Britain needs to renegotiate its relationship with the real world

Jon Wilson

British politics is peculiarly dominated by the relationship between this country and the rest of the world. Margaret Thatcher’s politics were led by the effort to restore Britain’s global prestige. Since then the EU and foreign wars have divided opinion, and hastened the downfall of two Prime Ministers. They may very well undermine third. The political storm of our day comes from the rise of a party interested– it seems –in little other than severing our relationship to Europe.


Every country has a partly deluded relationship with the outside world. Most people don’t know much about what happens beyond our borders, but what foreigners do affects their lives. So, paranoia and fantasy are equally common. In Britain, thinking about our relationship with the rest of the world is governed by two, particularly pernicious delusions.

The first is the dream of absolute national sovereignty. From this point of view, if politicians stopped sacrificing national power to the interests of others (Rumanian migrants one moment, French farmers), Britain’s happiness and prosperity would be restored. The solution to everything is the restoration of power to our own ancient, national institutions.

Enoch Powell gave birth to the modern version of this thinking. Powell believed in the existence of a homogenous, English nation, uniquely able to be governed by a single, absolute institution, the Crown-in-Parliament. For him, there was nothing but the nation: no towns, no cities, no local institutions of self-government, no cultural difference, nothing but the submission of everyone to the twin powers of the queen and the market. His was the flat white theory of politics. Ethnic difference and self-governing northern cities were as much of a challenge to national sovereignty as the European Union.

Powell’s heirs are now split between the Conservative Party and UKIP. Nigel Farage and John Redwood (beyond the charisma of one, its hard to tell the difference) are equally his heirs. Their idea of national sovereignty offers no answer to the feeling of rage and anger people against big, out of touch institutions, whether Whitehall, the banks, multi-national corporations, badly run councils – or the EU. As I’ve argued here before, an authentically English politics would share power between Westminster and our cities and counties, ensuring big decisions are made in places where leaders are publicly held to account. If Labour spoke in a voice which connected to peoples’ anxieties and offered practical plans to reform our polity, UKIP’s offer would seem like a silly utopian fantasy.

We can’t challenge these arguments because we, on the left, have been seduced by an equally pernicious delusion. In place of the fantasy of national sovereignty, too many in the Labour movement have fallen for a utopian dream of ever-deepening European unity. We imagine that a profoundly unequal and deeply divided continent can be turned into a single market in labour, goods and capital with no bad consequences. We believe in a bland form of European citizenship (the exact opposite of real internationalism) which only makes sense for bankers and eurocrats hopping from country to country. Insanely, we think that anyone who challenges the current pillars of EU politics is some kind of rapid reactionary.

Let’s be clear about what Europe is. It began as an effort by Europe’s war-torn nations to save themselves from ruin by sharing enough sovereignty to survive in very tough times. Europe’s founding fathers – Robert Schumann and Jean Monnet – were canny national (and nationalist) statesmen, not the selfless creators of a new state. The earliest documents didn’t even define what this new union was: the first draft of the Schumann plan had ‘supranational’ crossed out and replaced by the vague word ‘federation’. Jean-Claude Junker needs a history lesson; the free movement of all labour in Europe is a recent add-on to the European project. Its first incarnation was about stopping Germany using its control of the steel industry to rebuild its national power, a way for French metalworkers to hop over the border and work in the Ruhr valley. The founders of the European Coal and Steel Community didn’t imagine Lithuanians flying in to work in Tescos in Stoke-on-Trent. The purpose of the first community is summed up in the title of Alan Milward’s famous 1992 book, The European Rescue of the Nation State. Britain stayed out when it thought the Commonwealth could help it rebuild instead. When that turned out to be a delusion too we joined too.

The key word is pragmatism. While Enoch Powell dreamed his silly delusions about green fields and national sovereignty (and, to his credit, he did at least know they were dreams), Ted Heath and Georges Pompideau, the last generation of sensible Europeans, got on with the job of building supranational institutions which stopped war, helped European countries rebuild, slowly increased cooperation. But somewhere along the line the Europeans got carried away with the grand rhetoric as well, creating a single currency (not just a common market) before real economic harmonisation, letting everyone (not just steel workers) move anywhere overnight without equalising wages, imagining we were ‘European citizens’ with few democratic institutions to make citizenship a reality. The European ‘project’ has been taken over by bureaucrats who don’t spend enough time talking to people in the countries where they were born. In reality, there is little European harmony.

What’s worse, sometime in the mid-1990s sensible people in the Labour Party began to believe that being committed to the utopian dream of European integration was a mark of being progressive and modern. It was, I think, a way for a liberal-left that had otherwise made its peace with capitalism to show its difference from Thatcherism. But in doing that, it didn’t notice that for millions of our compatriots, Europe started to be associated with the far too rapid arrival of people we had no connection to. There’s nothing progressive about cheap labour undercutting your living standards.

The tragedy for Labour is that we need to admit that David Cameron has the right strategy. We must renegotiate the free movement of labour, end utopian nonsense about ever-deepening union, and return Europe to being a system of supranational governance not a super state. There’s every chance we’ll find allies in other European countries willing to go down that tack. If we really can’t change Europe – and I think we can – we need to start to wonder if we might after all be better off out.

The tragedy for Britain is that Cameron’s tactics are catastrophic. Caught as he is between Eurosceptic Powellites with their delusions of national sovereignty and the need for pragmatism, Cameron alienates every possible ally. Labour could lead in calling for the reform of Europe in a way the Tories can’t. We will only stem the tide of Powellite populism by returning to a realistic way of thinking about Europe. Until we put away our childish fantasies, and make a hard-headed case for big changes, UKIP will continue to rampage.

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