An often banal anti-European populism has generated something of a Eurosceptic hegemony in British public debate
In theory, one of the roles of politicians is to conduct, inform and lead a national debate on the issues of the day. One of those issues, for Britain, is without doubt the future of the European Union and Britain’s place within it. Yet our politicians – and perhaps our media too – are largely failing in that task.
For a variety of reasons, in which history, geography, culture and language are intertwined, and which include remnants of a postcolonial self-delusion about British superiority and continental inferiority, many British people are reluctantly and half-heartedly engaged with Europe. Partly for that reason, too many politicians of all parties find it easier to parrot or appease the views of a few rightwing newspapers, many of whose owners do not pay taxes in this country and regard “Europe” as synonymous with regulations which threaten their interests as owners and rich people. Many members of the public are instinctively more cautious and more pragmatic, not least because they do not trust the press, but they get little lead from politicians.
The result, over many years, has been the growth of an often banal anti-European populism on the right and in parts of the left. This has now generated something of a Eurosceptic hegemony in British public debate. In the Tory party, scepticism towards Europe is now morphing into fully fledged and reckless contempt, feeding calls for quitting the EU and boosting the rise of Ukip. This makes thoughtful politicians in all parties nervous. The upshot, given plausibility by the extremely serious problems of the eurozone, is a striking collective failure of civil society, particularly in England (not so much in Scotland), to think about the relationship with Europe with anything approaching realism or objectivity.
David Cameron’s planned speech on Britain and the EU ought to have been a wake-up call to more thoughtful and more pro-European politicians. Perhaps, in time, it will be. If so, that would be all to the good. But there is not much sign of it yet. True, Ed Miliband made a valuable speech late last year to the CBI. True also, Nick Clegg and almost all Liberal Democrats continue to make the case for EU engagement. But Labour is wary of the European issue, and the Lib Dems struggle, for other reasons, to get a sympathetic hearing on anything. This leaves too much of the arena in the hands of the increasingly audacious Conservative Eurosceptics. That has to change – and soon. Pro-European neglect must not allow Mr Cameron to speak for Britain unchallenged.
In the absence of a more thoughtful political debate about the costs and benefits of UK engagement with Europe, other interests have at last made themselves heard. This week, there have been important interventions from home and abroad. The Irish prime minister said it would be disastrous for Britain to leave the EU. The Finnish foreign minister, like his Polish and Dutch colleagues before him, lamented the direction of Britain’s “uncivilised” EU debate. On Wednesday, the Obama administration warned that Britain is turning inwards and stressed that Washington wanted to see the UK remain part of the EU. On Thursday, a senior member of Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU said Britain should not attempt to blackmail the rest of Europe by blocking treaty changes generated by the eurozone crisis. Most influential of all, perhaps, a group of British business leaders including Virgin’s Richard Branson, WPP’s Martin Sorrell, the president of the CBI and the chairman of the London stock exchange all told Mr Cameron not to put UK membership at risk.
All this is welcome and useful. But the foreign observers and the business leaders are making arguments which British politicians and commentators, including serious Tory politicians and commentators, ought to be making too. This country is at risk of allowing itself to be stampeded by the Tory party and the Europhobic press into abandoning its place in Europe. Pro-Europeans should shed their anxieties. Voices that have been silent for too long need to make themselves heard.