In September 2016, the referendum on United Kingdom membership of the European Union is likely to be held. With less than twelve months to go, The Europe Dilemma: Britain and the Drama of EU Integration by Roger Liddle, published in 2014, is valuable reading. He provides insight into how Britain’s relationship with European institutions has affected both parties. At the date of its publication, the travails of the Conservative Party was Liddle’s main focus in his conclusion; while they are still more likely to suffer internally from divisions on Europe, the debate within the Labour Party has reignited since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, notwithstanding his recent commitment to remaining.
Lord Liddle is an unashamed europhile, whose major regret is that Tony Blair (whom he advised on European affiars) adopted an obsequiousness towards the Murdoch press that led to the United Kingdom’s non-participation in the euro single currency. In his analysis, living within the euro would have forced a tighter fiscal policy on Britain, and slowed the decline of British manufacturing.
Liddle’s case is that Britain’s leaders from Macmillan on let their country down by not participating as they could have in the European project. He argues that Britain paid a continuing price for its late arrival. Not only were they perceived with wariness by the original members, but they lost the opportunity to shape the Common Agricultural Policy, which would later become a source of grievance for the British. In Liddle’s view, the same could be said of their approach to the euro, where Britain lost an opportunity to steer it in their favour. Rather than viewing involvement in the European Union as an important venture in global politics, in positive terms, British politicians consistently talk of standing up for national interests. Liddle analyses the attitudes of the two major parties towards Europe from the 1960s to the time of his writing, both in government and in opposition, with particular spotlights on the 1975 referendum held by the Labour government on whether to remain within the EEC, and the failure of the United Kingdom to join the single currency.
David Cameron called the referendum in response to pressure from within his own party, from UKIP outside, and from the eurosceptic press. If Cameron is a moderate on Europe, Blair was an enthusiast. Yet he found himself pushed into taking stances he could not have desired. He did not stand up to those who were less committed, many of whom were part of the New Labour project. For example, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw insisted that there would have be a referendum on the 2004 Constitutional Treaty, which Blair initially resisted, it being less important in substance than either the Single European Act or the Maastricht Treaty. This public pledge led to the referendums in France and the Netherlands, which scuppered the Treaty (though it was substantially reformulated in the Lisbon Treaty).
Liddle also highlights Blair’s weakness against Brown, allowing him to set the terms for any entry into the single currency. It is clear that Blair had begun to have doubts about Brown as a successor, yet was unwilling to confront him in any serious way. Liddle marks out as the great conundrum of Blair’s premiership, that “if Brown was so unfit to be prime minister, why did our hero Blair allow a situation in which that became inevitable”. If instead of simply demoting Robin Cook from the Foreign Office in 2001, Blair had switched his portfolio with Brown’s, to have a more committed europhile in the exchequer, he might have achieved the legacy he intended of bringing Britain into the euro.
However, Blair receives praise for his commitment to enlargement, and for waiving the 7-year derogation on the free movement of labour (which the Irish government under Bertie Ahern did too, to its credit). Unlike the Labour Party that fought the 2015 election, Blair continues to affirm the merits of this policy. Liddle writes that is “depressing that the entire British political class has run away from explaining the benefits of eastern migration to economy and society”.
Liddle is naturally more critical still of Cameron, in decisions such as Britain’s opt-out of the Stability Treaty, of which he writes that it “did wonders for his rating in the party and the country, but at the price of severe damage to national interests”. His Bloomberg speech, in which he announced his intentions to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU, paradoxically couched Britain’s in more positive terms than anything from a Tory leader since Major in Bonn in 1990. Cameron now finds himself looking for a symbolic gesture to present to the British public in a referendum, just as Harold Wilson found presenting a change in New Zealand milk quotas as a significant renegotiation. I would also speculate that Cameron is privately more open to immigration than his push to drive down numbers entering Britain would suggest.
Cameron should not believe that by putting this referendum, which he hopes and expects to win, that he will settle the European question for a generation, or give him rest from the anti-EU sections of his party. Such are the lessons of history from the Labour Party; eight years after holding a referendum in which two-thirds of voters supported remaining in the EEC, the party stood in the 1983 general election on a platform of withdrawal, and had lost many of its more pro-European members to the newly formed Social Democratic Party (later to join with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats). It took many years for the Labour Party to resolve these internal battles in the New Labour project.
The New Stateman asked this week, Can anything sink the triumphant Conservatives? With Labour out in Scotland, thanks to the SNP, and undergoing an identity crisis since Corbyn’s election (watch Shadow Justice Secretary Lord Falconer outline the differences he holds with his party leader, and these tensions are there across the shadow cabinet), it might seem like the Conservatives are indeed in for a few years of plain sailing. But if anything can put them off course, it may be this referendum, and the divisions within the party, whatever the results.
Do check out Liddle’s book over the course of this debate!