Posted by Curt on 23 June, 2016 at 7:57 pm. 22 comments already!


Douglas Murray:

It is more than 40 years since the United Kingdom last went to the polls to vote on its relationship with Europe. In 1975, the question was whether the country should continue to remain part of the European Economic Community (familiarly, the Common Market) into which the Conservative Party had taken it two years earlier. Under the Labour Party government that had been elected in the interim, the UK was in its worst postwar economic doldrums. So when both Labour and Conservative politicians alike (including Margaret Thatcher, then four years from her premiership) presented the Common Market as an economic benefit to the UK, the British people were persuaded and voted by a two-thirds margin to remain.

In the years that followed, the Common Market developed into something very different from the unified trading bloc of the 1970s. In the early 1990s, following the eventual ratification of a pact called the Maastricht Treaty, it was transmuted into the “European Union,” run out of Brussels. The new name shrugged off any pretense; the EU was a political as well as an economic union. The process of ever-closer fiscal union under a common currency was just one element of what was to follow. The reality of a transnational political confederation was now its overarching purpose. What had begun for Britons as an arrangement to trade well with our European neighbors turned into an expansive exercise in cohabitation under one roof.

Of course the inexorability of this political union had its setbacks. But the increasingly detached and ever-less-accountable officials in Brussels never allowed these to actually set them back. When the French and Dutch were allowed to vote on the latest iteration of the EU Constitution in 2005 referendums, both publics rejected it. The EU steamrollered on anyway. From then on, whenever countries were granted votes on further unification and cast them “wrong” (such as Ireland’s rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008), they were ordered to redo the vote until they came up with the “correct” answer. The EU’s will was not to be resisted. Any individual country suspected of holding back the project was threatened that the consequence would be destruction of the whole, with all the financial and political costs that was said to entail.

It should not be surprising that between 1975 and today a degree of popular ill will has grown toward this metastasizing project. Nowhere has that pain been more keenly felt than among British conservatives. The narrow ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 occurred under John Major’s Conservative government; the process produced a set of startlingly close votes in Parliament and bitter divides within the party. This fight and others hit right at the nerve centers of the British conservative tradition, not to say philosophy.

The principle of “sovereignty” is often cited by conservative Euroskeptics, as is the increasing lack of democratic accountability in Brussels, not least the appointment of unelected bureaucrats with lifetime tenure to the all-powerful European Commission, which makes and implements EU policy. But these, along with warnings of the consequences of fiscal union without further political union—meaning either financial catastrophe or enforced further political union—and the impact of allowing people to travel with no restraint across national borders (the so-called Schengen rules) in the heart of Europe all went unheeded.

In the years after the fight over the Maastricht treaty the image of the EU-obsessed Conservative politician became a staple of the national comedy as well as a shorthand cliché for politicians in Brussels depicting political “backwardness.” The “federasts” (to deploy the historian-journalist Noel Malcolm’s name for the supporters of the European Union) described their opponents as “swivel-eyed” bores who inexplicably spent their time “banging on” about overenthusiastic regulations as though they were totalitarian diktats. And although the Labour movement included those who objected to the EU for its intrusions into union laws inside Britain and the flooding of the UK with cheap and often more diligent workers from elsewhere in the EU, it was on the right that the grief was most keenly felt. After Maastricht there even arose a break-away party called UKIP (or the UK Independence Party)—a single-issue grouping that only in more recent years has became a focal point for national identity issues unrelated to the EU.

Now, four decades on, the British people are going to vote in June on what has been called the “Brexit”—whether Britain should remain part of the European Union or should withdraw from it.

The latest referendum is not so much the result of a grand awakening as it is an inglorious consequence of internal Conservative Party politicking. Going into the general election of 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron made an effort to stem further electoral leakage from his party. In an effort to unite the right and gain a majority (rather than have to strike another ignominious alliance with the Liberal Democrats with whom Cameron’s Tories had struck an alliance to form a government in 2010), the prime minister promised that if returned with a majority, he would give the British public a referendum on the EU. So, after being duly returned with a small majority, Cameron was in the unfortunate position of having to fulfill this commitment; his only advantage was that he was able to decide the date of the poll and the nature of the question. Like much of the rest of his party, Cameron has long posed as a Euroskeptic to maintain the affections of his grassroots but in practice has always been intensely relaxed about the intrusions of Brussels. But he was left without a comfortable corner to hide in.

So earlier this year Cameron went to Brussels and spent several days in supposedly tough negotiations with his European counterparts. The business allowed Cameron to pretend that he was returning to the British people with a wholly new deal and permitted the EU to pretend that it could be flexible. With that in mind, the public could decide whether they wished to stay in this “reformed EU” or get out altogether.

In fact, he came away with what friends and foes agree was to be the better part of nothing. His “tough renegotiation” basically involved the UK’s being able to claim it possessed greater control of certain migrant working benefits than it had had before. To say that even Cameron’s friends could not pretend he had come away with a good deal is a statement of fact, because immediately after the referendum was announced, two of his dearest friends—Justice Minister Michael Gove and London Mayor Boris Johnson—announced that they would campaign to “Leave” rather than “Remain” in the EU.

By making Britain’s vote an all-or-nothing choice, the prime minister is banking that the innate conservatism of the British people will persuade them to remain in the EU, because what might happen if we leave is less certain than what will happen if we stay. A vote to leave, he constantly reiterates, is a “leap in the dark.”

From the moment the referendum campaign began, the vast majority of Britain’s political class signed up for Remain. Even the new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, rejected a lifetime’s far-left opposition to the EU and declared himself a supporter. Cameron’s bet appeared to be that, as in 1975, the key figures lined up in opposition would be a ragtag of eccentrics, wilderness-dwellers, and gadflies. For example, the radical-leftist aristocrat Tony Benn and the right-wing prophet of immigration doom Enoch Powell had campaigned alongside each other against the Common Market in 1975, and this was what “Remain” was hoping for from the “Leave” forces. Right on cue, at the outset of the Brexit campaign, the outrageous Ba’athist George Galloway appeared with UKIP leader Nigel Farage at a Leave rally. But the presence of Gove, Johnson, and other highly intellectual, thoughtful, and (crucially in 21st-century Britain) culturally diverse figures in the leave camp made Cameron and his allies up their game.

In the weeks that followed, 10 Downing Street swiftly orchestrated daily announcements and letters to the press from business leaders and others—an effort Leave dubbed “Project Fear.” A letter from former armed-forces chiefs urging the British people to remain in the EU for security reasons fell apart when one of the signatories turned out not to know anything about any letter and another confessed that he actually disagreed with the sentiments his name had been put to. But the message of Project Fear was unmistakable: “With Brexit, the country will be taking a leap into the unknown with the possibility of becoming a basket case and causing a world war.” Memories of the mid-1970s were conjured up: the three-day work week, the uncollected rubbish, the unburied dead.

The arrival of President Obama at the end of April was the Remain camp’s strongest moment. Apparently as a quid pro quo to David Cameron for his uncritical acquiescence in the Iran nuclear deal, the president not only urged the UK to remain in the EU but added that were the UK to leave, then the country would start “at the back of the queue” in any future trade deals with the United States. There would be no special treatment, he said. The historic alliance between the UK and the U.S. would count for nothing. Once Britain was on its own, it would have no more purchase on the trade affections of the United States than would Ecuador or Laos.

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