Cameron on Europe “turned a trap into a tryst with destiny”
David Hayes has a lovely long essay on Britain’s history with Europe in Inside Story, an Australian website. He sees the crisis of the eurozone as a big moment in this long story, which “makes the prime minister’s referendum démarche on 23 January all the more intelligible, and his craftsmanship in turning a political trap into a tryst with destiny all the more impressive”.
It is written for an international audience, which makes its clarity and grasp of long themes so superb. I recommend it all, but if you haven’t time, here is the conclusion:
Tagged in: contemporary history, euro, europe, euroscepticism
First, so polarised has this debate been for so long that it will be very hard to establish even a shared definition of its terms as a basis for the detailed public discussion to follow.
Second, there will be more fissures and realignments inside as well as between both main camps. It may be, for example, that the incompatible visions within the Eurosceptic pantomime-horse – the populist anti-immigrant moralisers of the UKIP, the localising eco-left, and the globalising libertarians – will at last properly be explored. The argument that Britain can and should become a flexible, dynamic, low-tax hub of world trade – and that this is the exit-route from economic stagnation as well as from Europe – needs to be made, as does the argument that only a radical shift towards a more settled, hi-tech, low-carbon economy can ensure prosperity and security.
Cameron’s “Euroreformers” – as they may come to be called – will also find it hard to build a cohesive coalition in favour of the endgame the prime minister seeks. Some outflanking will come from the contentedly pro-EU side as business lobbies and new pressure groups mobilise; and internal Tory pressures will accentuate as EU reform (and eurozone integration) evolve between now and 2017. (The perceptive Alex Massie even predicts these will result in a split – though perhaps the UKIP is, in effect, that split).
Third, for all the appeal of declinism, elections (and referendums) in Britain tend to be won more by optimism. This is bad news for gloom-spreading Europhobes (and, insofar as they dominate the Eurosceptic camp, the latter as a whole), and may in the end – despite current evidence – be good news for independence campaigners in Scotland.
Fourth, the “in or out” question is also the latest episode of displacement in this, the genre’s master-country. Much of the post-1945 history reviewed here can be read as one of abortive modernisations – with Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Blair and now Cameron as the leading cast. In this long-running play, “Europe” is – and perhaps always was – a convenient hook on which to hang a problem that is actually internal to the country: an unresolved sense of its post-imperial place in the world.
In this larger frame, the next several years begin to look even more testing for a Britain more confident with its past than comfortable with any of the futures on offer. Perhaps the machinery of governance will continue on its adaptive way – after all, muddling through is arguably not just what Britain does, but what it is. For all that, a country used to evading clear choices for so long may one day find that it has lost the ability to make them.
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