David Cameron’s Europe speech will be delivered in Holland on the 22nd of January.
The Prime Minister faces a difficult problem. For two and a half decades, the Conservative party has given itself over to dislike and distrust of the European project. The modern Conservative soul dislikes Europe’s institutions, distrusts its priorities, fears its ambitions and sneers at its leaders. In Government, this resulted in fissure between those who felt Europe remained a valuable project for Britain to participate in despite its flaws, and those who felt it vital to draw a line beyond which Britain would not go.
In opposition, it was easy for Conservative leaders embrace the rhetoric of “No” when it came to Europe, while eliding the real challenges a Conservative government would face recasting Europe more to their liking. On their return to government, this rhetoric immediately raised the question “what if you don’t get what you want, which it looks like you won’t?“.1
Worse, Cameron finds himself in a weak position as a Coalition Prime Minister. On his left he has the Liberal Democrats, eager to differentiate themselves from the nasty party. On his right, UKIP and the Tory “Better Off Out” brigade. The Prime Minister cannot allow himself to be portrayed as the prisoner of either, or as straw swept along by those with more passion.
So perhaps Cameron’s smartest move on the 22nd would be to return to the foundation stone of Modern Conservative Euro-scepticism, Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges Speech, and re-interpret that speech for today.
Martin Kettle advised me to read that speech yesterday. What stood out, from this great distance, was her direct praise of a European idea with Britain playing a full role, and her emphasis on sturdy practicality, within a clear ideological framework focused on pan-European economic growth.
So Thatcher says:
“…let me be quite clear.
Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”
“The European Community is a practical means by which Europe can ensure the future prosperity and security of its people in a world in which there are many other powerful nations and groups of nations.
We Europeans cannot afford to waste our energies on internal disputes or arcane institutional debates.
They are no substitute for effective action.
Europe has to be ready both to contribute in full measure to its own security and to compete commercially and industrially in a world in which success goes to the countries which encourage individual initiative and enterprise, rather than those which attempt to diminish them.”
“We Europeans“! Can you imagine a Tory minister getting away with starting a sentence like that today?
Cameron could use this foundational text of modern Tory scepticism to argue that with Europe in economic crisis, it would not just be foolish for him to indulge in endless institutional debates, it would be against the tenets of Thatcherite Europeanism.
Further, on the core argument of Thatcher’s speech, Cameron can make a plausible case that stripped of continental fear of British jingoism and her own personal reputation as Madame Non,, Thatchers’ speech could be seen as a precursor of current thinking about European structures.
So when Thatcher argues that:
I want to see us work more closely on the things we can do better together than alone.
Europe is stronger when we do so, whether it be in trade, in defence or in our relations with the rest of the world.
But working more closely together does not require power to be centralised in Brussels or decisions to be taken by an appointed bureaucracy.
Cameron could point to the rising power of the European Council, and the President of the European Council as their creation and representative, as signs that this analysis ran far more broadly than in Britain alone.
Indeed, in the crisis of 2007 onwards, he could argue, we saw that the European Council, for all its flaws, was a far more effective mechanism for delivering needed action than either the commission, or Nation states acting alone or bilaterally. This is a Europe that Thatcher, Cameron and many current heads of government can admire with more enthusiasm than the Europe of Brussels and Strasbourg.
Finally, it’s noticeable how much of Thatcher’s concerns in Bruges were practical, not structural. She wanted further CAP revision, greater economic freedom, a stronger voice against protection. Reading the speech, you sense that these were the issues which motivated and excited her, and the structural and institutional debates arose out of a frustration among her followers that things, perhaps, were not going their way.
But surely, now those arguments are going Thatcher’s way? Leave aside the Euro (which is optional) and the needed structural underpinnings of the Single market, in each of these areas Europe has been slowly moving in the direction of Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown.
This means Cameron could argue that there is today a greater common analysis of Europe’s needs than there has been for many years, and that it is an analysis which Britain broadly shares. Cast in that light, the demand for repatriation of powers might be re-interpreted as a further shift in power, not to the nation-state, but first to the European Council, acting as the democratic voice of the nation states, able to say what is needed, what is not, allowing more variation and flexibility between nations as they trade their needs and wants.
In other words, if Cameron wants to be a successful Eurosceptic, he has first to reclaim Margaret Thatcher as a European. Treated correctly, the Bruges speech might just allow that.
The Labour party for many decades, fought over the Mantle of Nye. Tellingly, it was Labour’s most revisionist and distant Bevanites, Kinnock and Wilson, who most assiduously and strategically claimed the Mantle, using Bevan’s own pragmatic streak as a cloak – no a shield – for their own dissents from Bevan’s more ideological inheritors.
If Cameron wishes to win his Party on Europe back to a more practical, duller, less invigorating scepticism about the Modern European union, he might be best advised to steal the Mantle of Maggie.
Or, perhaps, her Bruges Handbag?
- and which in turn led to catastrophically clumsy interventions like this one by the Chancellor, which is basically the antithesis of everything I argue above [↩]