In British politics there is both Europe and "Europe". The first is a messy, draining, crisis-ridden reality. The other is a flexible fantasy that comes to the fore to wreck governments every few years. The real European Union is bureaucratic, lacks clear lines of accountability and evolves erratically. Yet for all its problems, Europe is worth having and being part of, more so now than when Britain joined in the early 1970s.
In one of the many ironies, the real Europe takes the form the Tory Eurosceptics yearned for in the 1990s. During that decade of mutinous dissent, Tory MPs demanded that their Government opt out of the euro forever and pressed for a much larger European Union. Now Britain is as far away from membership of the single currency than it has ever been and the EU is much bigger.
Tory Eurosceptics are not celebrating, but prefer instead to get as angry as they did in the 1990s in relation to "Europe". This second version takes many forms, becoming at times a proxy for other deep issues whirling around British politics. Up until the early 1990s parties clung to great and real ideological divides for definition. But with the rise of New Labour the divisions over the state, tax, public spending and markets blurred. On both sides, "Europe" filled the vacuum. This version was a multifarious illusion capable of arousing indiscriminate enthusiasm and hostility.
From the mid-1990s the Blairite wing of New Labour became passionately in favour of "Europe". I recall a conversation with a so-called Brownite towards the end of Tony Blair's first term. He argued perceptively that "Europe" had replaced any other mission for some in New Labour. He suggested that the likes of Blair and Peter Mandelson did not believe any more in other centre-left objectives and so sought purpose by a commitment to "Europe", a passion that reached its irrational peak when Blair contemplated a referendum in favour of the euro after the war in Iraq.
Eurosceptics have an alternative view of "Europe". They, too, lack a clear view on economic policy after the Thatcherite crusade came to a halt with the financial crisis in 2008. But "Europe" is always there to kick around and to blame for all that is wrong with Britain. Although David Cameron and George Osborne were arguing against a referendum in the context of last night's silly motion calling for one, they find it extremely convenient to give it a kicking, too.
The duo and the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, state that the British economy was on course for recovery before the crisis in the eurozone. This is not the case. Growth started to fall soon after Osborne announced his austerity package, a spending review that coincided with endless shrill ministerial warnings that Britain was in danger of becoming Greece. A frightened population stopped spending while the cuts began to hit home. The plight of the eurozone is an easy scapegoat for those ministers who made the wrong call in relation to deep spending cuts during that intox-icating and ill-judged first summer of the Coalition.
At least Cameron recognises the folly of his Eurosceptics' current view of "Europe". Visions are not dependent on clarity. Outlines will do. In this case, the call for a referendum has not been triggered by any precise event in Europe or a proposed treaty change. A petition was the trigger. Last night's motion envisaged a referendum in which one question related to Britain remaining part of the EU on renegotiated terms, although no renegotiation has taken place. They were proposing a fantasy referendum about a fantasy "Europe".
They were doing so with such relish partly because tribal loyalties are not as strong as they used to be. Europe has always tested loyalties to destruction but usually over genuinely urgent and tangible matters, including Britain's original decision to join and later the policies arising from the Maastricht Treaty. Now all it takes is a mention of "Europe" and Tory MPs stir. Some Conservative MPs openly proclaim their independence out of principle and in some cases a well-founded sense that they will not be ministers in this parliament. "Europe" is partly about the decline of parties and the rise of single issues that become more important than loyalty to leadership.
Cameron has both recognised the decline of parties and is a victim of it. In one of his early acts of leadership, he sought to secure a non-Tory candidate to represent his party in the London mayoral contest. Every now and again, he tries to symbolise a Blair-like distance from some of his tribe, although much more than Blair, he is recognisably part of the tribe he occasionally provokes. Perversely in the case of Europe he is broadly at one with the dissenters. That is part of the problem. He and his internal dissidents agree. In such shapeless circumstances, MPs flex their muscles. Their revolt last night over "Europe" was partly a symbol of restlessness, an assertion of independence. In spite of the misleading reports of control freakery under New Labour, that era, too, was marked by a record-breaking number of backbench revolts.
This is the overwhelming lesson from the latest eruption over "Europe". It is less about Europe and more about Cameron's relationship with his parliamentary party. He is not entirely in control and as a result of the muddled way he sought to assert supremacy over the last few days, his authority is undermined further.
Obscured by the rows over "Europe" there is an important development in relation to the real Europe. Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander do not rule out the possibility of supporting referendums in relation to new treaties or major renegotiations of existing ones, a policy close to the Conservatives.
They keep the option open partly on grounds of expediency. "We won't consult the voters" is not a vote-winning formula. But given European turmoil and the voters' wariness, it seems highly likely that both the bigger parties will support a referendum at some future point.
As a result, it is probable that a future significant change in Europe will be tested by a UK referendum. In the current climate, such a referendum would be lost, which means a UK government is unlikely to be in a position to endorse further integration of any kind. This was the reason why the previous Labour government was opposed to such plebiscites. It would have lost them.
This is the biggest irony of them all. Britain is moving further away from the real Europe as the Eurosceptics rage about "Europe".
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