Sunday, October 23, 2011

Little Englanders will always be with us

I was in my late twenties when the United Kingdom had a referendum on the question whether we should stay a member of the European Community. We hadn't been in long but Harold Wilson won an election in 1974 with a referendum commitment in his manifesto and it happened in the following year.  Wilson was trying to contain rebellion from his (mainly) left of centre MPs and the bulk of the opposition to Europe in the Referendum campaign came form them. There were some Tories who didn't like Europe either (notably Enoch Powell) but the vast majority of them, including their new leader Margaret Thatcher, called for and voted for “Yes to Europe.

Over the years some on the left have remained anti EU (as it now is) but in the main the mainstream Labour Party and, in office, the Conservative leadership has not really wanted to rock the EU boat. Thatcher wished to appear a hard negotiator when it came to Britain's relationship with the EU and John Major did the same. But in effect the blindingly obvious - that the UK is better off in Europe rather than out of it has been the mainstream political position. Nevertheless in the same way that Wilson had to buy off his difficult left wing with a referendum pledge David Cameron did the same with his vocal Little Englander wing. Nothing has antagonised Cameron to this wing more than what they see as his reneging on a commitment to hold an EU In/Our referendum.

Real Politick is what happens when leaders move from opposition to Government. Even sincere Eurosceptics like Foreign Secretary William Hague  now acknowledge that the idea that the UK can withdraw form the EU is fanciful and one best left to the small nationalist parties like UKIP. Hague, and Cameron, will argue that the UK/EU relationship needs constant care and attention and in that they are joined by the other main Party leaders. That some powers currently with Brussels might be negotiated to return is hardly a contentious suggestion. Indeed the EU has a commitment to subsidiarity which specifically endorses taking decisions at the lowest practical level in the hierarchy. At the same time even for some non Euro countries like Britain a greater degree of centralised cooperation on some economic issues is desirable. These matters are discussed with our partners and decisions are taken.

The European Union is sometimes characterised as an “Experiment that has failed” by its “Little Englander” opponents in Britain. I suppose that they will always be with us – but nothing could be further from the truth. Greater unity across the previously warring nations of Europe has been one of the great achievements of the post war era. It has its flaws and certainly current challenges. But the unravelling of the EU that could follow from a UK withdrawal is unthinkable and no responsible British Government will let it happen. Amen to that.