Westminster Watch - February 2014

Toby Craig examines our relationship both with and within Europe and the impact on political debate.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War. That in itself has been the cause of significant argument, with Education Secretary Michael Gove leading the charge against what he sees as left-wing myths about the conflict. He singled out Blackadder’s characterisation of the First World War as a ‘misbegotten shambles’ as particularly offensive to what he views as a ‘just’ if ‘uniquely horrific’ war.

Of course, how we teach and remember major events in history matters a great deal. They shape modern understanding and perspectives. There can be little doubt that the Great War was an historical low point not just for the world, but importantly for Britain’s relations with Europe, and indeed for relations across Europe as a whole. Perhaps the historical low point. But then again; perhaps not. After all, over the centuries there have been so many from which to choose. The horrific violence of the Second World War lives long in the memory. The list of European conflicts could fill more than just this column. Indeed, the relationship between the United Kingdom and Europe has and will continue to fill many tomes of commentary, analysis and prediction.

And yet a healthy sense of perspective is important too. If in 1914 one was to predict modern day Europe, as we find it in 2014, it would be scarcely believable. The harmonisation of laws, trade and the freedom of movement between EU member states has helped to forge a long and lasting peace in Western and Central Europe. That must be a cause of celebration in a region so fractured by discord and bloodshed.

However in modern day Britain, in 2014, few issues ignite such strong and passionate views as those about our relationship with our continental cousins. It may not be related to a physical threat, but the tensions between the characteristically isolationist tendencies of an island nation and a desire to forge closer and stronger ties with nearest neighbours continue to simmer away. Nobody is suggesting that we are on the cusp of battle, but the rhetoric can get fairly heated. And nowhere is this more striking than in the Conservative Party.

Europe, for at least three decades, has been the curse of the Tory party, always rearing its head at the most awkward moment. Just as the economy appears to be turning a corner, the party finds itself mired once again in a struggle over Britain’s future in the EU. And this time, it seems rather serious. The accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU and the commensurate opening of the UK’s borders (and wrangle over benefit entitlement) has created a significant political challenge to all parties, but it is just the latest challenge. Whatever the parties’ principled stance on the benefits of EU membership, public opinion is suspicious of mass immigration (whether real or imagined – the actual numbers so far look low) and about an external source controlling our legal system.

There is a deep schism between those who value the rich cultural and economic contribution made by migrants and also value the economic partnership with our European allies, and those who view migrants as a drain on resources, milking an overly-generous welfare system and depriving UK nationals of job opportunities, whilst European courts ride roughshod over Parliament’s wishes. There tends to be little middle ground.

The battleground on which the next General Election will be fought in just over a year’s time is being strikingly influenced by the European question. The emergence of UKIP as, if polling is to be believed, a serious player, may pose a dangerous threat in Conservative target constituencies. That scares a lot of Tory backbenchers. Some commentators suggest it is one of the main reasons why the Conservatives cannot win an outright majority in 2015. Whether or not that is correct, there can be little doubt Nigel Farage has tapped into the anxiety of disaffected Tory voters who have lost confidence in their party’s leadership and never had any at all in the Coalition Government. UKIP offers them a different choice. The genius of UKIP’s approach (and electoral success in European elections) is that they have forced the mainstream parties to clarify their positions on Europe. Without UKIP, it is hard to believe that the Prime Minister would have offered an in/out referendum in the next Parliament. He gambled that it would calm his troops until after the election. That gamble does not seem to be paying off.

Getting a referendum pledge is not enough for bloodthirsty Tory MPs, led by the likes of Douglas Carswell who want out. They have more recently been orchestrating bungled attempts to promote a law allowing Parliament to veto EU legislation it didn’t like. As well as being wholly unworkable, the dissenters appeared to sign up MPs to a letter to David Cameron, including Andrew Tyrie, who said they hadn’t given their approval or permission.

The festering wound of Europe, which UKIP has been picking at so diligently, threatens once again to unravel the party’s election hopes. However, this is not necessarily good news for Labour or the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems are enthusiastically pro integration, which the British public generally is not, and as with so many things, Ed Miliband continues to sit on the fence, and has not matched the Tory pledge for a referendum. The diffcult balancing act is for parliamentarians like the Prime Minister, who wish to remain in the EU, but on more favourable terms. His challenge may be to achieve that but also take a sceptical public, increasingly disenchanted with Britain’s role in the EU, with him. As difficult as that may be to pull off, Labour and the Lib Dems are unlikely to be rewarded for refusing the electorate the option of withdrawal.

Whilst 100 years on, thankfully, Western and Central Europe has found a civilised and welcome peace, the fierce political debate over the manner of inter-European relationship and how its sovereign states interact shows no signs of abating. Perhaps we just don’t know any other way.

Toby Craig, Head of Communications at the Bar Council