Labour’s only chance of forming a government in 2020 is if the Conservatives mess up somehow. Instead of having a proper post-defeat analysis by the leadership, the party has effectively declared 2015 as Year Zero with Day One as the 12th September. The party’s past has been consigned to an Orwellian memory-hole.
But enough about Labour’s unelectability. Criticising the former so-called ‘People’s Party’ is far too easy these days, especially now that its activists and supporters seem to be helping out in this task in any way they possibly can.
How could the Tories mess up? Well, they could start serious in-fighting over that old favourite, Europe. A split party is a sure-fire vote-loser and the Tories have form in this area. Of the major UK-wide political parties, only the Conservatives have performed the unrecognised public service of actually debating for several decades to the point of self-destruction the future of Britain’s relations with that troublesome landmass that starts 20.5 miles from the Kent coast.
By contrast, The Liberal Democrats slavishly support closer integration with Europe in a manner not too different from the submissive partner in an unequal and consensually-abusive relationship. Labour alternates between opposing Europe when it decides it wants to set up a siege economy and embracing it when it realises that its supranational institutions may be dominated by left-wing politicians, who can introduce socialism by the back door even when socialists are out of office in the UK.
Observant readers may notice I am not referring to the European Union. This is because some of the unpopular decisions handed down by Brussels, Strasbourg or somewhere in between are not actually made by the EU, but by the completely separate European Court of Human Rights, the organisation that fights for the rights of terrorists and convicted criminals. It does seem ironic that the only European country that actually restored human rights to a continent that did not have the collective will to do so itself is regularly lectured on civil liberties by jurists whose forebears did not pay the blood-price for the freedom to do so. Some people are just never grateful.
But it is the membership and engagement by Britain with the EU that is the cause of much friction within the Conservative Party to the point that it caused a split, but of a magnitude lesser than that which Labour experienced in 1981. The Conservative’s version of the SDP is called UKIP, and, just like Roy Jenkins’s brainchild, is mainly to the right of the host party it emerged from, although curiously it does seem to be able to hoover up Labour votes in some constituencies.
The consequence of the rise of UKIP is that the Conservatives were obliged to offer the British electorate something Westminster politicians have successfully avoided doing for two decades: a referendum on membership of the EU. Indeed the late father of the Conservative’s candidate for Mayor of London set up a party to force Westminster to do this, contributing in a small way to the Conservative’s own Year Zero in 1997.
Politicians, unless they are Scottish nationalists, hate referendums. As people paid to make decisions, they believe that having a popular vote encroaches on their territory. The voters don’t much like them either. People elect politicians to make unpopular decisions so those in office can be blamed and abused when things go wrong. Having a referendum means people have no-one else to blame but themselves. And people have never liked blaming themselves when things go wrong. Much better to attack the person who was placed on the pedestal.
But what is the EU actually for these days? That is a large part of the problem. While it is relatively easy to characterise the main UK-wide political parties consistently over decades – Labour:socialism, Conservatives:capitalism, Liberal Democrats:capitalisty social-ishm – the EU is a bit like a butterfly in that it is a product of metamorphosis with considerably more stages and never stops changing. The European Economic Community, whose continued membership the British people voted on in 1975, is not the same as the EU we now find ourselves in.
The EU, as it is now called, started life in the 1950s when European politicians looked at the ruins of a continent that had ravaged itself over a period of 31 years from 1914 to 1945 and came to the conclusion that something a bit more than diplomacy and Article 51 of the UN charter was needed to prevent another war in Europe. By this time, Europe had ceded its wealth and economic power to the USA by conducting two ruinous wars. It is hard to believe these days, but in 1913, the aggregate GDP of Western Europe was double that of the USA. One century later it is now about half. The fact that Europeans turned on each other in not one, but two continent-wide conflicts that escalated into global conflagrations has to be the major contributory factor to this decline. It is also instructive that in both wars the USA played a decisive part in saving democracy in Europe and went on to preserve it during the Cold War. The contrast in power and influence between the Europes at the end of the twentieth century and the Belle Époque at the end of the nineteenth is stark and depressing.
The first stage in the creation of the EU was the European Coal and Steel Community, designed to pool natural resources primarily located in Eastern France, Belgium and Western Germany such that there would be no need to go to war over them. Looking back from our era of many and varied cross-border organisations, both governmental and otherwise, it may be hard to comprehend a world where these were almost completely absent. National sovereignty was almost absolute and was only compromised out of necessity. Regular summits were unheard of.
This community evolved from its primary purpose of preventing war to avoiding communism rising through the ballot box or otherwise. It got a new name, the European Economic Community. Rather than perform a continent-wide McCarthy-style witch-hunt, the EEC promoted economic integration such that no member would experience a financial shock so severe and prolonged that extremists could profit, as they had in the 1930s. It did this in part by having the richer countries subsidise the poorer ones through various regional aid schemes and the Common Agricultural Policy.
This was highly relevant at the time because the continent was divided by the Iron Curtain, east of which all the countries were obliged by their Soviet conquerors to be vicious communist dictatorships of one kind or another. Elections were rigged and popular uprisings were put down by Soviet tanks. Secret police agents and informers destroyed family and social life. It has to be remembered that at the time it was largely believed that the economic performance of the countries that were in thrall to Marxism-Leninism was on a par with their capitalist counterparts and as such the ‘exploitation’ of the proletariat by capitalism was indefensible. This propaganda did not clearly explain why every communist country had to deploy security services to keep people from fleeing. Meanwhile, an increasing number of people in Britain could travel on package holidays to Marbella and no-one seemed to mind if they didn’t come back, even if they were wanted for armed robbery.
The sorry state of these Eastern European countries that was put on show once communism collapsed, riven by pollution, official corruption and state violence, indicated that these ‘workers paradises’ were just the product of leftist propaganda or wishful thinking by the ideologically committed. However the EEC, along with NATO, held the line against Soviet expansionism by demonstrating that capitalism created wealth for all and was willing to defend itself in battle.
As a supranational organisation designed to prevent war by establishing a Franco-German political and economic axis or as a continent-wide free-trade and mutual economic assistance association of democratic states facing off against a genuine Soviet political and military threat, the EEC made sense.
Then disaster happened.
The Cold War ended with the collapse of the USSR and peace broke out across the continent. Well, with the exception of the Balkans, but it is not to trivialise genocide to say that this was to be more or less expected.
Germany unified and the Soviets withdrew their tanks. Suddenly NATO was without an adversary and the EEC, as it then was, faced a crossroads. That there was work to do was undoubted. A slew of former communist countries had overthrown the Marxist yoke and needed guidance and support to make the transition to free-market economies with multi-party democracies. But there were problems ahead as well. Germany’s neighbours were apprehensive about the prospect of a unified and resurgent Germany. What was to become of the EEC?
We know the answer. It became the EU, dedicated to ‘ever closer union’ to end up in all probability as Churchill’s ‘United States of Europe’. The EU is now a legal international entity with its own ambassadors. Unfortunately, while there were clear national interests in promoting international development and a free-trade bloc while also avoiding war and communism, the creation of a European superstate does not seem to have the same appeal.
Indeed, this superstate has failed several of the the kind of challenges that proper countries face. The euro currency has been a disaster for any member state that is not Germany, dragging down the continent’s economy and replacing democratically-elected politicians in the worst afflicted states with appointed technocrats. Genocide in the Balkans was not halted by anything the EU did until the USA got involved. The recent immigration crisis has caused Southern and Eastern European countries to rip up unilaterally the provisions about freedom of travel and institute border controls. The much-vaunted free trade agreements have resulted in multinational corporations making profits by selling goods and services to the sixty-plus millions who live in the UK but declaring those profits for tax purposes for the benefit of the half-million or so who reside in tiny Luxembourg. The president of the European Commission used to be the finance minister for this tiny tax shelter. The continuing eastwards expansion of this German-dominated economic and political bloc has to be causing alarm in Russia and must be a contributory factor in Putin’s westward expansion to neutralise a Ukraine that was clearly falling into the EU’s sphere of influence and robbing him of a his final buffer state against the West.
The democratic arrangements for this proto-superstate strongly resemble the failed political institutions of Wilhelmine Germany than any more accountable model, like the one we have in Westminster. This analogue of the Kaiser’s Reichstag is European Parliament that has regular democratic elections, a huge debating chamber, but its powers are obscure and it has no veto over decisions made by the unelected executive branch, the European Commission, whose members are appointed by governments, much in the same way that Imperial Germany was run by the Kaiser’s cronies. ‘Mitteleuropa’ seems to have arrived a century after it was first mooted.
The elections to the European Parliament are used, in the UK at least, as a nationwide opinion poll on the performance of the government, plus also a measure of the public’s displeasure with the EU. As it seems to have zero effect on policy, the results of these elections sometimes jar with the outcome of general elections. In 2009 the elections returned two MEPs for the BNP and had UKIP take the second-largest share of the vote. The general election the following year saw neither the BNP or UKIP gain a seat in Parliament, although the different voting systems were also a contributory factor. The European elections of 2014 saw UKIP take 26 per cent of the vote and 24 seats. In the general election it had slumped to 12.9 per cent on a higher turnout but only one seat, which was held by a Tory defector.
In no way at all do the electorate connect voting in the European Parliamentary elections with any outcome that actually affects them. What does not make sense is an EU that has a total revenue of £113 billion apparently spends zero to actually explain what its parliament actually does. People seem to have to pull information about the European Parliament instead of it being pushed out. Such information about the parliament’s function would be by its nature politically neutral as it would be a technical explanation. And yet we are given nothing. Instead, over the years, we have had leaflets about domestic precautions during nuclear war and the threat of AIDS, as well as a letter of apology from Alastair Darling for losing a copy of our childrens’ welfare records in the post.
In fact, the only argument put forward by the pro-EU faction apparently led by Lord Mandelson and Kenneth Clarke is the number of jobs that depend on the membership of the EU. The implication is that were the UK to leave the EU that these jobs would be terminated as easily as the turning off of a light switch. That is a blatant threat of economic warfare. The Pro-EU camp seem to have nothing else.
This simply reduces the function of the EU to a rather expensive protection racket.
In addition, this is Britain we are talking about here. This is the country that has seen off every single attempt by European coalitions to gang up on it over the last 500 years or so. We are the accomplished masters at dealing with things like this. The quickest way to make us British decidedly anti-EU is to threaten us. The EU and its supporters here have been doing just that for decades. Every other country in Europe has a national heritage of moral and spiritual defeat by having to endure domination by force by a foreign power, except one. That is us. This may explain why other European populations more or less accept the benign domination of the EU. It’s just like old times for them. But not for us. Being routinely ordered around by an unelected technocrat from a foreign country is alien to us.
The agenda for reform of the EU is being driven not by a natural desire of the Brussels technocrats to evolve to face new global circumstances but because, if David Cameron does not get reform he wants, he will likely recommend we leave the EU at the referendum. A threat to leave the EU seems to be the only method to drive change. But this threat cannot be deployed every time change of a kind not favoured by Brussels technocrats is required. The fact that it requires a threat to leave by a major economy to drive change condemns the EU as excessively inflexible and wilfully ignorant of the desires of the populations and governments that comprise it. The EU clearly needs to evolve to address this, just as it has to acknowledge the desire of some countries not to work towards ‘ever closer union’.
So should we stay or should we go? Leave or Remain? The EU must make a better case than threatening UK jobs and has to demonstrate it can reform without having the threat of a major economy to leave forcing it to do so. At present it is not making a positive case and the status quo is unsustainable given the economic mess it has plunged Europe into. Despite all the rhetoric on both sides of the argument, there are still too many unknown unknowns.
The EU needs to try harder to make its case, and soon. It should also have a method of doing so more regularly than every 40 years or so. Governments have to make a case every few years to be re-elected and so should the EU. If it fails to make a positive case, then there is no reason for us to remain in this rather overpriced club.