So, what is the Conservative Party’s settled policy on Europe? Not one to be written without a regular check over the shoulder in the direction of Monsieur Farage. Expect many more gimmicks like the one we saw recently: in effect taking scarecrows on wheels around the inner cities, urging illegal immigrants to get the message and get packing. It’s not the effectiveness of the policy that matters, it’s the effectiveness of the politics.
Another gimmick is the ongoing, rolling consultation whose sub-text is the taking-back of selected powers from Brussels. The whole thing stinks of hypocrisy from a government that believes subsidiarity is too good for the likes of us. Less power for Eurocrats, more power for Ukocrats. Great. Super. Less power for them in London, more power for us in our communities? Frightfully sorry, but, no.
We’ve explained before that we are ‘Euro-wary’ rather than pro or anti in principle. The EU is a force for good so long as it promotes genuine subsidiarity, drawing the poison from the Norman dogma that the Crown-in-Parliament can do no wrong. It is not a force for good when it builds its own managerialist dogmas to replace it. That genuine subsidiarity has any possibility of co-existing in the long run with a drive for ‘ever closer union’. That the acquis communautairecannot be reduced. And that the EU is committed to deepening the competitive market economy rather than nurturing a co-operative, democratic one (see the Lisbon Treaty, Article 119, which applies regardless of national, regional or local choices at the ballot box). Much of the emerging EU constitution seems designed more to frustrate reasoned debate than to facilitate it.
The capture of an idealistic project by bureaucratic and business interests is always tragic but it won’t be reversed by a refusal to engage. UKIP’s faults aren’t just that it lives permanently in the 1950s; they are also that it believes the UK can be improved but that, from the UK’s perspective at least, the EU cannot. It’s not interested in finding the ardent allies who most certainly do exist. Regionalists, from many countries, have argued for fundamental reforms that would change not only how the EU works but how the UK works, if the UK continues to exist at all. The system is broke. All of it. And so it needs to change radically at EVERY level. There can be no no-go areas of policy, nor, since we all have to get on with our neighbours, can one identity (such as English, British or European) exclusively dominate the rest. New structures must ensure that we can co-operate with each other, without feeling put upon. Existing structures struggle to achieve the first; they fail spectacularly to deliver the second. No wonder folk are angry.
In the 1975 Common Market referendum, only two areas of the UK voted ‘No’. They were Shetland and the Western Isles. Support in Scotland generally was lower than in Wales, which was lower than in England. (Every area in Wessex, except Avon, was then more pro-Europe than the England average.) It might seem that the greater the distance from the heart of Europe, the cooler the reception. Norway voted to stay out, twice (1972 and 1994). Greenland voted to leave (1982).
Yet in 2013 it was on his trip to Edinburgh that Farage was given the roughest ride. UKIP has become the protest party of choice primarily for the Englishelectorate. North of the border, it isn’t viewed as a liberating force but as the bearer of the old shackles. The combined votes for the main avowedly Eurosceptic parties – UKIP and the BNP – in the 2009 European elections exceeded 23% in every English area but London. Wales was not far behind but Scotland didn’t even make 8%.
Scotland, Wales and Cornwall do well out of EU funding, but so do many of the old industrial areas of England. There is an understandable unease that, were the funding to vanish, there is no guarantee that the UK would either replace it or devolve the powers required to make it unnecessary. Yet funding arrangements alone do not explain England’s attitude: UKIP came second in the Barnsley Central by-election in 2011, right in the heart of EU-assisted South Yorkshire.
So why the popularity in England? Perhaps because UKIP appeals to nostalgic images and national stereotypes that have nothing to do with the way the world actually is in 2013. But there are three themes it does especially well. One is that our national wealth is solely or largely wrapped up in the City of London and its post-imperial connections and these must not be challenged (hence the £-sign logo). Another is the anti-immigrant theme (all those Bulgarians and Romanians, for whom we quite rightly should NOT be building houses). Though where Farage would put the 2.2 million British ex-pats if they had to leave the other EU countries where they’ve made their homes we just don’t know. And then there’s the real joker in the pack: that Europe wants to smash England up into regions.
We want to see an England whose regions are thriving politically, economically and culturally. It can’t happen while all key decisions are being made in London. Nor can it happen by pretending that a host of often tiny and always cowed local authorities can make the really big choices on education, health or transport, or exercise law-making and tax-varying powers. Whether a regionalised England would be an England without national institutions – institutions at the all-England level – is however not actually in the gift of Brussels at all. It depends on decisions made by the government of the UK. It depends on how the relationship between Britain and England is expressed. EU membership is wholly irrelevant to the issue, which would continue to exist even if the continent did not.
Let’s take a common objection to the absence of an English Parliament. That England is the only European country without an elected national voice of its own. It’s not quite true, since England dominates the UK Parliament numerically and so the counter-objection that England doesn’t deserve two parliaments when others only have one each is not entirely unfounded. It’s also the case that the English Parliament even in mediæval times included representatives from Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. There is a much reproduced image of Edward I in Parliament flanked by Alexander, King of Scots and Llewelyn, Prince of Wales. If you go around claiming overlordship of the whole island then centuries later this sort of thing does come back to bite your descendants. There’s a precedent for a Scottish Parliament that just covers Scotland. There isn’t a precedent for an English Parliament that just covers England.
So make one? France has its Parlement. Germany has its Bundestag. Italy has its Parlamento. Spain has its Cortes Generales. Why not England? What all these countries also have is regional government. Yet English centralists, so keen to make international comparisons when demanding an English Parliament, take a strangely different line if regionalism is mentioned. It’s somehow not quite English enough. Too foreign. (Wessex, foreign?) Or, perhaps, grudgingly, something for an English Parliament to discuss later. Why later? If you’re going to change the constitution, why leave the job half-done? Why set up distinctly English ministries for a whole range of topics that could be dealt with regionally if you then have to dismantle them to bring regional devolution into being? We don’t work for an English Parliament, because it would not of itself advance our cause. We don’t take issue with its creation, so long as it has no power whatsoever to override the views of a Wessex Witan on what works best for Wessex.
What is clear is that if England were an EU Member State, the EU could no more be a threat to England than it can today be to any other country, including those that already have regional government. England, what crimes are committed in thy name! Full recognition of the rights of the other four home nations is denied out of a misplaced belief that the English national psyche cannot cope with the loss of empire, with the inability to find a leading ‘role’ in the world. Always the need to find someone to dominate, and someone to fight with. All so very Norman. Just like the refusal to devolve power to meaningful regions within England.
We have a ruling establishment that slips easily between being mainly English and being wholly British but cannot bring itself to be European. (Maybe it’s an Anglican thing, a hangover from the Tudors.) To its immense disappointment, it has discovered over the past 40 years that Europe is too big to be dominated. So it now wants to look elsewhere for a victim, while convincing as many folk as it can that the rest of Europe wants to dominate us. Instead of seeking allies in Europe, we in Wessex are urged to shun those with whom – as one of a number of predominantly rural regions being transformed for the worse by a powerful metropolitan neighbour – we actually have every reason to make common cause.