Which England Will Dare to Speak in Britain and Europe?

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, November 19th 2011

The European crisis has already told us many things; that the eurozone in its current form is not sustainable; that German leadership of the continent is going to become more pronounced; and that Greece, Italy and maybe one or two others are going to have decades of European-inflicted austerity.

Another factor is Britain’s continued role as the awkward, distant partner in Europe; a country which sees the European project as something it was hoodwinked into by its political classes and establishment. And not allowed a European vote for nearly forty years.

What we don’t explore beyond glib definitions is what kind of Britain and British identity are we articulating? Is it, as some claim, still the ‘mother of Parliaments’, the time-honoured defender of liberty, free speech and minorities? Or is it a City dominated deregulation utopia, a bastion of Anglo-Saxon hunter-gatherer capitalism only held back by the Euro-sclerosis of Brussels bureaucrats?

Recently the opinion pollster YouGov has undertaken a UK survey on peoples’ different national identities and perceptions on Britain and the European Union. They found a direct relationship between national identity and Euroscepticism. If you choose an  ‘English’ identity as 63% of respondents do you are more likely to have a Euro-sceptic opinion, whereas if you identify as ‘British’ (19%), ‘Scottish’ (8%) or ‘Welsh’ (5%) you are more likely to be pro-European.

‘English’ identifying voters are more likely to want to leave the EU by a margin of 58% to 26%, whereas ‘British’ voters wanted to remain in the EU by 46% to 37%. ‘Scottish’ and ‘Welsh’ voters are closer to ‘British’ voters.

Peter Kellner writing in the current issue of ‘Prospect’ magazine about this states, ‘What distinguishes people who call themselves ‘English’ is a passion for keeping other countries at arm’s length’ and continues, ‘Whisper it softly, but is Englishness these days a source not just of pride but also insecurity?’

Kellner has hit the nail on the head. The British growing detachment from the European project is wrapped up in the crisis of the British state and how Englishness is changing and evolving in a Britain and world fast-changing and filled with uncertainty.

Westminster politicians of a Eurosceptic persuasion tend to think they speak for ‘British’ interests when they rail against Brussels, Euro-federalism or some supposed German-French plot. In actual fact, they speak without knowing it for a very partial, narrow English interpretation of Britain and Europe.

They stand against sharing sovereignty in a European Union, invoke parliamentary sovereignty and British rights and jobs, without recognising that they already share sovereignty in a political union: the United Kingdom. And that their version of undiluted political power in Westminster is now obsolete and under attack from the way the world operates and how power is held in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

The same poll found a UK 51% to 32% majority for withdrawal from the European Union. This is unlikely to happen in the immediate future but there is a growing Euroscepticism in British public opinion over the last twenty years. Simultaneously there has been a long-term decline in the pro-Euro wing of the Tory Party and rise of an uncompromising Euroscepticism in the parliamentary party.

If this trend continues as looks likely and at some point in the future a majority Tory Government is elected it is possible the UK will have a referendum on the EU. Then it is highly likely that a majority of the public will vote for withdrawal. If this happens it would be a huge moment for the UK and have massive consequences for the British union. UK withdrawal would not lead to a return to the pre-1973 Britain, to corned beef and Commonwealth relations being how ‘we’ see the world.

It would also precipitate a deeper crisis in the UK and could easily make more likely Scottish independence. Tory Euroscepticism could in defending an out of date, archaic union lead to the end of the union they are so passionate to defend.

David Cameron talked this week of being ‘a Eurosceptic’ and promised to repatriate significant powers from Brussels. Both he and George Osborne see the current European crisis as an opportunity to grandstand against Europe, feed their backbenchers some Euro bones, and ratchet up the rhetoric.

They will not succeed in repatriating powers because the politics of the euro crisis and its seventeen members is one in which Britain has no direct clout or power, and seems to have little strategy or acumen. It is a very different climate from when John Major at the time of the Maastricht Treaty could negotiate the European Social Chapter opt-out; then the treaty required unanimous ratification across the EU and Britain had a veto; today with the euro no such British veto exists.

British influence in Europe is at an all-time low. European politicians are fed up of being lectured by British politicians, whether Conservative or Labour, hence Nicolas Sarkozy’s remarks to Cameron telling him to ‘shut up’.

What European politicians, governments and public need to understand is that the Britain our Westminster politicians represent is dramatically divided. The British political class are giving voice to a very English insular identity, which is only one voice of England.

The future of Britain’s relationship with Europe and the wider world will be decided by what England emerges, influenced by the European crisis, Scotland and deeper, profound changes in the global economy.

For too long many people on the left have been happy to see the idea of ‘England’ and centre-right politics as synonymous. Some of this has been a long story of left wing pessimism and defeatism which has even argued that the Scots and Welsh are needed in the UK to tame the English tiger and prevent it from exploding into some hard right xenophobic embrace.

This is of course a self-fulfilling prophecy: abandon ‘England’ to the fantasies of the right and it will come about; only dare counter it with a rather limp, unconvincing Britishness and who knows what will happen. There are many different Englands, just as there are many different Scotlands and Europes, and it is time the English centre-left started speaking and acting in an English voice.