openDemocracyUK: Analysis

Why the UK’s system of government is vastly superior to the European Union

British governments can survive only if they enjoy a majority in the Commons. In the EU, by contrast, executives are appointed by governments

This article summarises the last of three lengthy essays about the European Union by the historian Perry Anderson, published in the London Review of Books.

David Elstein
28 March 2021, 8.00am
A democratic-looking screen
RichardBakerBrexit/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Perry Anderson’s third essay on the European project, ‘The Breakaway’, traces the history of the UK’s involvement, from non-participant to rejected supplicant to member for 47 years and then to fractious departure.

The UK was an uninterested spectator as six European states formed the European Coal and Steel Community, the 1950s ancestor of the European Union. Neither was it involved when the Treaty of Rome in 1957 created the European Economic Community (EEC), superseding the Coal and Steel Community.

Later, national economic decline and foreign policy upheavals such as the Suez crisis and decolonisation led the two prime ministers named Harold – Macmillan and Wilson – to each seek membership of the Common Market, the European free-trade zone. The French president, Charles de Gaulle, vetoed both bids. Only when Georges Pompidou succeeded de Gaulle did a Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, manage to break the logjam, joining the six founding member states in the EEC alongside Denmark and Ireland in 1973.

Forty or so of Heath’s own MPs opposed joining, but a band of 69 pro-European MPs within the otherwise hostile parliamentary Labour Party outnumbered them, giving Heath a majority of 17 for passage of the European Communities Bill in 1972. Perhaps the narrowness of that margin dissuaded him from fulfilling his pledge not to join the EEC without “the full-hearted consent” of the British people. He rejected the idea of a referendum implied in that formulation and avoided mentioning the inescapable fact that the UK had sacrificed a degree of sovereignty in conceding the supremacy of European law – a condition of EEC membership.

It was Wilson, returned to power, who – says Anderson – “went through the motions of renegotiating the terms secured by Heath” and then in 1975 mounted a referendum. On a turnout of 64%, the majority in favour of Wilson’s deal was more than 2:1.

The British pushback

When Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 general election, she launched a campaign to cut the UK’s disproportionate contribution to the EEC budget, and managed to recoup two-thirds. The Single European Act of 1987, a major revision of the Treaty of Rome, carried her personal stamp, having been steered through by her nominated commissioner. The country’s position in Europe seemed both distinctive and secure.

However, Thatcher – having broken with her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, over his attempts to make sterling shadow the EEC’s Exchange Rate Mechanism – was determined to resist the drive within Brussels and Frankfurt for the mechanism to be upgraded to a full-blown single currency. This opposition forced the resignation of her foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, who in turn lit the fuse that led to her own departure from Downing Street.

Her preferred candidate, John Major, won the succession and negotiated a British opt-out from the euro. But even in doing so, and to the dismay of many of his backbenchers, he signed up to the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, which created the European Union. The anti-Maastricht Tories, seeing the Danes reject the treaty in a referendum, called for just such a vote at home – supported, as it happens, by the Liberal Democrats. Major’s position was fatally undermined when the UK was forced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism after a run on the pound on ‘Black Wednesday’ later in 1992.

Under intense pressure from Brussels, Denmark held a second referendum, overturning the first. Major finally persuaded the British parliament to ratify Maastricht even so, but his authority over his own party was broken, and the humiliating exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism had so tarnished the Tory brand that Tony Blair comfortably won the 1997 election.

Major’s three successors as Tory leader, all opponents of Maastricht, all trailed behind Blair in voter preference. Instead, Blair’s most formidable opponent proved to be his chancellor, Gordon Brown, whose dogged resistance thwarted all the prime minister’s designs to join the single currency.

What Brown had not seen coming when in due course he himself became prime minister in 2007 was the financial crisis the following year. He was duly dislodged in 2010, with the first pro-Europe leader of the Conservatives since Major – David Cameron – heading the largest party within a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the most ardent pro-Europeans in Parliament.

The road to referendum

However, this victory was shadowed by the previous year’s European elections, where the upstart UK Independence Party beat Labour into second place. Pressure from UKIP’s electoral successes and from his own malcontents on the back benches was generating a momentum that Cameron thought he could control, but could not.

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The UK’s ineffectuality and marginality could not have been more vividly displayed

Legislation requiring a referendum before the UK could agree any further treaty with the European Union passed through Parliament in 2011. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel’s determination to push through her precious Fiscal Compact – as protection for the Eurozone from external and internal pressures – undermined Cameron’s position.

He vetoed the package in a vote at the December 2011 European Council, which comprises the heads of government of the European Union. But then Merkel sidestepped the council and secured agreement to the proposals in a multilateral inter-governmental treaty outside the scope of the EU. The UK’s ineffectuality and marginality could not have been more vividly displayed. In 2013, Cameron pledged an in/out referendum if he won the next election.

The reputation of the Lib Dems had been badly damaged because of policies they had both supported and abandoned to remain in the coalition. The party’s vote collapsed in the 2015 election and Cameron found himself with a clear majority, unencumbered by a junior partner that might veto a referendum, and chose to keep his promise, encouraged by his success in facing down a bid for Scottish independence.

The Brexit campaign

Cameron set June 2016 for the poll: but where his own party had remained united on the question of Scotland, on the European Union it was deeply split. UKIP’s victory in the 2014 European elections (based on proportional representation) had frightened many Tory MPs, fearful of a direct challenge in a Westminster first-past-the-post poll. One Tory MP resigned, fought the consequent by-election for UKIP, and won.

Scores of backbench Tories created a powerful and disciplined parliamentary party-within-a-party: the European Research Group. But its tactical skills, honed in Westminster, would most likely have had little resonance in a referendum campaign: it was the decision by a swathe of Cameron’s cabinet and junior ministers to join the Leave campaign, led by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson (not members of the ERG), which broadened the appeal of Brexit beyond the diehard faction, allowing it to attract a swathe of Labour MPs and voters.

The new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, expressed only lukewarm support for the European Union and kept well away from any pro-EU campaigning alongside Conservatives. As a result, even though 73% of MPs from all parties supported Remain, and it was the official policy of all parties other than UKIP, that support could not fully express itself. Contrast that with the Scottish referendum, in which anti-independence parties joined forces to promote a ‘No’ vote.

The key issue was control over their own, and the country’s, destiny

Perry Anderson

The people, however, thought differently to their MPs. In the event, reports Anderson, “the only socioeconomic group where a majority voted Remain was the most affluent stratum of the population, composed of members of categories A and B”. Overall, Leave won 52%, “rising to 64 per cent in the poorest categories of C2DE”. Voters under age 24 split 73:27 for Remain; most of those aged over 44 chose Leave. With 81% of those receiving full-time education preferring Remain, “geographically, in England, it was in University towns alone that Remain won handsomely”.

Why did Leave win?

For Remainers, says Anderson, there was a sense that leaving the union would be a victory for chauvinism and reaction; and also that it “threatened living standards, which were bound to drop cruelly on exit”; but for the poorest voters, “the key issue was control over their own, and the country’s, destiny, something that could only be secured by departure from the EU”.

Another motive for supporting Leave was a wider sense of recovering independence, to which, says Anderson, “control of immigration and borders came second”.

That said, he continues, immigration did play a part in Leave voters’ decisions. One of “two critical legacies of New Labour” was the surge in immigration “derived from Blair’s decision in 2004 to reward his Eastern European allies for their staunch role in the Iraq War” by not seeking to limit free movement (as Germany did) when the EU expanded that year.

“Some 700,000 Poles eventually came, many more than Blair had bargained for. No other European country knew an influx of comparable size and speed so early on. By 2017, 400,000 Romanians and Bulgarians had joined them.” The Cameron government “could do nothing to halt or mitigate” the influx.

The second legacy – Blair’s failure to overrule Brown and join the euro – “was probably more decisive”. Once a country is inside the single currency, “fear of the consequences of departure trumps all else if the issue is tested at the polls”.

In the eurozone, after all, “people’s savings were held in euros. To leave the Monetary Union when this was an established fact was to destroy their value. No party with a popular base dares risk such a prospect.” Anderson cites the verdict of the political sociologist Claus Offe: “Though imposition of the single currency was a huge mistake for Europe, unwinding it risks even greater harm for ordinary citizens.”

The Leave campaign succeeded because no similar danger was involved. Ironically, in Anderson’s view, neither side of the Brexit debate “paid the slightest attention to the obvious fact that (if we exclude toy-states like Liechtenstein, Monaco or Luxembourg) the two richest countries in Europe, with the most advanced welfare systems, do not belong to the EU: Switzerland and Norway. Both societies rejected integration with the Union in popular referendums and have flourished since doing so.”

Brexit’s difficult gestation

Cameron resigned after the referendum. His successor, Theresa May, seeking to bolster her parliamentary position, called an election in 2017, but despite increasing her party’s share of the vote by 5%, lost enough seats to erase her majority in the Commons, becoming dependent on the ten MPs from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Yet the withdrawal agreement she negotiated with Brussels, including a ‘backstop’ arrangement to ensure no hard border could be imposed between Ireland and the North, wholly alienated the DUP. What’s more, several members of her cabinet resigned, including Boris Johnson.

The Labour leadership drifted towards a generic obstructionism in the Commons

Perry Anderson

With her party badly split, May had no chance of securing a Commons majority for her deal without Labour support: and a fate “worse than disarray”, says Anderson, had overtaken Labour, with many of its MPs supporting a second referendum, or ‘People’s Vote’, with no clarity as to whether this meant overturning the first result, or just allowing second thoughts; its promoters were divided as to which they preferred, and the People’s Vote organisation eventually fell apart.

“In the background,” says Anderson, “under pressure from the PLP, the Guardian, the BBC and its own youth, the Labour leadership drifted towards a generic obstructionism in the Commons.”

After her deal had been repeatedly rejected by the Commons, May eventually resigned. Her successor, Johnson, faced resistance in the courts as well as in Parliament as he tried to wriggle free of the trap which had brought her down. He repeatedly called for cross-party agreement to an early election to break the deadlock, but it was only when the Lib Dems, scorning even a second referendum, opted for an election in which they would campaign for rescinding the UK’s notice to withdraw from the union, that Labour’s hand was forced.

Johnson had defied predictions by securing a withdrawal agreement with the European Union, providing an 11-month standstill during which a long-term treaty could be negotiated. He claimed the agreement solved the ‘Irish backstop’ issue, but the DUP remained unconvinced. They, however, promptly lost their leverage, as Johnson won a large majority in the December 2019 election, freeing him of reliance on them.

Corbyn duly resigned, and his replacement, Keir Starmer, who had for so long championed a second referendum, now decided that Brexit was done, and nodded through the Commons in just four hours of debate the treaty Johnson finally secured with the European Union in December 2020.

Against Brexit

Anderson cites the standard predictions of a 4% loss of potential UK GDP growth with an agreed exit, as compared with 6% without a deal: “what else could be expected, given the disparity – the European Union being more than six times the size of the UK in output and population – in the bargaining power of the two sides?” But he notes that long-term macro-economic forecasts “are rarely foolproof”, and that the EU is anyway far from being a champion of free trade: “It is a mercantilist bloc, replete with subsidies (think only of the Common Agricultural Policy) and protections (think only of services) of many kinds, aimed at barricading outsiders from the privileges afforded to insiders.”

[The euro is] the oligarch project to end all oligarch projects

Ferdinand Mount

Anderson addresses three writers on the UK’s relationship with the European Union: Ferdinand Mount, Peter Oborne and Geoffrey Wheatcroft. All had connections with or leanings to the Tories in the past but now excoriated the party and its leadership, along with Brexit (Oborne, having voted Leave, lost his nerve during the turmoil of 2019).

Mount had previously identified the fallibility of the union: “an oligarchy [in which] the oligarchs see no reason to alter their practices or their ambitions. No previous empire...carried centralisation so far”. As for the euro, it was “the oligarch project to end all oligarch projects”. That was written in 2012. More recently, in terms of Brexit, he has not tried “to defend the ramshackle and blatantly imperfect institutions of the EU”; but he is so offended by the person and policies of Boris Johnson (“a seedy, treacherous character”), that he cannot but condemn the Brexiteer sentiment which carried him to power.

Oborne admits that he has no “passion for Remain… only a deep gnawing worry that we are making a significant mistake”. Wheatcroft, too, was only a “tepid” Remainer, conscious that the union had enlarged prematurely and then disastrously imposed the euro on southern Europe. His beef was with the referendum itself, as demagogic in nature and misguided in intent; yet he offers no better solution to the question of democratic legitimacy that the European Union had so signally failed to answer.

The EU is the simulacrum of a sentient democracy. For all its woeful shortcomings, Westminster is vastly superior to this lacquered synarchy

Perry Anderson

Undermining all three critiques, argues Anderson, is the fact that the UK had never been fully committed to the union project: no one on the Remain side of the debate ever argued that it should have joined the eurozone or even the Schengen free-movement zone.

Never the twain

In his view, the key issue is that Westminster and Brussels represent two wholly different types of political structure. Whatever the weaknesses of the British system – anachronistic fogeys as politicians, first-past-the-post elections, an unelected upper chamber, an honours system rewarding bagmen, a Parliament that “can be bundled into a poll at a day’s notice” – in Anderson’s view “the fact remains that British governments can only survive if they enjoy a majority in the Commons... and if they fall, elections to replace them must ensue.

“In the EU, by contrast, executives are appointed by governments: in practice, it is the simulacrum of a sentient democracy.”

For all that it may grate, “and for all its woeful shortcomings... Westminster is vastly superior to this lacquered synarchy”. That is “the indisputable bedrock of the quarrel between London and Brussels”.

And this is Anderson’s “bedrock”:

The European Union, as it has come to take shape, speaks continuously of democracy and the rule of law, even as it negates them. No ill intention need be ascribed to it. What it has become is inscribed in the minds of those who took possession of the project: a unification of the Continent from above, by stealth where possible, by diktat where necessary... Of the 27 countries currently comprising the Union, none has a continuous parliamentary history comparable to the record in England.

The fundamental Eurofudge

Anderson has a low opinion of the “fundamentally oligarchic” European ruling caste: “its top ranks have long been corrupted by immunity in their occupance of power”. He cites a series of allegations and convictions: of malversation of public funds, sexual assault, embezzlement, plagiarism, involvement in tax avoidance, concealment of payments, receipt of suspect donations and unwise intimacy with major fraudsters. These “tawdry episodes” should not be “generalised to the whole European political class”; yet “where Europe is concerned, there is rarely a contradiction between self-interest and genuine idealism”.

The union’s underlying premise “is the passivity of the population below the political class and its adherents”. Moreover, “the centrist bloc of opinion encompassing moderate conservative, temperate liberals, pragmatic social democrats and self-satisfied Greens... is much larger than its opponents on right or left, and remains overwhelmingly dominant in the Union”.

External events and forces have frequently shaped the centralising impetus of the EU. The pandemic is no different. Now the ‘Next Generation EU’ package of €750bn “has been hailed as a breakthrough by [Dutch writer Luuk] van Middelaar”, who observes that Merkel has broken “the last two taboos of German monetary thinking: collective debt and outright grants; for just this once; but in Paris and Berlin they know that whoever crosses this bridge once can do it more often: the precedent is set”.

How what Anderson calls this “powerful forward motion” will develop is not certain. A federalist superstate seems unlikely, and some kind of federal pan-European political union combined with common economic and security policies for a like-minded inner group seems even more remote. The federalist goal has “never been achieved; but nor... has the incremental progress towards that end ever been stopped or reversed – is it credible that it has now reached its limit?

“Or is the current formulation of the EU – dilute sovereignty without meaningful democracy, compulsory unanimity without participant equality, cult of free markets without care of free trade – likely all the same to last indefinitely?”

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