Euroscepticism and Nationalism: Not Necessarily Allies (2005), by Sean Gabb

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Euroscepticism and Nationalism: Not Necessarily Allies
By Sean Gabb
(A Speech Given to a University Conservative Association in May 2005)

One of the consequences for Britain of the war with Iraq has been the further weakening within our governing classes of enthusiasm for the European Union. This had already been in decline for about 15 years. Decline was brought about in part by the lack of any enthusiasm among the wider public. Though not particularly democratic, ours is a country in which public opinion counts for something. So long as this was indifferent to the arguments for and against, the governing classes could press gradually forward with their project of integration. But indifference has for some years been changing to various shades of hostility; and if even radical transformations can be made in this country without public support, they cannot really be made in the face of settled opposition. In part, though, the governing classes themselves have shared in the change of opinion. While not socialist by any reasonable definition, the European governing classes do believe in levels of state intervention that are incompatible with the existence of an open financial economy; and it is from the City of London that the country as a whole - not to mention the governing classes themselves - ultimately derives its wealth.

The war has not brought, nor will bring, a fundamental change of mind about the European Union. Much rather, it has sharpened doubts that already existed.

In a sense, this is to be welcomed. The greatest actual threat to both our personal freedom and our national independence is membership of the European Union. Whatever contributes to the removal of this threat cannot be ald bad. Nor, however, is it all good. The Eurosceptic movement is a coalition - a coalition of groups, but perhaps still more of individuals. The unifying thread within the movement is the desire somehow to leave the European Union. Beyond this, there is no agreement. For myself, I have always tried to avoid the sectarianism that has brought many of the Internet discussion groups into chaos and disrepute. I have tried to maintain friendly relations with all players in the movement, and will continue to try. This being said, I am strongly aware that many of my friends and comrades within the movement have an agenda wholly different from mine.

I believe, with Enoch Powell - a man I admire more unreservedly the older I grow - that my country should be governed by its own absolutely sovereign institutions, and that our foreign policy should be about securing our own immediate national interests. Others in the movement, however, believe in the notion of an “Anglosphere” - that is, as part of a grouping of nations connected by common language and culture, and working together more or less closely. Some even hope for an eventual expansion of the United States, to take in the United Kingdom and the white Commonwealth.

Now, for reasons to which I will come, I will not dismiss an Anglosphere out of hand. There are points to be made in its favour - especially when compared with our present status within the European Union. Even so, I do think it on the whole a bad idea. Because they are adding their often considerable force to getting us out of the European Union, I praise and honour those who believe in it. Nevertheless, their belief is one that I do not share. Though it involves rejecting the European Union, belief in an Anglosphere is only an alternative within the wider consensus of thought that got us into the European Union - a consensus, moreover, that has contributed much to the undermining of those liberal values that are the true glory of the English-speaking world.

I will explain.

Some time between the two Victorian jubilees, the governing classes of this country began to think of national greatness in terms of world power. From Alfred Milner and Cecil Rhodes and Joseph Chamberlain, through Winston Churchill, to the Webbs and other Fabians,it was agreed that Britain was a world power or it was nothing. The future was believed to lie with the big powers. There was nothing for small nations but to huddle as best they could in the shadows of the greater.

The result of this was a bias of policy toward foreign affairs. The Victorian statesmen came to be despised: Churchill called them somewhere “little men obsessed with little issues”. Political success became increasingly identified with anything that projected British influence and power throughout the world. Domestic issues were regarded as ancillary to this. One of the main inspirations behind the welfare measures of the Asquith Government was the perceived need to create an “imperial nation” - healthy and fit for the challenges of maintaining British power. Those liberals and socialists who had no interest in this maintenance were pushed to the margins of debate. Those who could present their opinions in the appropriate clothing were assured of a respectful hearing. More than a decade before the Italian Government made fascism into a recognised ideology, the British Government was already considering its domestic policy as a matter of balancing the legitimate but conflicting interests of capital and labour to allow an uninterrupted concentration on foreign policy.

The high point of this imperial social democracy came in 1940. The deal on which the Churchill coalition rested was that he and his friends could have their war with Germany, Italy and Japan, and their grand conferences with the Americans and Russians, and the socialists could do as they pleased on the home front - so long as this did not get in the way of fighting the war.

The problem was that the War destroyed the Empire. It undermined the financial domination by the City of London on which the Empire ultimately rested, and raised up two powers that in their various ways dwarfed even the British Empire, let alone an exhausted and semi-bankrupt United Kingdom. At the moment of its greatest success, our imperial ruling class found itself without an empire to rule. No doubt, it retained formal control, even with India gone, over large territories outside the United Kingdom. But these were all drifting in various ways to independence, and could no longer be regarded as contributing real strength to the country. After the 1940s, what remained of the Empire was plainly less an asset than a liability, and the best policy towards it came to be seen as arranging for the most orderly and dignified retreat.

The option now was to try for a partnership with the Americans. They would supply the money and the weapons, we the practical experience and much diplomatic and moral support. Britain could never again be what it had been before 1914, or even before 1939. But, if below America, it could still stand higher in the world than little powers like France and Germany. It could keep its “seat at the top table”.

All seemed to go well at first. As they settled into the Cold War, the Americans found it useful to treat Britain as at least a privileged client. For the first decade after the War, it was still possible to think of Britain as a great power. Large parts of the Empire remained, and those parts given independence  remained mostly in the Commonwealth. British politicians could still go about the world saying and occasionally doing important things.

The dream ended with the Suez Crisis. The peremptory orders given from Washington showed how asymmetric the “special relationship” really was. However Anglophile most American leaders might be, Britain was a client, and should not presume to any independence of policy.

Had there been more politicians at the time like Enoch Powell, that would have been the end of all pretensions to world power. As after 1922, there would have been a shift of focus back to domestic issues. The drain of taxes and moral effort into shoring up an unsustainable imperialism would have been ended. The compromises with organised labour would then have been unnecessary. Taxes and regulations could have been cut, and much greater effort put into restructuring the economy, so that private enterprise could flourish under the burden of the smallest and most efficient welfare state that still satisfied public opinion. We might have had something like the Thatcher reforms 30 years earlier.

Instead, a debate opened between those who continued to believe in an American alliance and those who now looked to Europe to magnify British power - with a moderate position that wanted both. In this debate, Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson were the moderates, and Edward Heath and Hugh Gaitskill the extremists.

Between about 1965 and 1985, the pro-Europeans had the better of the debate. We entered the Common Market, as it was then called, and there seemed no hope for those who were against the project. In the late 1970s, the Conservatives settled their differences, by agreeing on economic reform at home with continued if reluctant membership of the Common Market.

It must be said that the strategy was a good one well into the 1980s. The consensus from the late 1960s was that the power of vested interests - mainly but not exclusively the trade unions - was now so great that the economy could not be restructured by purely domestic effort. Both the first Wilson and the Heath Governments tried to reform industrial relations, and failed. The best hope, it was widely agreed, was to put the country under some external pressure that would take the case for restructuring outside domestic politics. Joining the Common Market did just this. It meant an end to industrial protection and gave an excuse for the eventual ending of industrial subsidies. By 1978, the British market was wide open to competition from more efficient producers in France, Italy and West Germany. Even had Margaret Thatcher lost the 1975 leadership contest, the cosy but stifling arrangements of the 1950s and 60s could not have lasted.

From the middle of the 1980s, however, the usefulness of the European project was over. The Thatcher reforms had turned Britain from about the least to certainly the most liberal economy in the Common Market. At the same time, the Common Market was departing from the economic liberalism of its earlier years and making the rhetoric of federalism into reality. No longer a hindrance to socialism at home, it was hindering continued liberalisation. It was time to leave.

Now, at this point, I should explain - as I doubtless have many times elsewhere - what is so objectionable to the European Union. It is not a conspiracy of foreigners to bring this country down to their own level. It is not a powerful external control on our government comparable to what existed in the old Soviet Empire. It is, much rather, a procedural device by which our own political classes trade favours with domestic interest groups, at our expense and without having to account to us.

It is a notorious fact that the central authorities of the European Union have no practical means of enforcing their will on a member state that chooses to ignore it. There is no way of stopping the Germans from breaching the rules of the European Central Bank. The Spanish can ignore the Common Fisheries Policy, and the Greeks just about everything. If our own authorities enforce every whim of Brussels to - and usually beyond - its letter, it is because those whims benefit some powerful group in our own country. They produce benefits for the officials, for the privileged business interests, and for everyone else who wants to live at our expense but could not do so if we had first to be asked.

According to this analysis, the argument that the European Union can be made more accountable by greater democracy misses the point. Even if a democracy could work across however many different countries will soon be member states, it would be a worthless improvement. As said, the European Union has no real power over how we are governed. It is simply a means by which our own rulers exercise unaccountable power. Getting out will not require some genteel version of the revolt of the Dutch against Spanish rule. The struggle must be wholly domestic.

But, as said, it may not now be much of a struggle.

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