I’m too old to be a volunteer in the Tory civil war over Europe; and anyone who tried to conscript me would realise that I’m a possible deserter right up till
The split in the cabinet, the more even division among Tory MPs, and uncertainty over whether Boris Johnson’s role is circus-master or principal clown, have given the referendum campaign a spectacular start, even it wavers between drama and farce. But the civil war and the closely linked war of the Conservative succession, however they obsess participants and delight journalists, are of relatively minor importance. The real issue to be settled in whether a predominantly eurosceptic nation – and polling suggests that description fits Scotland as well as Britain – should sit uncomfortably within the European Union or plunge into the risks, exhilaration, recriminations, and awkwardly complex negotiations which would follow secession.
Are we all eurosceptics now? We ought to be. David Cameron didn’t bring back any fundamental reform of the EU or even begin to assault its main weaknesses. He had no hope of doing so and wisely didn’t try. We are stuck with far more directives and derivative regulation that are needed for either a single market or a political concord. We are lumbered for the foreseeable future with the awful hybrid beast of the commission, part civil service and part aspiring federal government led by would-be federal politicians. We still have cause to fear the itch for power of a European Parliament whose leaders (not least its present German Socialist president, Martin Schulz) would like to build an empire but haven’t quite found a role.
What Cameron sought and achieved was a much more limited objective: he has consolidated a post-nuptial agreement which recognises that Britain’s espousal of the EU is a marriage of convenience, common interest, and a limited amount of mutual affection. Much of this was implicit in our rejection of the euro, our defence of Margaret Thatcher’s well-won rebate, and our opt-out from the now so sorely strained Schengen agreement. But Cameron has won a little more, and even legitimised an attitude which many British supporters of EU membership were too wary to admit too loudly. He deserves the benefit of Dr Johnson’s unkind and half-obsolete epigram about dogs walking on their hind legs and women preaching. When assessing his limited success we should be 'surprised that it is done at all' at a time when the chronic troubles of the euro-system and the union’s confusion in face of mass migration have shown how hard it is to find, fix, and sustain adequate responses to unwelcome or unexpected challenges.
Cameron reached his limited objectives because Donald Tusk and Angela Merkel were helpful and, with more skill than he is usually credited with in EU matters, convinced them and others of his sincerity when he argued that he wanted to stay in but might find himself forced out.
It might have been better if these skills had been deployed to avoid having a referendum at all or to delay it till the Greek kalends – if Alexis Tsipras still permits that expression. But present politics are often about consequences of past mistakes, some of them in European matters stretching back to Britain’s belated acceptance that the Common Market had come to stay and to evolve.
Now the choice is between making the best of less than we wanted (but as much as we could really hope for) and opting for a declaration of independence which offers some opportunities but might be based on illusions. It would not be the end of our entanglement with Brussels bureaucracy, for it would be the prelude to complex and recurring negotiations on the terms of economic association in which we would be the weaker party. It would not free us from some of the stranger interpretations of human rights laws, for these derive from commitments quite separate from EU membership. It would not solve the deepest-rooted of the problems caused by ill-regulated immigration, for those (notwithstanding the real pressures on public services in parts of England) are not mainly caused by Polish plumbers or Balkan beggars but by the growth of communities far harder to assimilate or unwilling to be assimilated. It would not give us sufficiently increased independent influence in the world to outweigh the loss of influence in the political and strategic assumptions of the rest of the EU.
These realities should incline genuine eurosceptics, as distinct from europhobes, rather to bear the ills we have than fly to others we know not of. There are times when the better choice is settle for the lesser evil and try to lessen it still further. Nor need there be any shame in signing up to what opponents call a 'Project Fear'. Sound politics always involves recognising what we should be afraid of – as they did in another referendum of recent and (after the result) relatively happy memory.
But the possibility of another Scottish referendum, as threatened by the SNP after a British vote to leave the EU, isn’t a happy prospect. The safest course for sensible Scottish eurosceptics who believe in Britain is to deny the SNP (who have changed sides since the last referendum on Europe) an excuse for another attempt to break-up the United Kingdom. That’s not because we should be intimidated by Nicola Surgeon and her claque of media admirers or because the SNP and its referendum front-organisations would win after switching from eurounionism to UK secessionism.
My guess is that they wouldn’t. But my fear is that such a referendum, and even preliminary arguments about whether it could or should be held, would poison the political and social atmosphere in a way that the last one narrowly failed to do. There would be less amiable chatter about the 'social union' of Britain and full scope for the latent anglophobia never far below the surface of the nationalist movement. Ambiguity about the role of sterling would give way to rancorous exchanges about prospects for the euro and the attitude of its minders, fresh from their training-grounds in Greece. And this time the rancour and hatred would not be on one side only or need the artificial stimulation the SNP worked up against the imaginary bias of the media, already too often too deferential to their would-be regulators at Holyrood.
But these concerns are really less a 'Project Fear' than reasonable anxieties, which should be especially acute for Conservatives but not confined to them, that in present conditions a British vote to leave the EU would not be an act of liberation but a threat of disruption. The threat is not only to an ill-assorted, ill-managed, and uncomfortable European Union that badly needs reform but to the United Kingdom itself and the wider Western concord expressed in Nato. A vote to secede would leave too much still to be settled, too many new uncertainties, too much ill-feeling, too many fresh feuds ready to break out among people who have little in common except their dislike of European institutions. It would also allow and almost certainly encourage the rest of the EU countries to blame Britain for the troubles which lie ahead for the 'European Project' whether we opt out or not.
It would be a mistake to allow our justified scepticism about over-regulation and 'ever-closer union' to be misconstrued as an insular dislike of foreigners and unwillingness to recognise common European interests. We should not make the mistake of thinking that because we cannot get all we want within the European Union – even when we are right – that we can get all we’d like by opting out of it. We wouldn’t. We should offer the EU the continued benefit of constructive scepticism.