Time for an essay (my first since University)
This week has been one of the most tumultuous in recent British politics in recent decades. Why? Because we could be looking at a financial and social meltdown which could, in turn, take decades to recover from.
I’m going to go back to my British Government & Politics specialism when studying at York University in 1981-84 (a time of tumult with the formation of the SDP) to reflect on where we stand.
Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta meets with British Prime Minister, David Cameron, at 10 Downing Street in London, England, Jan. 18, 2013. Panetta is on a six day trip to Europe to visit with foreign counterparts and troops in the area. (DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo) (Released)
Our current politics is dominated by the calamity that is Brexit. David Cameron decided that he needed to resolve the fundamental division in the Conservative Party by calling for a referendum, as he saw it, to put to bed the festering sore in his Party by obtaining a public endorsement of our continuing membership of the European Union. I think that he was right to do so, because the division had constrained the country since we joined what was then known as the Common Market on 1 January 1973. Joining was led by Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, a centrist and out and out European in the same mould as Helmut Schmidt and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who, at the time, knew that there was active public opposition to doing so. He simply signed the Treaty relying on the dubious notion that Parliament had “legal sovereignty” to do so. It was contentious from the start.
Many people may not know or have forgotten that the decision was made the subject of a non-binding referendum on 5 June 1975. It was called by the then Labour minority government under Harold Wilson, who had his own problems because many Labour supporters wanted to leave. On 26 April 1975 the Labour Party voted by 2:1 to leave the EEC. Opposition was led by Tony Benn, Michael Foot and up and coming Dennis Skinner. Shirley Williams led the pro-EEC campaign. The referendum delivered a 67% remain verdict on a 64% turnout and our membership was settled (for 41 years).
Margaret Thatcher was a sceptical European, but nonetheless a realistic European.
What we should grasp, however, from the lessons of European history is that, first, there is nothing necessarily benevolent about programmes of European integration; second, the desire to achieve grand utopian plans often poses a grave threat to freedom; and third, European unity has been tried before, and the outcome was far from happy
She was, without doubt, a supporter of Britain and “British Interests”. Perhaps her most significant contribution was the Bruges speech in 1988. It has particular resonance right now:
I am the first to say that on many great issues the countries of Europe should try to speak with a single voice.
I want to see us work more closely on the things we can do better together than alone.
Europe is stronger when we do so, whether it be in trade, in defence or in our relations with the rest of the world.
But working more closely together does not require power to be centralised in Brussels or decisions to be taken by an appointed bureaucracy.
Indeed, it is ironic that just when those countries such as the Soviet Union, which have tried to run everything from the centre, are learning that success depends on dispersing power and decisions away from the centre, there are some in the Community who seem to want to move in the opposite direction.
We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.
Certainly we want to see Europe more united and with a greater sense of common purpose.
But it must be in a way which preserves the different traditions, parliamentary powers and sense of national pride in one’s own country; for these have been the source of Europe’s vitality through the centuries…
Let Europe be a family of nations, understanding each other better, appreciating each other more, doing more together but relishing our national identity no less than our common European endeavour.
Let us have a Europe which plays its full part in the wider world, which looks outward not inward, and which preserves that Atlantic community—that Europe on both sides of the Atlantic—which is our noblest inheritance and our greatest strength.
In other words, Thatcher understood that a European view was a strong way to confront world challenges. Meanwhile, in the background, Conservative MPs were plotting, as exemplified by the recently deceased Teddy Taylor.
Following the demise of Thatcher the next big UK European moment was the Maastricht Treaty. Another PM struggling with a minority had to deal with a situation he wished had never arisen. John Major was the, at the time, unlikely successor to Margaret Thatcher (note now) and, uncharacteristically, he was moved to identify his Eursceptic “bastards” who, for the record, were Michael Howard (subsequent leader of the Party), Peter Lilley and Michael Portillo (who has mellowed significantly in his European views).
Then came Tony Blair, an avowed European,, and now a campaigner to top Brexit. Since then, we have had Gordon Brown, David Cameron (referred to above) and, for now Theresa May.
And then we decided to leave the European Union (by52:48)!
As any regular readers will know I am in the 48.
So, the current political malaise is not really surprising because it has dominated politics since I became interested in it as a teenager when we joined the EEC and it was, forever more, the thorn in the side of all politicians of my generation.
I’m 54. I remember thinking that that there could be no resolution to the Irish “problem” so that the Good Friday Agreement was unimaginable and that there could never be a unification of Germany with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and all that it entailed but they have both happened in my lifetime. Regrettably, the one that has not been resolved is the political morass that is the UK’s approach to Europe, from both Labour and Conservative.
Jeremy Corbyn has attracted major support from young voters, by which according to recent polls, that means 45 and unders. However, he’s tied up with the old school Labour opponents to the EU (including those I’ve mentioned above) and that is massively annoying. There are senior Labour politicians who are unashamedly European and they need to prevail.
As for Theresa, her time has come. I think that she’s broadly European but her Cabinet prevents her from being that. As of today, 6 October, the European dilemma is no nearer to being sorted.
It was informative that no senior players were willing to appear on the usual outlets today (as typically highlighted by Eddie Mair on PM). Theresa’s supporters are unavailable. She has no authority and, consequently, cannot be PM. God knows who will be her successor. The current thinking is David “double DDs” Davis.
The upshot of all this is that we do not have a credible negotiating position in terms of our exit from Europe. It’s nonsense. BMW and Mercedes have made clear today, through their business negotiators, that they are happy to abandon the UK. The City is making arrangements to relocate and the border between Northern Ireland and the EU is impossible to resolve as matters stand.
Theresa May needs to go. She’s done what anyone would have in this scenario which is to try to hold on in the face of impossibility but, sadly, she has no credibility or authority going forward. I have no idea where it will end up but it can’t be with her.