Why Europhobes get all the best headlines

Pro-Europe Tories have a powerful case - they must pluck up the courage to put it strongly
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The Independent Online
Two recent press launches tell a story about the Tories and Europe. One was the launch of the mini-manifesto of eight of the whipless rebels. The Jubilee Room of the Commons was packed to the rafters with camera crews, reporters and atmosphere. Itended on a high, with Teresa Gorman executing a sort of dance; and made the front pages. The other, at about the same time, featured the latest pro-European pamphlet by the Tory MP Ray Whitney and the former MEP Michael Welsh. Jointly, they speak for more than 90 Tory backbenchers, big-name ministers and a swathe of City opinion. Not a single journalist turned up; their audience was the lone figure of Tim Renton, former chief whip and Euro-enthusiast.

Why is this? Partly, it is simple journalism. The Positive Europeans are poor propagandists. Because they still have the whip and don't threaten to bring down the Government at regular intervals, they lack the political sex appeal of their enemies. But there is more to it. Their arguments have lacked urgency and sex appeal. The Tory case for European Union has come over as complacent and apolitical - little more than a handful of brusque assertions about markets and modernity.

For a generation or so, this didn't matter. Bland economic Europeanism appealed to the young and the newly affluent as they discovered a world to the south. Cities twinned; goods and capital gurgled both ways; a new generation of truly European Britons stumbled south into the sunlight. Like the Vikings, we arrived first in small raiding parties during the summer months and then eventually turned settler, buying barns in Normandy and cottages in the Dordogne. The natives stopped fearing the arrival of sleek lines of Volvos - the Swedish longboats of this saga - and started seeing them as bearers of investment.

Political advocates of Europeanism, therefore, had a ridiculously easy job. Europe was the future; who could be against the future? Despite pious assertions from conference-hopping backbenchers about stopping another world war, for most Britons Europe was a matter of consumption - Elizabeth David raised to the level of politics.

Then the mood changed. Here is not the place to analyse why, other than to point to a combination of global recession, the local effects of bureaucratic meddling and, among the economic intelligentsia, fundamental questions about the future of the European model of capitalism. But it led, anyway, to a backlash which exposed the old pro-Europeanism as a shallow-seeming materialism with little to say to the political arguments of the new nationalists. The Europhobes had fire in the belly and became news. The pro-Europeans, sporting distended bellyfuls of cold croissant, didn't.

Strangely, though, the feebleness of the pro-Europeans wasn't because they had no serious political arguments. Far from it. They had, and have, a strong case. It has, however, been simply too embarrassing for them to talk about openly.

The truth is that Britain has been too comparatively unsuccessful to do anything else. Her autonomy and her real freedom of action have been draining away to international markets and supranational bodies of all kinds since the Second World War. "Going into Europe", far from being a destruction of British power, has been a desperate attempt to reclaim a little of it.

If Britain was freed tomorrow from the Brussels yoke, how much recovered sovereign power would we actually be able to use? Would we have a new and sovereign economic policy, which the EU stops us going for now? It is true that, on the margins, getting out of the Union would allow more savage and experimental labour market deregulation, though it is interesting that Tory populists shy from advertising this as one of their motives.

But in some respects we would be less sovereign: the bond markets would exercise more influence on the policies of a small Western nation than on a union of nations with a single currency. The anonymity and political disconnectedness of the markets make them a far harder demon for nationalists to grapple with than Jaques Santer. But they aren't going to go away.

Fiscal policy at least would be ours alone? Not in the real world, it wouldn't. Any industrialised nation that jacked up direct taxes very far would simply see its entrepreneurs and most valuable labour move out - as has been happening to Denmark, even in the Union. But any nation that slashed taxes so far that it was unable to support a reasonable system of infrastructure and welfare would be profoundly unattractive for the world's big companies. The room for maneouvre either way is, in practice, rather small: all Western countries are struggling to balance social necessities and economic priorities, and we are all coming to similar conclusions.

Trade policy? None of the Tory anti-Europeans I have met advocate withdrawal from the obligations of the Gatt treaty - the only substantial figure who does oppose free trade is Sir Jimmy Goldsmith, and he relies on a European bloc as the foundation for his form of protectionism.

So perhaps the new freedom would be found in other fields, such as diplomacy, defence and culture? Hardly. The trouble for those who dream of a renewed Atlantic relationship as the key one for Britain is that Washington would rather play with the EU as awhole. More significant still, the United States is becoming steadily less Anglophone in composition, while its economic and diplomatic energies are ever more focused on the Pacific and Asia: so not much hope there.

In defence matters, our key relationships are outside the EU and would not change much if we left that institution. And our cultural life is inextricably woven into global technologies - short of shooting down communications satellites and tearing up sub-sea cables, it is hard to see how a cultural nationalism could be reasserted by the leaders of UK Libre.

No, in the end, we are too small, too poor and too involved in a complex, interconnected world to be able to recover usable political sovereignty outside the EU. We lost that stuff long ago. One day it may happen that the Union becomes so bureaucratically corrupt or over-taxed that we have to leave it; but if that day comes, an economic and political disaster will have overwhelmed this part of the world; and there will be nothing to celebrate.

It is, of course, extremely difficult for Conservative politicians to get up on their hind legs and admit how harshly the world has changed; they rely on selling reassurance, patriotism and nostalgia, not the reverse. It is much easier for them to give us the old stuff about Britain's unique contribution, special relationships, historic leadership role, and so on.

Tories, even realistic, pro-European Tories, rarely depart from such set texts. But some harsh truth-telling has become essential for them if they are to refute the vivid nationalistic romanticism sweeping their party. Kenneth Clarke and the rest have a bleak but undeniably gripping and newsworthy story to tell. If they want to be properly heard, it's time to speak plainly.

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