poison but so, needless to say, would The Sun. Between them everything which makes Old Britain agreeable and civilised - monarchy, Church, social hierarchy, high culture - would be ground into the dust and everything that makes New Britain odious - Union Jack-waving football fans, the tabloid press, philistine populism - greatly strengthened.

There is always a high price to pay for mobilising the masses, as the Tories discovered after both great wars, none more so than Winston Churchill, whose humiliating dismissal in 1945 was very much part of that price. Having patriotically done their best for the country, the people understandably expect their country in return to do its best for them. So it would be even if Britain came out on top in the struggle with the European Union. She would emerge from it with her governing institutions - the very things which the Tory party came into existence to protect - discredited and the masses triumphant and vengeful. To beat Hitler, that was a price just about worth paying, but not surely to beat M Santer or even Chancellor Kohl.