Not so splendid Isolation: The UK and the EU


Europe has been a neuralgic issue in UK politics for four decades, ever since the then Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, took the state into the then Common Market, alongside the Republic of Ireland and Denmark.

While one positive outcome of that coincident accession has been the rapprochement between Britain and Ireland, transcending a century marked by nationalist antagonisms (now quarantined in Northern Ireland), the UK never learned from the experience that there are other ways of organising society and doing politics — Denmark’s welfare model, for example — than those long taken for granted at home.

The Four Tropes of British Politics

Four such longstanding domestic tropes stand out:

  • a ‘classical’ English approach to political economy, rooted in the thinking of Adam Smith (and not John Maynard Keynes) and embodied in the dominant ‘Treasury view’;
  • a ‘liberal’ approach to the welfare state, characterised by means-testing of benefits and a commitment to low taxation;
  • a patrician approach to governance, marked by dominance of the executive (‘the Crown in Parliament’) and lack of judicial constraint on ‘parliamentary sovereignty’; and
  • a ‘realist’ approach to international relations — ‘no friends, only interests’ — associated with a transfer of allegiances from the countries of the former empire to the ‘special relationship’ with the US.

Just how deep-seated these four features are is indicated by the fact that the first two were only contested in the particular circumstances of the immediate post-war years, when Keynesian economics and Beveridgian welfare prevailed. Even then, the Attlee administration was no less committed to the domestic and foreign political architecture — a British nuclear ‘deterrent’ among them — embodying the third and fourth elements. By the late 1950s, the now dominant Conservatives felt able to introduce a deflationary budget and the social-insurance principles of the Beveridge report were steadily eroded under governments of either persuasion, in favour of selective ‘social security’ benefits.

These four aspects were never going to sit easily with widely-held assumptions on the European mainland. While not all would share the étatism of the post-war French governing class, nevertheless even on the Christian-democratic centre right there was a recognition that markets had to be socially embedded to avoid the searing experience of deflation and mass unemployment which had been associated with the rise of Nazism and the onset of war. And while not all would endorse the Nordic welfare states, with their universal benefits funded by progressive taxation, the alternative was the insurance-based Bismarckian system, introduced to dampen worker alienation, rather than an Anglo-American minimalism based on faith in ‘flexible’ labour markets.

While there was respect for the long tradition of democracy in Britain, with its ‘mother of parliaments’, the absence of a written constitution for the UK was incomprehensible to most elsewhere, as was the British belief in the merits of a winner-takes-all electoral system, in sharp contrast with European-style coalition-building. And while British trumpeting of values of tolerance and freedom would also not have been discounted, the subservience (and associated delusion) of the UK’s Atlanticism was a mystery to many.

And so the conflicts inevitably followed, over the decades succeeding UK accession, the periodic eruptions beginning when that nationalist evangel for market fundamentalism, Margaret Thatcher — having displaced Heath, whom she disdained, as Tory leader — entered Downing Street in 1979.

And they were to be over predictable issues:

  • ‘our’ money, as Thatcher banged the table for a rebate on its contribution to the resources necessary for the European Community to function;
  • the mild ‘social chapter’ of the Maastricht Treaty and the working-time directive, from which the UK opted out for ideological reasons;
  • the establishment of the euro, deemed to undermine the City of London and sterling as a ‘global currency’;
  • the provenance of the European Court of Human Rights, as against the national ‘margin of appreciation’, on issues such as the right to vote of UK prisoners, and
  • the ‘fiscal compact’ to save the eurozone (although of course it might have been designed to secure the opposite outcome).

These inchoate conflicts were inflamed by (themselves unregulated) red-top media, which seemed unable to address European integration except in the aerated language of ‘Brussels’ impositions — ‘straight bananas’ among them — presented as defying British ‘common sense’. The capacity of ‘Europe’ to destabilise UK politics was manifested in the split in the Labour Party in the early 1980s and in the sharp tensions it evoked in the Conservative Party in the early 1990s, still evident today.

Britain’s Understanding of World War II

Underpinning all this has been the dominant narrative in Britain of World War II. This is not of a Europe rescued (including with the sacrifice of 20 million Soviet citizens) from the fascist Sword of Damocles but is a story of how ‘Britain stood alone’ against its main national enemy: historically this was France but since World War I had been Germany. Fascism, and the political alternatives to it, only entered this story in the superficial demonising features of helmets, swastikas and the pidgin German (‘Achtung’, ‘Jawohl’) which entered countless children’s comic books.

Elsewhere in Europe, the political lesson bitterly learned through the Holocaust was of the need to subordinate particularistic identity claims and their aggressive prosecution against the ‘other’ to a regime guaranteeing universal norms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law — the ‘epistemological break’ that turned western Europe from the most violent region on the planet in the first half of the 20th century into a haven of peace in the second. What Britain ‘learned’ however was merely a reinforcement of its supposed national mission in the world, embodied in beliefs in its inherent stoicism at home and acceptance of the White Man’s Burden abroad.

And ‘Britain’ needs decoding. In fact the UK was and, despite devolution under ‘New’ Labour, remains dominated by the political culture of the home counties. In the disadvantaged and disempowered regions and small nations of the UK, less reflex Europhobia was evident —including as these became beneficiaries of EU structural funding — insulated as to some degree they were from the full-blown, ‘Queen and country’, English nationalist self-image. But these subaltern stories, around class and community, were always subordinate.

Labour has failed to articulate a viable, counter-hegemonic narrative. ‘New’ Labour bought hook, line and sinker the dominant nationalist tale, from Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia’ to Brown’s attempt to articulate a set of somehow ‘British’ values. Labour’s Europhile wing, notably the towering intellect of David Marquand, had been sloughed off with the SDP. And the ‘Orange Book’ economic liberalism now predominating in the Liberal Democrats has allowed them to accommodate David Cameron’s young-fogey Euroscepticism — however disastrously for the party — rather than building a bridge to Labour.

Ed Miliband has struck effective blows against the Tories — over phone-hacking and Cameron’s friends in the Murdoch press and the we-can’t-really-be-in-this-together budget from the chancellor, George Osborne. But he has yet to construct an overarching vision, which has to include advocating European, not just British, solutions to the global crisis — a crisis which the lemming-like pursuit of austerity by Europe’s conservatives has severely exacerbated.

He has a great opportunity to do so, between now and the next European and Westminster elections. Let’s go back to those four deeply embedded ‘national’ themes and how Miliband needs to reconstruct them.

First, as John Palmer has indicated, Osborne recognises that the UK’s economic fate cannot be dissociated from that of the eurozone. But the 2008 crash and consequent recession has demonstrated, just like the 1930s depression, that the capitalist tiger must be tamed, not tickled. The UK therefore needs to engage fully in the pursuit of solidaristic European solutions to the crisis, including making the ECB a lender of last resort, the issuance of eurobonds and the re-regulation of the financial institutions. Miliband has to say that only a more robustly integrated union — fiscal as well as monetary — can make Europe a port of stability against unprecedented global economic storms. An isolated UK, refusing to abandon faith in unregulated markets, can only be a cork bobbing sickly on the open economic seas.

Secondly, Miliband has to extricate Labour from the socially illiterate language of ‘targeting’ the poor — with the associated stigmatisation of welfare ‘dependents’ — which ‘New’ Labour accepted. This only leads to a vicious downward spiral of tax aversion, social mistrust and increasing indignities for the socially marginalised. ‘New’ Labour’s biggest success was Sure Start and the increasingly universal idea of children’s centres. The Nordic model is based on such universal, family-friendly services, high employment and dual-career families, and Miliband has to point the UK towards that higher social ground, stressing how it is only on the basis of labour-market security — including a European-wide minimum wage — that employees can be citizens and not mere hired hands.

Thirdly, Miliband has to make the case for an end to English ‘muddling through’ on the constitution, with all its anomalies like the House of Lords and the ‘West Lothian’ Scottish question and the worrying lack of policy exchange among the post-devolution jurisdictions. Labour should recommend a written constitution — one of the first proposals from the Institute for Public Policy Research when it was set up as a Labour-supporting think tank many years ago — which officially recognises that the UK is now a decentralised state (with Northern Ireland enjoying a special relationship with the Republic of Ireland) like others in Europe, in which the citizen is sovereign rather than subject. A key element should be to replace the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system by the additional member system used in Germany, as well as Scotland and Wales — it was only FPTP that made the Thatcher (and Reagan) neo-liberal revolution possible on minority votes. The recently established Supreme Court would be custodian of this constitution.

Last but not least, Miliband has to abandon ‘New’ Labour’s infatuation with the American ‘New’ Democrats — with all the associated fetishisation of polls and focus groups — and firmly place the UK geo-politically in a European framework. He should build on Robin Cook’s idea of ‘an ethical dimension’ to foreign policy to support progressive stances by the European institutions on the global stage. He should advance in this context an idea of human security, where the UK would act with its European colleagues in line with UN mandates, taking the opportunity to abandon costly commitments — especially the replacement of Trident nuclear submarines — associated with inflated notions of Britain’s ‘global role’. He should, for instance, press the role of the EU as a neutral broker in the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

These progressive stances would win the support across the UK of many outside Labour — in the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the NGOs, and among members of the ethnic-minority and small-national communities. Labour can only expect to return to power at Westminster at the head of such a broader coalition of support. Unless Miliband recognises how ‘Europe’ joins the dots of the progressive narrative, he will fail to construct this winning progressive majority.

This column is part of the ‘Britain in Europe’ debate jointly organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung London and Social Europe Journal.