The UK and the European Union: Labour dreams, Tory nightmares

Chris Gifford
27 April 2010

Roughly 10 minutes of the Prime Ministerial debate on foreign policy was spent discussing the UK’s relationship with the EU. Despite its centrality to the UK’s economic prosperity, environmental sustainability and geopolitical power, the main political parties are united in keeping Europe off the political agenda. While Labour and the Liberal Democrat politicians risk the odd pro-European sentiment, they are kept to a minimum - easy prey for Conservatives, UKIP and the Murdoch press.  All this smacks of a national collective denial of an issue that continues to go to the heart of UK politics.

What we have witnessed is the sustained removal of principled pro-Europeanism from the British political scene.  By the fag end of Blair’s premiership, there was no UK vision of Europe other than in terms of its place in a neo-liberal globalization. Brown and Blair trumpeted the success of Anglo-Saxon capitalism to the social market Europeans and set about convincing central and Eastern Europe that there was no alternative. This culminated in the UK’s leadership of Rumsfeld’s ‘new’ Anglo-American Europe in support of the invasion of Iraq. The question arises as to why Labour has been able to push this neo-liberal agenda within the EU? Both Thatcher and Major had found themselves sidelined in the EU as a consequence of their Anglo-American neo-liberal politics.

Two reasons stand out. Firstly, there is no doubt Labour successfully put the issue of UK sovereignty to be bed with their ‘third-way’ ideology. In a context of globalization, complex and effective rule making requires institutions above and below the state. Of course, whether in devolved assemblies or the EU, Labour saw themselves as being the dominant player.  Nevertheless, this did involve a degree of normalization in EU/UK relations. Labour influenced European policy agendas in ways that could only have been dreamt of by the likes of Clarke, Hurd and Major.

The second reason for Labour’s European successes should be laid at the door of the EU itself. By the 2000s, the second wave European integration (EMU, Jacques Delors etc.) had given way to European disintegration with the defeat of a European Constitution.  The EU is a fragmented and unequal Union that lacks solidarity and democratic legitimacy - a consequence of widening without deepening and marketisation without social justice. This context has been ripe for exploitation by a

UK  government. In traditional British style, Labour have sort to secure state power alongside globalising Europe. Meanwhile, the public have been firmly locked out of the European debate. The Euro, the Lisbon Treaty etc., all have been seen off by a combination of luck and New Labour managerialism.  

With no viable alternatives to neo-liberalism many member-states, as well as the Commission, have been complicit in Labour’s Anglicising of Europe. This, however, looks likely to come to an end as current economic crisis points towards a more interventionist EU. The EU’s proposed regulation of hedge funds and private equities has signaled the end of Anglo-Europe as the French and Germans turn on the City.

Blair and Brown dreamt of an EU modeled on New Labour-UK, and had some success in a context that worked to their benefit. Such an approach is far more problematic for the Conservatives with their more exclusive and traditional conceptions of UK sovereignty and national identity. Twenty plus years of Thatcherite Euroscepticism cannot easily be swept away by the Cameron PR machine. Europe remains for many Conservatives the ‘other’ of Britishness and one of the main threats to the power of the UK state. The Party is opposed to further integration, have said never to the Euro and want to repatriate UK powers already ceded to Brussels. The Manifesto proclaims that the ‘steady and unaccountable intrusion of the European Union into almost every aspect of our lives has gone too far’. Clearly, there are Eurosceptic expectations of a Tory administration that if they don’t fulfill UKIP will exploit. 

A hint of what lies in store was seen in the decision to remove Conservative MEPs from the mainstream European People’s Party (EPP). Their new home is the ‘anti-federalist’ European Conservatives and Reformists that includes controversial Eastern European right wingers. The former Conservative leader in the European Parliament, Edward Macmillan Scott, defected to the Liberal Democrats complaining to Cameron that ‘You say that you are against extremism at home, yet you propitiate it abroad’. Cameron faced further criticism from Sarkozy for pulling out of the EPP. Even in a divided EU, a hard-line Euroscepticism that panders to Europe’s extreme right is not going to win friends and influence people. It could rule out any coalition with the Liberal Democrats. 

In addition, it is likely to bring a Conservative government in to collision with the more pro-European nations and regions of the UK. Clearly, a pro-European Scottish National Party in government would oppose Eurosceptic Toryism and could derail agreement on a UK line in EU policy-making. A hard Eurosceptic Conservative government will come under attack from within the UK as well as the EU.  Add in a minority government and you have a return to the Tory European nightmares of the Thatcher and Major years. 

The EU is the most effective way in which the British people can secure their future in the context of globalization. However, the main concerns of the dominant political parties have not been those of the people but of a Eurosceptic nexus of the City of London, Southern England and the Murdoch press. Whatever the Eurosceptics may tell us, the defence of these sectional interests against the European Union is not the same as the interests of UK citizens.  

Chris Gifford is the Head of Criminology, Politics and Sociology at the University of Huddersfield and he is a member of the University’s Academy for the Study of Britishness.  He is the author of The Making of Eurosceptic Britain: Identity and Economy in a Post-imperial State (2008) Aldershot: Ashgate. The above post is drawn from a chapter by the author from the special ‘Politics of Britishness’ edition of the refereed journal, Parliamentary Affairs and  co-edited by Dr Catherine McGlynn and Dr Andy Mycock. More details on the volume are available here

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