As long as Tories underestimate the ruthlessness of their foes, Britain is in peril

As long as Tories underestimate the ruthlessness of their foes, Britain is in peril

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 27, April, 2020

NEVER IN ITS HISTORY has the European Union been faced with a crisis of such gravity as now, owing to the coronavirus exacerbating the systemic failings of the single currency. But, at the same time, perhaps there has never been such massive disinterest in the currency zone’s woes, at least in Britain.

Remember that our island saw what seemed like an outpouring of pro-EU frenzy as recently as 2018-19. No country had ever witnessed such large pro-EU demonstrations. They were staged in defiance of the decision of a majority to quit the EU.

Now that the EU’s pivotal institution, the common currency, is threatened with dissolution due to the inability to reconcile the needs of its northern and southern members, it might be expected that interest in the drama would be paramount among British Europhiles.

A comparison with the two major C20 world crises Britain found itself in is perhaps instructive. Before joining the EU in 1973 Britain was a powerful beacon for countries that had been founded by British settlers who had moved overseas. Whenever Britain faced threats, there was an enormous stir in such places. In the two World Wars, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other countries identified their own fate with that of Britain.

Hence, it is striking that politicians, journalists and outspoken social media performers who spilled much ink warning about the likely disaster of Britain quitting the EU, have little to say about the very real crisis in ‘the European Homeland’. In Union countries it is different. Rival viewpoints on the Euro’s future are furiously advanced, ranging from an orderly break-up of the single currency – to the creation of a fiscal union enabling funds to be transferred from richer to poorer countries – to Germany being the one to leave because its economic needs clash with those of most other members.

The acute disinterest in Britain as the lockdown frees up busy professionals to devour the news, raises the suspicion that the level of sympathy for the EU and its works is rather less deep than many have assumed. Indeed the outpouring of emotion may have been bound up with a primarily British cultural conflict than with the fate of Europe. Unlike the Commonwealth countries which felt a sense of kinship with Britain, there was nothing of the sort at work in Britain. Instead, the EU was an instrument which enabled people largely outside the working-classes to feel a sense of moral superiority towards the rest of society.

For powerful economic elites the EU was beneficial because it was shaped around a bureaucracy they could influence (and bribe) and wasn’t hobbled by any strong democratic component. For middle-class professionals in the civil service, academia and much of the media, the EU provided, jobs, status, grants and endless consultancies. For people who saw themselves as liberal and cosmopolitan, the EU exuded progressive virtue as well as facilitating cheap labour, easing the burden of their lives. Its workings might be bathed in mystery but it seemed a glamorous and important body compared with Britain...now just a small island unable to count for much in global terms.

As the dispute over Brexit intensified, a number of things became clear perhaps for the first time.  Many in the Leave camp were not antagonistic towards Europe; they merely disliked and feared the growing power of the EU. In turn, many apparently pro-EU people were actually numb to the institution as shown by their inability to mount a passionate defence of it either before or after the 2016 referendum.  However, they actively disparaged certain features of British life that could be summed up as conservative and patriotic and were often scornful towards those millions of working-class English and Welsh people who were comfortable with a British outlook.

I’ve just finished a truly first-rate biography of the Labour politician Peter Shore (1924-2001).  He served in the Wilson and Callaghan governments and wrote three of his party’s electoral manifestos when it was still a force that felt it necessary to reach out to moderate, working people in order to have a chance to rule. He wasn’t ashamed to say from the public platform that he was patriotic, distrusted transnational arrangements, and linked sovereignty with democratic self-government. He warned that European integration was likely to result in German ascendancy in Europe and he was convinced that, when plans for the single currency were first made public, its flaws would weaken Europe. On his gravestone are blazoned the words ‘Democratic Socialist and Champion of British Independence’.

He was unimpressed by Neil Kinnock’s abandonment of Euro-scepticism and he noted that ‘he made no public attempt to explain why he had changed his mind on so many crucial issues’. Senior colleagues in the Labour Party, as well as powerful forces in the British state had, in Shore’s view, simply abandoned their desire to see Britain retain self-government. It was too arduous and their hearts weren’t in it, especially when across the English Channel a new entity was arising which was light in democratic baggage and placed far fewer demands on them. Thus there was little desire to retain the Pound or the Bank of England or the British parliament as the hub of representative government.

The post-national features of the EU undoubtedly appealed to the segment of the population weary of British attachments. But ironically, the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in national border restrictions being hastily imposed across the EU with each country rolling out anti-crisis measures without any reference to Brussels.

In Britain, scepticism about the government’s pandemic strategy mainly comes from outspoken middle-class voices not a few of which have been stridently anti-Brexit. Nicola Sturgeon and now Keir Starmer have been applauded for questioning it and standing apart. Beyond rhetoric and partisan gimmicks, neither has been able to show how they would have done things differently.

While the country observes anxiously the battle with the virus from its confinement, the main opposition leaders have been busy working on their constitutional plans or Britain.  More than ever Labour and the SNP are committed to Britain as a loose alliance of four nations kept afloat by money transfers from the wealthier parts, in other words a mini version of the fiscal union often proposed for the EU.

Starmer has gone further by embracing extensive devolution for England. Fifteen years ago a move to create a regionalised England had been resisted by voters in the North-East who spurned a proposed regional assembly. But it looks as if Starmer won’t be dissuaded. It is not hard to imagine him offering to create a united front with the Liberal Democrats and the SNP in order to deprive the Tories of their electoral majority and then ram through radical constitutional reform. Nor is it hard to envisage the Westminster Parliament ending up even more powerless than it would have been if Britain had stayed in a centralising EU.

The state would become the principal economic engine, except that its authority and competences would be regionally dispersed. Territorial barons would compete noisily for resources, leading to Wars of the Roses-style turf wars.  But factional rivalry would be restrained by a common attachment to eroding civil liberties. Freedom of Information would be abolished. There would be intensifying crackdowns on speech codes allied with the introduction of new criminal offences targeting those who fell foul of left liberal orthodoxy.

Baseless alarmism? Hardly.  In Scotland, this has been the direction of travel for some time.  Sturgeon has already set up a Scottish Investment Fund that is likely to be a tax-based slush fund for SNP projects. Her Justice minister Humza Yousafwith a background in Islamic radicalism, has announced that legislation is on its way that will ensure up to 7 years in prison for those deemed guilty of ethnic, religious or inter-generational hate speech.

Currently, there is a dearth of real opposition in Scotland. The Conservatives have refused to confront Sturgeon over the opportunistic way that she is handling the pandemic. It could be a black day for Britain if Tories at Westminster remain similarly asleep at the wheel: the chances are high that  a ‘progressive front’ will take shape that is determined to make Britain under Starmer and Sturgeon a model for post-democracy that even the EU would be astonished by.  

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divides his time between Cumbria and Scotland. His book on the SNP, Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published in 2016 in paperback and on Kindle. His twitter account is @cultfree54

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