Tony Benn addresses an anti-Trident demo in 2006. Flickr/Pete Birkinshaw. Some rights reserved.Momentum having been building behind anti-EU sentiment in recent years, the contest over Britain’s future in Europe is expected to be fought on a knife edge. Political celebrities emerge from the woodwork to pledge their allegiances. Boris Johnson, current Mayor of London, has already staked his claim to a ‘no’ vote with a fanfare, along with a number of senior members in the cabinet.
David Cameron’s EU deal has pandered to a particular nationalistic segment of the vote; seeking safeguards for UK interests on issues of immigration, benefits for migrants in the UK, future Eurozone bailouts and parliamentary sovereignty. It has also reinforced the UK’s image as the ‘the awkward member’: a reputation it’s earned for decades of anti-European rhetoric and the seeking of opt-outs (a joint-top 4 in total). In recent years, criticism of the central institutions in Brussels has found new momentum for Euroscepticism in the UK, signalled by the emergence of UKIP and the re-emergence of division within the British Conservative Party.
But this is not a solely UK phenomenon. In 2014 European Parliamentary (EP) elections, Europe’s elite were shocked by the nationalist ‘earthquake’, which took as many as 25% of the allocated seats in Britain and France, and had sizeable gains elsewhere. These days, anti-EU rhetoric is frequently aired by nationalists in the EP - some of whom are led by the UK’s own Nigel Farage. The influence this bloc has established, both in the central European institutions and domestically, has enabled them to shape the debate on European membership. Put otherwise, much of the debate on the future of Europe is displaying a noticeably nationalist agenda. Current debates on Britain’s future in the EU are no exception.
40 years since 67% of the Britain’s voting public gave a resounding yes, however, there is something very familiar about this debate. In fact, as David Cameron described the consequences of ‘linking arms’ with two of Britain’s most outspoken MPs – Respect’s George Galloway, and UKIP’s Nigel Farage - as a ‘leap into darkness’, you wouldn’t be blamed for crying deja vú.
Today’s context is reminiscent of the ‘reds and rogues’ at the head of the 1975 anti-marketeer campaign, particularly the unlikely alliance between long-standing Labour MP Tony Benn and the architect of what would become Thatcherism, Enoch Powell. What’s more, there are many similarities between the two eras with regards to the arguments being presented to the British voting public.
As with today’s no camp, there were important differences then between the positions of the reds and rogues that opened up this important debate beyond the borders set by the nationalist lobby, differences requirIng a more nuanced understanding of Euroscepticism and its historic role in British politics.
Euroscepticism in Britain
Hard opposition to the idea of European political integration, as a threat to nationalistic notions of their state (hardly restricted to the UK) – no doubt exists, and is important. Powell stood against those pro-marketeers who, he said, ‘declared continually that the nation state was obsolete’. His fear was that Britain would become ‘a province in a new European state’, losing the nationalist bedrock, homogeneity. His words certainly did not fall on deaf ears, having parliamentary support of at least 25 MPs from his own party, as well as wider public support: ‘Mr Enoch Powell is our only hope’, wrote one supporter in The Spectator, as he bemoaned Edward Heath’s ‘iniquitous Common Market policy’. Powell represented those who opposed ‘[the] crushing of British democracy’.
A similar argument of ‘taking back control’ has become a soundbite of this year’s no campaign. But it is an introverted control, referring specifically to immigration and the net loss of the UK’s financial contributions to the EU. It is also a reaction against the direction of the modern international system. Increasingly, the challenges we face, such as economic imbalances and security concerns, are becoming increasingly dependent on strong political will - united under pooled sovereignty - to manage them. And the EU has begun to prove this, with its successful involvement in international conflicts such as the P5+1 deal with Iran and the establishing of stability in Mali.
Yet those who are calling for absolute sovereignty of the nation to be restored to their capitals are making a contradictory argument. To take back control is to stand against the vast popular sovereignty that has already been ‘sacrificed’ in the second half of the twentieth century to other (and far less democratic, one should add) transnational institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and many others. (However unlikely such a retrenchment is.)
I don’t believe the arguments presented by Tony Benn were drawn from the same nationalistic anti-EU ideas. In 1991, as he prepared his Commonwealth of Britain Bill, he wrote in his diaries of his hope that the ‘[tide might turn] against this mad rush to European federalism’. He did fear that Parliament’s ability to self-govern was under threat, but specifically because its sovereignty was being surrendered to foreign legislative institutions that were not directly accountable to the peoples they were meant to represent.
His argument applied not just to the people of Britain, but to the people of all European nations. He warned that this rush to federalism would inevitably lead to disenfranchised populations across Europe ‘[turning] to their national flag and culture, and [saying] that all their problems are due to foreigners’. Put otherwise, a European Union that establishes governing institutions above those of its constituent members, at the expense of popular democracy, would generate exactly the type of dangerous nationalist-based rejection of European unity shared by Powell, and Farage today.
Benn did not oppose the principle of the then European Community. In fact, he believed in the need for further European cooperation, but within a democratic framework that prevented the empowerment of big business. Today, it is entirely possible to be a Eurosceptic while opposing withdrawal from the EU. While Benn clearly felt the universal principle of democracy was more valuable than further European co-operation, the current challenges Europe faces today are far more transnational in nature, and would demand that we consider the total benefits versus the democratisation of Europe within that context.
Will a more isolated island off the coast of Europe be any better equipped to solve problems of mass external immigration, inter-global economic pressure and transnational security threats? What’s more, will the British people be any more able to protect itself from the anti-democratic transnational trade agreements, such as TTIP, and other international agreements that are carving up the new international system? As Roy Jenkins, President of the European Commission between 1977 and 1981, noted, Britain has always lacked the self-confidence to make a success of such projects that required all-in commitment and thus wouldn’t ‘[join] any European enterprise until it [were] too late to influence its shape’. But the UK can, and should, remain the EU’s awkward member.