Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

9 December 2011

For the sake of Europe, Britain should hold a referendum on the EU

Conservative politicians have been busy spinning David Cameron’s veto of a new EU treaty last night as indicative of a strong stand in defence of the ‘British national interest’. In reality, it’s a sign of the weakness of the British position. Cameron had no choice other than to veto a treaty because he knew that the political pressure for a referendum on it in the UK would have been irresistible, and that the treaty would almost certainly have been rejected by the British people. As a result, Cameron has jeopardised a deal that might – just might – have saved the euro, on which millions of UK jobs depend. The UK has ended up isolated, and it’s by no means clear that even the hallowed interests of the City have been safeguarded, as under the draft deal agreed last night, it appears that the EU will still be able to impose a financial-transaction tax on the dealings of Eurozone-based banks in London.

All of this could have been avoided if we’d been given an in / out referendum on the EU much earlier, such as when the Lisbon Treaty was ratified. The fact that we weren’t offered this choice is the Labour Party’s fault, as it was they who reneged in government on their manifesto promise to hold a referendum on the EU Constitution, which is what, by common consent, the Lisbon Treaty was in all but name.

And while we’re on the subject of manifesto pledges, the Liberal Democrats, who more than any other party are desperate to avoid a referendum, ought really now to be demanding one. That’s because what was agreed last night is incontrovertibly a fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with the EU, which is what the Lib Dems stated in their last manifesto to be the grounds for justifying an in / out referendum. But have we heard the Lib Dems making any such demands? Of course not. Instead, their leader Nick Clegg is said to be 100% behind the stand taken by the PM last night. Why wouldn’t he be? It was the only way to avoid a referendum.

So the Lib Dems will be going around saying that, as any stricter fiscal rules for the Eurozone will be agreed outside the terms of any existing or new EU-wide treaty, they don’t involve a fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with the EU. And the Tories are saying no referendum is needed because no additional powers have been ceded to the EU, and no treaty has been agreed.

In reality, however, last night’s events have demonstrated the need for a definitive in / out referendum more conclusively than ever, and not just because last night’s deal involves a fundamental shift in the UK’s relationship with the EU. Cameron wouldn’t have been in the position of falling between the two stools of trying to safeguard the euro while at the same time defending the ‘British national interest’ if an earlier referendum had resolved the question of whether the British people believe that even being in the EU in the first place, let alone the euro, is in the British national interest. The problem is the political and business elites want the UK to be in the EU, but the British people – probably in the majority – don’t; so we end up in the ridiculous position of trying to be at once in Europe but not of it.

A referendum would have presented the opportunity for the UK, once and for all, to decide whether we want to be committed members of the EU or to let the EU get on with all the political, economic and fiscal integration they like, but without the UK being on board. Not having had such a referendum means that the UK’s very participation in the EU lacks democratic legitimacy. Consequently, there was absolutely no way Cameron could have committed the UK to yet another treaty without at last giving the British people the opportunity to decide whether we want to be of Europe as well as in it.

But that’s the clarity that’s needed now: not just for the UK and its people, but for the EU and Europe as a whole. The rest of the EU, with the possible exception of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Sweden, is understandably hacked off by David Cameron’s bulldog posturing. They’re defending their own respective national interests, too, after all, the difference being that they – or at least the French and Germans – view a successful euro and further EU integration as being in those interests. And they’re right that a successful euro is at least in the short-term interest of the UK, too, as the euro’s collapse would spell disaster for the UK economy just as much as it would for the Eurozone. So it’s not unreasonable for them to expect the UK to get behind their last-ditch plan to save the euro and to set aside ‘selfish’ national interest – such as protecting the City – in favour of the ‘common good’ of a prosperous Eurozone. It’s just that Cameron has no mandate to make such a deal, because the British political class has avoided seeking one for decades.

However, last night’s events have conclusively demonstrated the need for Britain’s position within, or outside of, the EU to be clarified once and for all, before we move irrevocably to a two-track EU with the UK on the margins. The British people need to know where we’re going with respect to the EU. And the other EU states and Europe as a whole need to know whether the UK is truly behind the EU project and the euro, or not.

Europe needs Britain to decide; the British people demand the right to decide. Will David Cameron finally demonstrate the leadership once shown by his role model, Churchill, and let Britain choose whether it is with or against an EU with Germany at its centre?

English parliament



  1. It’s unfortunately true that almost any referendum in the UK on any question affecting the EU is likely to produce a sizeable majority of No votes, whatever the merits of the question. Those responsible for this lamentable state of affairs include an ignorant and unprincipled media and their extreme right-wing newspaper proprietors, the foolish and lethally short-sighted promise given by the Tories (and now enshrined in UK legislation) to hold a referendum on any treaty change involving a further transfer of powers to Brussels, the cowardly kowtowing by Tory ministers to the know-nothing Europhobes on the Tory back benches, the spineless refusal of their LibDem coalition partners to exercise their implicit veto to prevent last night’s folly in Brussels, a total failure of leadership by all three major parties to encourage better understanding of the importance of our EU membership and the serious dangers of the UK being marginalised in it, and the widespread illusion that Britain can enjoy the benefits of the single market while refusing to accept its management on a collective basis, setting its own national rules regardless of what the rest of Europe is doing, as if the rest of the world will put up with such counter-productive behaviour for more than five minutes.

    Cameron should have agreed to the principle of the proposed treaty so that Britain wouldl have a seat at the table when the majority of the EU decide on the new rules for regulation of the financial sector and the management of the new core fiscal union. All three parties should then have campaigned vigorously for a Yes vote in the referendum that Tory folly has made unavoidable in such circumstances. As it is, we have the worst of all possible worlds: 23 (or possibly 25) of the 27 EU members, including the three most powerful, will now make the EU’s fiscal rules and policies and Britain will have no say at all in the process. How anyone can imagine that this will somehow protect UK interests is a total mystery. It’s a sad day for Britain.

    Comment by Brian Barder — 9 December 2011 @ 7.11 pm | Reply

    • Brian, thanks for the comment. It won’t surprise you that I agree with some and strongly disagree with other parts of what you say! We should really have had a referendum on Maastricht, which was when the EU was founded; and then again during the Lisbon Treaty negotiations, where Labour betrayed their election promise. Maastricht is when what we previously did have a vote on – the European Economic Community (a trade bloc) – became a project for full-scale European Union, in every sense: ultimately, driving towards a federal European superstate. That’s the fundamental division between the europhile and eurosceptic camps. The eurosceptics – which I count myself as, in a qualified way – still see the purpose of the EU as being primarily just about trade and economics (the Single European Market). But the UK has never been given the opportunity to decide whether we wish to be part of the ‘Union’ project (supra-national European integration), and that’s why a mandate must now be sought, 25 years too late: do we want to be part of a federal Europe or not?

      The economics can take care of themselves following a decision of the fundamental question.

      Comment by David — 10 December 2011 @ 7.13 am | Reply

      • Of course I understand the point of view that you articulate and even have a certain amount of reluctant sympathy with it. But even when the EU was just the EEC, the underlying ambition of its original founders (who of course did not include Britain) was always as much political as economic and commercial, namely to create a Europe of nations so closely linked in a new kind of association as to make any future war between them completely unthinkable — an aim which has already largely been achieved. There have always been elements in Europe who have dreamed of the eventual creation of what Churchill envisaged, with his strong approval, as “a United States of Europe” while others, including hitherto the French and of course the British, have always seen it as a “Europe des patries”. Because of the rampant nationalism of France and Britain, I have always hitherto assumed that the latter would prevail. But the creation of the eurozone and now its enormous crisis, which can be resolved if at all by turning it into what will almost amount to a single country with its own government, along with the global credit and banking crises and the crisis over sovereign debt, have changed everything. How the Eurozone now develops will determine the future of the whole EU, which in turn will have a massive impact on the interests and prosperity of the UK, as well as much of the rest of the world. For us to surrender our seat at the table where the future shape of the European Union is going to be worked out, giving up any influence over its outcomes and any ability to forge alliances which could help to protect our vital interests, marginalising ourselves before a single shot has even been fired, stalking out of the room before the negotiations have even begun, making enemies of virtually every other one of the 26 other members of this extraordinary and unique association — this must be the biggest blunder since the appeasement of the 1930s, potentially exceeding in folly even the Suez, Iraq and Afghanistan misadventures. It represents a tragic and contemptible abdication of national leadership by any of our three UK party leaders and almost criminal cowardice in the face of the cynical and bone-headed British tabloids and the head-bangers on the Tory back benches. It’s hard to see how Cameron’s leadership and the coalition with the LibDems can survive such a disaster, as its dreadful consequences begin to become clear.

        The central illusion is that by opting out of the impending further development of the EU and the eurozone, Britain can chart its own course without being affected by what is happening across the Channel. In practice every part of our economy will be dominated by events in Europe over which we have now, completely needlessly, surrendered any influence.

        Comment by Brian Barder — 10 December 2011 @ 12.53 pm

      • Well, there I do agree with you, Brian. It was pointless to rule the UK out of the negotiations. Negotiations are negotiations: committing oneself to negotiations does not equate to committing oneself to an agreement.

        I think he did it because he realised that if he negotiated in good faith towards a treaty, he’d have no alternative other than to offer us a referendum if a treaty were actually agreed. And that’s something he was too scared to allow (in case the treaty was rejected by the electorate, meaning his credibility would be blown and he would have to resign, plus the coalition would collapse). That’s his real cowardice, I agree; and it’s been the cowardice of all our leaders since Maastricht: they haven’t had the guts to make a stand for what they believe in and ask the people for a mandate to support the ongoing process of EU integration. Perhaps ultimately because they don’t really believe in it themselves.

        Comment by David — 10 December 2011 @ 7.39 pm

  2. You are perfectly right, David, that Cameron has done nothing to protect the interests of the City of London, which might encourage the City of London, as one of the only prosperous areas of the UK to call for greater independence from the UK and England. London is already a multicultural city and one that increasingly sees the UK and England as a drain on its wealth. No doubt it especially fears European control.

    Comment by Ian Kershaw — 10 December 2011 @ 6.12 pm | Reply

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