On both sides of the Atlantic there is a dangerous disconnect between the rulers and the ruled. That is why, I suspect, such unlikely characters as Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump have confounded all expectations and caused us to believe that, in the current febrile atmosphere, virtually anything in politics can happen. The same disconnect can be said of the unelected and unaccountable gnomes of Brussels. At the moment we are cynically digesting the latest piece of hyperbole concerning the coming EU referendum and await with trepidation the next shocking apocalyptic revelation.
Genocide and war, they tell us, is a possible consequence if we make the wrong decision, as is a five-million rush to these crowded shores to swell our already ballooning numbers. The ten plagues of Egypt must surely be in the pipeline as the next possible item on the agenda. Which side will jump in with its own 21st century version of these horrors to scare the living daylights out of us is anybody’s guess. Is the public buying any of this nonsense? I suspect not.
Forecasts are notoriously unreliable. We spend billions worldwide trying to predict the weather and still we get it wrong. In the seventies, National Geographic featured scientists forecasting another ice age. In the 1920s, economists were convinced that a return to the gold standard would cure our economic woes. It made them worse. When Mrs Thatcher proposed her remedies, 364 leading economists signed a letter to say they would not work. They did. When the three party leaders, the entirety of the establishment and almost all the chattering classes said we should join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in the early 1990s, the ERM, they were wrong again. Many of the same group of know-alls also wanted us sign up to the euro and predicted doom if we did not. How lucky for us that we declined to listen to them. “We would be able to do our business in Afghanistan without loss of life,” said the defence minister. Nearly 500 died. 13,000 would come to us from Eastern Europe, said Labour. Over 1,000,000 did. When George Osborne proposed austerity, Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, rushed in saying he was “playing with fire.” We ended up with the highest growth rate in the western world and over 2 million new jobs created. The governor of the Bank of England said it would be necessary to put up interest rates when employment fell below 7%. It was not.
So much for the “experts” knowing what will happen. Why should we take any of their forecast seriously?
Referendums may seem like a good idea and, doubtless, they have their place in a working democracy, but they have a way of polarising society in a manner that general elections do not. Perhaps it is because they concern huge and generational issues, the results of which cannot be unpicked five years down the line when you realise you got it wrong. Whatever the reason, they seem to generate a level of bitterness unique to themselves. Remember the nastiness of some of the SNP zealots in 2014? Had I been a unionist at that time, I certainly would have thought it prudent to keep my head down and definitely not put a poster in my Glasgow flat window.
The truth is that whatever is decided on 23rd June, the show will go on and the good ship Great Britain Plc. will plough on much as it did throughout all those centuries before the European Union was even heard of.
At this moment in history it cannot be denied that the EU is going through a rough patch. The euro may yet implode; even moneybags Germany has not enough to save beleaguered Spain, never mind troubled Italy if the markets call time on them. The single currency was certainly ill-conceived and has massive problems which have yet to be addressed. As for the Schengen Zone – that great leap of idealism – it poses a huge security risk in this volatile, post-9/11 world and it could be dynamite, literally. The EU’s policies are driving extremism in Europe leading to the rise of neo-Fascist parties. In terms of job creation, the EU is currently a disaster area and its growth rates is abysmal (on both of these counts we are an exception). A good case, you might argue for the Brexit. Why cling to a loser?
At the same time, you might equally argue that to cut ourselves loose might be to put ourselves on the wrong side of history. As well as staying at peace, a continent united is obviously going to be able to make its voice heard loudly in the world and its trade deals carry enormous clout.
Europe’s whole history since Rome fell apart has been to find a way of getting back together again. Various of its more powerful states have sought to do it under their own hegemony, but that has been unacceptable to the rest. Europe’s glory, and you have to say achievement, today is that it has found a way of doing so largely by consent rather than by coercion. Yet unfortunately in many important areas it has messed up and its democratic credentials are seriously flawed.
Perhaps a vote to leave might provide the system with the jolt it needs to make it acceptable, not just to us but to others who do not wish to see their identity subsumed in a monolithic super state which wishes to homogenise them all into a blandness and make all Europe seem the same. If Europe is to succeed a way must be found to preserve its charming idiosyncrasies as well as a meaningful level of sovereignty for its nation states.
The Europe which we put our signature to almost two generations ago is not the Europe we are being asked to vote on in a few weeks’ time. Then it was all about trade, except that is wasn’t.
The European Common Market began its life as something of a confidence trick. The political classes knew from the very beginning that it was a political project designed to relegate the nation states of Europe to a subservient role. They had concluded that they were nothing but trouble and were the biggest single cause of its terrible wars.
Just the same they knew that the peoples of Europe were, almost without exception, lovers of the lands which bore them and felt a deep attachment to the cultures which had developed within their borders. Talk at that stage of a European Union might have frightened the horses and run the risk of it being still-born. So they had to tread carefully. A mighty trading bloc though? Well, who could object to that? We all want to improve our standard of living.
Thus was born the Common Market. Europe had always been strong on markets and the use of that word was perfectly designed to allay suspicions. They were content to play the long game. Stage one was to lock the lot in lucrative trade arrangements, recognising that nations doing the bulk of their business with each other could not, thereafter, easily break free.
Actually, the whole business had begun even before the Treaty of Rome with the creation of the Iron and Steel Community of France, Germany and the Benelux countries. The idea there was that you couldn’t go charging off with a secret re-armament programme, as Hitlerite Germany had done, if all your iron and steel came from a common source.
Europe had had enough of war and a system, so they reasoned, had to be created whereby future outbreaks would be next to impossible. Although there was nothing wrong about that, hadn’t the setting up of NATO nine years earlier achieved that? As Europe grew richer – helped in no small part by the generosity of Uncle Sam with his Marshall Aid programme – it became safe to move on to stage two of the project and chuck overboard that boring old, and grudgingly conceded title, Common Market. Now it became the European Community.
Still no feathers were ruffled, but the more discerning of us could see where the project was headed. Not long afterwards came the great European Union and all was plain to see. With that came the burgundy coloured passports that let us all know – in case naively, a few of us nursed any continuing illusions of national independence – that we were now part of a burgeoning superstate. The Euro was meant to be the final brick in the wall.
The reason all the member states, with the exception of Britain, had been so accepting of the project was that they believed that the nation state, through its inability to protect them from the ravages of war, had been discredited. Only Britain’s island status had saved it from occupation. It therefore had no reason to lose faith in the nation. It stood proud of its institutions and the fact that its Industrial Revolution had changed the face of humanity. Also its exalted former position as the world’s greatest empire made it harder for it to become just another brick in the wall.
But now we must decide: do we cut loose and regain that independence which has been lost, or do we stick with it and with the confidence of a major player work within the system to bring it to the democratic accountability which we Anglo Saxons insist on? We are far from being alone in wishing this.
The world is increasingly moving in favour of what may be called the Anglosphere with our language and business models reigning supreme. I do not doubt that Britain PLC could cut a swathe in the world, but do we want a mighty power on our doorstep which we are unable to influence?
Nevertheless, worries abound concerning immigration, which apart from putting all our public services under strain, has the power to change the character of our country forever. Much of the fury and distrust of the political class which drives the Trump presidential campaign in America is at work here in Britain. They never asked us, say the doubters, about immigration and they never asked us if we were willing to cede sovereignty. They seem only interested in looking after themselves. And as to what Europe was really all about that, well that too, was founded on a lie.
Although the EU was a work of the utmost deceit, we are where we are and we should not necessarily quit because of that. Perhaps the best reason to stay is a geopolitical one. Out of the EU, however brilliantly we handle our affairs, with a population of 64 million ours might end up being a forlorn voice crying in the wilderness.
It is not an easy choice to make. But then who ever said life was easy?
It seems clear to me that a major link-up between the two top Teutonic powers of Europe – Britain and Germany – along with lesser like-minded powers to the north and east is taking place. The tectonic plates of Europe are on the move in a way that may prove irreversible. This will certainly be viewed with horror in Paris.
That invitation from Angela Merkel for David Cameron to come and visit her at her home north of Berlin a few weeks ago and to bring his wife and children has, I believe, great implications. She even wheeled out her hermit husband for the weekend soiree.
It had all the characteristics of a love-in. No other European leader has had such an invitation or been accorded such warmth and hospitality. It is known that the pastor’s daughter holds Cameron in the highest esteem – perhaps that Eton grooming helps – and it will have been reinforced, I’m sure, by the shy, but charming, Sam Cam – and her equally delightful children. Such personal chemistry and bonhomie really does matter. The invite, in my opinion, speaks volumes.
But equally importantly her whole philosophy of life gels with that of the foreign leader she is said to have once described as her “naughty, but charming, nephew”. Naughty because, at a time of huge difficulty for her beloved Euro Project, he has rocked the boat by demanding fundamental changes to the way the EU goes about its business.
It is not as if she disagrees with much of what he committed to put before the British people in a 2017 Referendum, should he retain power, but because it’s complicated and will take a lot of what she does not have: time. As it happens, most of her fellow countrymen agree with David Cameron. They, too, dislike much of what is coming out of Brussels and would like to see things done differently. But she wants to keep her eye on the Euro ball, whose solution – if there is one – is also complicated. She feels she cannot afford the distraction of a major renegotiation of EU treaties at this time. There is also the added factor that she is up for re-election in September and has all that circus ballyhoo to worry about. Cool and detached, as Angela famously is, she is in danger of becoming stressed and Davy boy, right now, isn’t helping.
What with France’s weak and hopelessly left-leaning ‘leader’ – distracted as he is with woman problems and who cannot see the necessity for tough measures in France – she is at her wits’ end. The Franco-German axis, which has been the engine of the EU since its beginning, is unravelling.
France, under Hollande, seems destined to be the flag-bearer of a southern rim of EU countries which will put up with no more belt-tightening. Merkel admires little Ireland’s heroic acceptance of the need to pay off its debts, but she is fast losing patience with the other PIGS (Portugal, Greece and Spain, that is). She is full of praise for Cameron’s recognition that sound money and balancing the books is central to everything. Also his open trading outlook and market philosophy equates exactly with her own. She has no truck with spending your way out of debt. She sees David Cameron as an economic soul mate.
Germany herself has still not shaken off the terrible legacy of WWII and she is unwilling to take the lead in Europe on her own for fear of cries of a Fourth Reich being hurled about. She feels she has to have a partner who is ‘respectable’ and can front up everything diplomatically while she can make the running economically. France, for fifty years, has been that partner. Yet now the dice have rolled in another direction and an alignment of Teutonic powers seems in the offing. Is this a good thing? It certainly will not seem so in Paris, which will be outraged at its relegation and see the hand of perfidious Albion at work all over again. As virtually the creator of the EU, which she saw primarily as a means of controlling German ambitions, she has seen her dominance slide inexorably. That is why, originally, she was so keen to keep ‘interfering’ Britain out. But this proved impossible in the end, especially when you had a British leader, in Edward Heath, who was prepared to sell the pass and demean himself as a wretched supplicant, to get in.
Now, more and more countries have been allowed to join the original Club of Six – chiefly at the instigation of Britain – and France’s position has weakened with each new entrant. Most infuriating of all, they seem to want to use English in preference to French in the corridors of Brussels power! Once you could not get a job anywhere – even a lowly one – if you were not fluent in French, but now the point had been reached in which the Brussels power brokers actually had the audacity to appoint a Union foreign minister who spoke no other language but English. That was the ultimate insult.
I have no doubt that Europe has the capability to become the dominant power in the world if only it can get its act together. Its GDP is already way ahead of Uncle Sam’s and it will only widen. In terms of any numbers you care to look at, it is perfectly within its reach to see off competition from the east for the rest of this century. I look to the day when Russia itself comes knocking at the EU door. It is essentially a European country.
Europe’s cultural dominance is already unassailable: its music; its art; its literature; its universities; its history; its multiplicity of matchless ancient cities. Even its science is on a par with the US. I see no reason for us to be downcast. All things come to an end, including this wretched recession.
So will David Cameron get his deal, which will persuade enough Britons to back him in the referendum? I think he will. Angela will see to that, one way or another, and she will be assisted by Britain’s many other friends in Europe. France will be incandescent. Germany does not wish to lose a country which she sees as pivotal to Europe’s future; one that has played so crucial a role in its past. America will be delighted, for she will feel that in the coming difficult world, where after 500 years a resurgent east threatens to displace a weary west, a half a billion people, all speaking its own language – as a back up – and mentored by his closest ally and friend, will be there to stiffen its own resolve. And that same Europe may well be a Europe fashioned after the Anglo Saxon model – one very much to the US liking. Rest assured, too, that Uncle Sam himself is far from finished. He will come bouncing back, I am sure, with all that energy we are so familiar with. Together with Europe, it will be a bloc more than capable of looking after itself in a fast-changing world.