Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Conservative Europhobes' faulty history

One of the most depressing things about Monday night's rebellion among Conservative backbenchers - of whom 90 voted for or abstained on a motion calling for a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union - was the lack of historical knowledge displayed among the Euro-sceptics.

They're aware of the long campaigns for a new referendum, all right.

But as for the wider history of going in and staying in? They were and are nowhere near the mark.

Because there are two reasons Conservative and Labour leaders such as Harold Macmillan (above), Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Jim Callaghan went into Europe, and fought to stay there. They can be filed under 'national interests' and 'necessity'.

In the 1950s and 1960s Britain's growth lagged behind that of continental Europe. That was to some extent because Europe's war-shattered economies started some way behind, and during the 1950s were catching up. But after the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which envisaged and then built a Common External Tariff wall around the original six members of the EEC, this disappointing economic performance was also due to the fact that the UK was locked out of a huge, dynamic and advanced market - right next door. Both Macmillan and Wilson decided that Britain had to be 'in' rather than 'out'.

And here's the vital point. Many Conservative backbenchers want to 'renegotiate'. They want to become members of a European Economic Area, along with Norway and Switzerland, enjoying free trade with the EU but not being subject to its laws. But any half-decent historian knows that this is what Macmillan and Wilson wanted too. And they couldn't have it - because the French wouldn't let them. The British wanted a 'pick and mix' Europe in which they could keep their trading links with the USA and the Commonwealth (and the wider world). The Six said: no, that would breach the Common External Tariff and drag the internal market's coherence down to the lowest common denominator of any one country's taxes, benefits and low tariffs. It's not an al a carte menu, said General de Gaulle - twice. Take the set menu or stay out.

The UK is not Norway or Switzerland. It's not a small oil-rich country with oodles of a raw material other energy-hungry Europeans want. It's not a banking superpower that can hold its own whatever happens. It's a country whose trade has been moving Europe-wards since the 1950s, in an unstoppable process of economic integration that yesterday's Conservative and Labour leaders (by no means all of them Europhiles like Heath) understood. We might not like it - it means that European food costs much more than it would if we bought it from North and West Africa - but it's an irreducible fact of life. Get used to it.

This amnesia brings to mind John Major's 'warm beer and cycling to church' remark, in which he summoned up an England that never has been and never will be.

Or - now I come to think of it - proposals to roll back some employee rights at work, on the basis that they've 'gone too far'. Never mind that calls for security of work began to gain political or legislative purchase in the 1880s, let alone the 1980s.

The past is a historical weapon. It's important to know which bits of it are mythic nonsense. Withdraw from the EU and enjoy the benefits without the burdens of free trade? I don't think so.