Cyclefree sticks her neck out and gives her choices
Scepticism (Euroscepticism, certainly) has a bad press these days. But being sceptical of received wisdom, of grand plans and theories, of the assumption that because matters have always been this way, this is how they should remain, is a good thing. At its best, it’s the courage to ask “Why?”and “Why not?” We could have done with more of it when Mrs May came out with her alliterative but empty “Brexit means Brexit” line last year. And it is possible to be a Eurosceptic – ie sceptical of how the EU behaves, its destination and whether it is adopting the right policies – while still thinking that, on balance, it makes more sense for Britain to remain part of it than not. But that kind of Euroscepticism has fallen out of fashion or, perhaps, been forced into silence by a much more toxic form which seems to see no good in the EU at all, which knows what it is against but not what it is for, which sees conspiracies and bad faith everywhere and which sounds increasingly strident and angry to anyone who is, well, sceptical of this. How did this come about?
Well, here is my list of some of the men who helped, some of them unintentionally, toxify a debate in a way which is doing no credit to anyone involved. (And one, perhaps surprising, omission.)
1. Jacques Delors
Delors wanted to have a social aspect to the EU and, as part of it, famously sold that vision to the TUC Congress. Nothing wrong with such a vision, of course, and pursuing it at an EU/ governmental level. But inserting himself in UK domestic politics in an attempt to sell one of the EU’s benefits to a hostile/sceptical Left had disastrous long-term unintended consequences for the EU debate in Britain. It looked as if the EU was seeking to undermine the results of British elections, of seeking to impose policies which had been rejected by British voters. It made the EU look as if it opposed the Tories and helped trigger or accelerate a a feeling within some Tories that the EU was the enemy. And for others it highlighted concerns about the EU’s approach to democracy and the electoral process within member states, about whether its default instincts were quite as liberal and democratic as it claimed, about how far it might go if voters did not like what it was doing.
2. Major / the “Bastards”
Unfair to group them together? Maybe. The Redwood’s/IDS’s/Cash’s/Gorman’s obsession with Maastricht, with undermining their own leader, with fighting arcane Parliamentary battles bears much of the blame for making those worried about EU developments seem unhinged. Few people will listen to arguments, however reasonable, from the sort of person you wouldn’t want to sit next to on a long bus journey with no stops. But what it also meant was that the consequences of Maastricht were never properly explained – let alone sold – to the public, particularly in relation to what has now become, unfairly perhaps, the totemic EU issue: Freedom of Movement. Major failed to do so or, more likely, was too exhausted or fed up to do so. The purists, shielded by their monomania, failed to realise that others would take the debate beyond high-minded discussions of Parliamentary sovereignty into Faragiste “Too many foreigners on the train” territory.
3. Tony Blair
FoM would never have become as toxic as it has if the arrival of Eastern Europeans had not been preceded by an increase in immigration in the preceding 8 years, the abandonment of previous attempts to control it and the almost total failure to implement effectively those controls which did exist, coupled with a snobbish refusal to understand why people might want to know about – let alone – control who is or is not allowed into their country. Did Blair really think it sensible for his
Home Secretary to say that there was “no obvious limit” to the number of immigrants allowed in? Blair’s biggest mistake was not the lack of transitional controls in 2004. Britain’s approach to Eastern Europe was open, generous and the right thing to do (and rather more communautaire than that of the Pharisaical Germans). Rather, it was his total failure to engage properly with immigration in the years beforehand. The Poles were, unfairly, seen as the final straw. And as a result, a country which has generally had a good record of openness and welcome, which has not indulged in blood and soil notions of race and nationalism has acquired a reputation for small-minded xenophobia which will likely – and shamefully – endure long after any agreement on rights for EU citizens already here.
And one omission
Wot – no Thatcher? Well, no. On balance. Ever the pragmatic politician, she fought for Britain within the EU and, on the whole, did so rather more effectively than her successors. Being the grit in the EU oyster suited Britain quite well and was of more use to some EU states than they might publicly admit. She relished argument rather than simple assertion of apparently self-evident truths or insults, a point Cameron might have done well to ponder, especially after Clegg’s poor showing in his debate with Farage. Would she have favoured Brexit or a referendum on it? Who can say? But she’d have been a damn sight better prepared for it. And the resulting negotiations.
The irony is that her one main European achievement, the Single Market, one part of the EU which has indisputably been a benefit to Britain and which is treasured by the rest of the EU (as May and Davis are painfully learning) will likely be lost to it, at least in its current form, as a result of the actions of those who claim her as their inspiration. Guilty men indeed.