Why the British left must engage with Europe

Labour needs to re-think its position on Europe. Time to blow off the dust from Tom Nairn's unparalleled 1972 essay on Britain and what was then an infant EU.

Picking through the detritus of twitterings and commentary on The Speech, I came across the remarkable book-length essay, The Left Against Europe, penned in 1972 by Tom Nairn, the redoubtable Scottish new left thinker. Although its Marxian analytical framework is now dated beyond repair, it is replete with startlingly original insights into the relationship between Britain (or ‘Ukania’ as he would come to call it) and the nascent European Union.

Nairn’s essay documents how the Conservative party, assiduously supported by William Rees-Mogg from the editor’s chair at The Times, reached for incorporation in the European common market as it struggled to rescue Britain’s ailing industrial capitalism and secure the future of the flourishing City city-state; and how the British left, in contrast, largely turned its face against Europe in favour of the nation, the Commonwealth, and the claim of ancient democratic right against what it saw as the emergent continental corporate monolith. Not content with savaging the Labour party for ‘putting nation before class’, Nairn then turned his fire on the Marxist left in all its gory groupuscules for traducing its internationalist intellectual traditions by embracing national Euroscepticism.

Nairn made an innovative and in many ways unique case for the broad left to open out to Europe and not to remain camped on the terrain of the nation state. It has few parallels I can think of, even on the pro-European right of the Labour party in the 1970s. His analysis also helps us understand why Powellite Euroscepticism was defeated by Heath, only to be gradually rehabilitated to the point where it is now the mainstream view in the Conservative party.

Heath and his fellow pro-Europeans attained their political spurs in the post-war era of social market and Keynesian hegemony in Britain and Europe. They could not help but admire the dynamism and broadly shared prosperity of western Europe. They wished for its corporatism and constructive industrial relations. They saw Europe as the means to securing Britain’s strategic foreign policy goals after the debacle of Suez. Above all, they believed it would help to cure Britain’s post-war economic malaise of apparently remorseless decline.

The failure of Heath’s government, and Labour’s subsequent last ditch efforts to solve the crises of post-war Keynesianism, swept all that aside. Thatcher administered the last rites to post-war Conservative corporatism, and one-by-one the heirs of the pro-European cause fell by the wayside. Only the most resilient pro-European party grandees – Ken Clarke and Lord Heseltine – still survive anywhere remotely near the centre of power in the Conservative party.

Today, Conservatives want the EU out of the way so that they can finish the job: to remove the protections that Europe affords working people so that they can be more forcibly inserted into the ‘global race’, and to throw off the shackles of European environmental policies. This is fantasy political economy, of course. The idea that Switzerland and Norway are competitive surplus economies because they are outside of the EU is nonsense, while another dose of paleo-liberalism for a UK economy denuded of its foreign-owned manufacturers will be the death knell for most advanced economic activity north of the Watford Gap.

But it goes a long way to explaining why the post-Thatcherite Conservative party is so comfortable with its Euroscepticism. There remain those sincerely motivated by the traditional imperial Tory claims of sovereignty and English (for it is largely English) self-government. But what enables those claims to flourish in the mainstream of the right, and not at its margins, is the particular configuration of economic ideologies and interests the modern Conservative party sustains.

Labour’s trajectory after Wilson’s tactical embrace of a referendum in 1972 was a very different one. Much of the commentary in recent days has held up Wilson’s example as a cautionary tale to Cameron: beware the deep split to come after the sugar rush of temporary unity. Cameron may yet have stumbled on his own Corn Laws moment – we shall see in the fullness of time – but it should be registered that Europe was a contributing factor to Labour’s 1980s rupture, and not its cause. The fundamental issue was whether Labour would choose socialism or social democracy. Eventually it chose the latter and made its peace with Europe along the way. A residual Euroscepticism reappeared as the Maastricht treaty was being debated, but it had largely withdrawn again by the time Bryan Gould, an otherwise unimpeachable Labour moderniser, gave up the fight and decamped to New Zealand. The wider Labour movement was won around by Jacques Delors, whose social market extensions of workers’ rights gave Britain’s trade unions a reason to commend the EU, not condemn it. By 1997, Labour Euroscepticism was reduced to a rump of usual suspects.

Yet true enthusiasm for Europe was a relatively rare thing on the Labour benches. Many of those who accompanied Roy Jenkins into the lobbies to support Britain’s membership of the common market also followed him into the Social Democratic party. So Labour, as it entered office after its wilderness years, was left with few intellectual and political resources with which to engage with the European question. Europe never formed a core part of its identity or political project, and Tony Blair’s enthusiasm for Europe was tempered by his grasp of the popular resentment for the EU, a vituperative press and Gordon Brown’s unyielding euro-realism. This left Labour to govern its relations with Europe in a largely technocratic mode, interrupted only by moments of historic common purpose (eastern enlargement) or rancorous division (Iraq).

Democracy – particularly of the participatory kind – has always been a weak flank of social democratic parties, accustomed as they are by politics to fighting on difficult terrains that demand unity, and by ideology and tradition to a certain kind of leftish managerialism. At different times in Labour’s history these predispositions and practices have been challenged, both by internal forces – like the guild socialist movements in the 20th century and the Blue Labour one now – and external ones, like the New Left of the 1960s. But the legacies of these movements were weak and so, despite the historic democratic reforms of its first term, Labour never equipped itself with a sustained critique of the elite and antidemocratic aspects of the EU’s development. To be sure, it had plenty of ideas for reforming how the union spent its money, mostly aimed at the common agricultural policy, and it contributed its own brand of social investment state strategies to the Lisbon agenda. But Europe’s gathering crisis of democratic legitimacy was largely outside its purview.

This goes to the nub of the matter as to why the call for a referendum is so potent. Although, as pollsters point out, the public will always support the call for a referendum if the implied alternative is to leave it to politicians to decide, there is no other mechanism for reasserting popular sovereignty in respect of the European question that has anything like the symbolic resonance of a referendum. Nothing that a mainstream, pro-European party can adduce by way of reform of the European parliament, commission or council of ministers will ever get close. Ceding the call for a referendum to the Eurosceptics is therefore tantamount to handing over the argument for democracy in the functioning of the institutions of the EU. The political cause demands both.

At some point, Labour will have to shift its ground. It has left itself some room to do so, although no-one should mistake its current position for anything other than a sincere defence of what it believes to be the national interest. Yet for pro-Europeans on the left today, Nairn’s stern injunctions from the 1970s must be taken seriously: engage properly and profoundly on the terrain of the historic European project and on how it can overcome its crises of democratic legitimation and economic stagnation.

This piece was originally published on Nick Pearce's IPPR Blog. 

About the author

Nick Pearce is Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

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