The UK referendum about membership of the European Union takes place in 12 days – and the latest poll has those intending to vote to leave the European Union a full ten points ahead.
If this is translated on 23 June into actual votes, the knock-on political effects in Europe will be profound – let alone the economic effects globally……
I therefore want to devote the next few posts to the question of how we got to this point – drawing on personal experience first in the 1960s of trying to understand what we then called “The Common Market”, then in the early 1970s on some recollections of the terms of the debate which took place as successive British governments first negotiated entry (Conservative) and then (under Labour in 1975) managed the referendum which resulted in a resounding support for British membership.
I remember listening on the radio to Hugh Gaitskell’s speech to the 1962 Labour Party Conference in which he strongly rejected the idea of joining the “European Economic Community” - claiming that Britain's participation would mean
"the end of Britain as an independent European state, the end of a thousand years of history!" He added: "You may say, all right! Let it end! But, my goodness, it's a decision that needs a little care and thought."
Vernon Bogdanor did us a great service earlier in the year by taking us back to that period more than 50 years ago when key British figures were articulating their responses to the early stages of European integration – in the early 1970s it was the Conservative Party (including Margaret Thatcher) which was most enthusiastic about entry – the Labour party the most antagonistic…the reverse of the present situation.....
In the past few weeks I’ve been following the discussions and have selected one article as offering the best insights -
If Brexit happens, with all the chaotic and uncoordinated consequences it will have for both Europe and Britain, it won’t be because the leave campaign has the better arguments: it absolutely hasn’t. Or because the weight of evidence is on its side: it emphatically isn’t. Or because it is clear what Brexit actually means: it’s a complete leap in the dark. Or because it is masterfully led: that’s not true either.
If Brexit wins, it will be because a majority of British voters have simply lost confidence in the way they are governed and the people they are governed by.
That loss of confidence is part bloody-mindedness, part frivolity, part panic, part bad temper, part prejudice. But it is occurring – if it is – in a nation that has always prided itself, perhaps too complacently, on having very different qualities: good sense, practicality, balanced judgment, and a sure instinct for not lurching to the right or left.Why is it so hard to persuade the British electorate that a corner of the globe in which such quantities of blood have been spilled for centuries, and where life is mostly incredibly secure, is better off together not apart?
We can all write about a Brexit vote being part of a wider trend in modern politics. It’s about globalisation, the crisis of capitalism, widening inequality, fear of the other, rejection of political elites, and the empowerment of the web. Up to a point, these things are all present in the Brexit campaign.And there is no question either that the EU is far from perfect, not working in fundamental ways, failed in some particulars, too easily beguiled by the head-in-the-sand centralising notion of “more Europe”, and scandalously passive about the needs of its people.
The EU certainly has to change. And yet if Britain walks away, it will be an act of immense political impulsiveness by one of the last countries in Europe that many would expect to behave that way. France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Hungary maybe, according to the old stereotypes. But Britain? How come?
We need to be far more honest and questioning about the specifically British things that underlie such an irrational and irresponsible impulse. British opinion is where it is on Europe because it is paying the price of past and present bad political habits.
· There has been no British prime minister, not even Tony Blair, who thought of Europe as “us” rather than “them”. Margaret Thatcher set the template in her campaign for the budget rebate. Ever since British ministers have gone to Brussels to stop things, get opt-outs, cut budgets and scupper common projects. We have never had the confidence to be a team player rather than act the diva. David Cameron’s EU reform package is merely the latest example. Even Blair, who was certainly more comfortable in Europe, preferred to talk about Britain leading rather than playing its part. And we are reaping what they all sowed.
· We are paying the price of our media. British journalism thinks of itself as uniquely excellent. It is more illuminating to think of it as uniquely awful. Few European countries have newspapers that are as partisan, misleading and confrontational as some of the overmighty titles in this country. The possibility of Brexit could only have happened because of the British press – if there were no other good reason for voting to remain, the hope of denying the press their long-craved triumph on Europe would suffice for me. But Brexit may also happen because of the infantilised and destructively coarse level of debate on social media too.
· It’s payback time too for our failure to modernise and regenerate our politics. Modern Britain is ensnared by a complacent view of the past. We are not a democratic republic, with shared values, rights and institutions, a common culture and an appropriate modesty about our place in our region and the world. Ours remains a post-feudal state on to which various democratic constraints have been bolted through history. We therefore lack a shared culture, a settled civic sense, a proper second chamber, symmetrical devolution, effective local democracy and, until the human rights act, a clear and enforceable code of citizens’ rights – which of course the anti-Europeans wish to abolish.
Maybe remain will win in the end. I still just about trust the people to get it right on the night. But unless, and until, this country stops being so passive about these tenacious bad political habits, a remain win won’t make as much difference as it should, and we will continue to sneer and snigger our way towards becoming a broken Britain in a broken Europe.
Ps The Dublin Review of Books had a useful overview of the debate which had been conducted in the pages of The Guardian......
Here’s Boffy’s take - https://boffyblog.blogspot.ro/2016/06/the-core-vote-will-win-it-for-brexit.html - part of a series of posts he's been writing giving a marxist slant on the issue of UK membership of the European Union
The cartoon which heads the post is a wonderful one from 1900 whose text is also worth reading - showing the assumptions being made in UK about the motives and attitudes of the various political players