Britain’s eternally uneasy political relationship with Europe is fast deteriorating, a rueful fact that Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech last week in Bloomberg’s London HQ will confirm. From the inescapable symbolism of the corporate setting to Cameron’s awkward affectations of sincerity, this was a particularly painful piece of theatre.
Replete with vague sentimental characterisations of Britishness, the unsubtle rehearsal of Thatcherite themes and the tactical use of gently-stated, but consciously-deployed implicit threats, the PM’s speech could hardly have been more New Tory. Make no mistake. This was a part of Cameron’s re-election campaign, the opening shots of a war that must be fought on two fronts: engaging the popular vote in Britain, and regaining fading support from within his own party (particularly from those to his right,) in order to secure an improbable electoral victory in 2015.
Accordingly, the content of his address contained the sort of sentiment that he most likely hoped would appease these two kingmaking entities – predictable references to “sovereignty,” giving voice to enduring anxieties about rule from Brussels. And it seems that his gamble has paid off, at least initially. The resort to deepened Euroscepticism elicited a rapturous Tory response, and a bounce in the polls.
This isn’t a real surprise: the Conservative party have never had an instinct for European integration, while the public remains generally hostile to the (overstated, chimerical) notion that their affairs may be increasingly determined by an opaque continental bureaucracy.
Regardless of the appeal to many Britons of much in the Prime Minister’s speech, the implications of the key pledge on the horizon – a guaranteed “in/out” referendum on Britain’s continued presence in the EU – needs to be assessed carefully. In the event of a Conservative victory in 2015, Cameron will be obliged to deliver this as he promised. As most people know, there is a very real chance the majority of the electorate will vote for an exit, the consequences of which could be very bad – worse for the UK, than for Europe.
Any counterfeit sense of British empowerment wrought from this hard-headed gamble should not overshadow the cynicism at work behind the ploy; nor the possibility that it could backfire disastrously.
The Tories have ever played on the mindset of those who slave away in low-paying jobs, resent losing crucial portions of what little they do earn through taxes, and who sense and fear the insecurity of their employment. By appealing to such common concerns, largely through fear-mongering about Labour tax rises and immigration policy, they managed to secure a surprise electoral victory in 1992 against the polls.
Such themes reworked to appeal to the parochial aspects of the British psyche are powerful enough to generate political capital at a time when a Labour majority in the next election looks likely. This is an apt moment to appeal to populism, too, given that the Tories know that their economic policies are increasingly looking not just discredited, but suicidal; yet for all this the party remains dedicated to their economic reforms, as a part of an ideological drive to balance the books and permanently cut the size of the state.
Thus, a distraction at this difficult time serves their cause, especially given the recent news of a possible return to recession on the horizon – something that the mystifyingly immovable Chancellor of the Exchequer cannot pin on his Labour predecessors after three years in power.
There are other agendas behind the move to mull. It may have gone unnoticed by many, but one of the Conservatives’ main objections to European influence over Britain are laws that the party cannot overturn without achieving the “re-patriation” of powers that Cameron is seeking.
These include directives that regulate financial practices and limit the degree to which employers can take advantage of their workers. They rarely evince such interests publicly for fear of reminding people of their essential loyalties, but it is nonetheless recognised that protections such as those guaranteed in the The Working Time Directive, which ensures employees half-decent rights in the workplace such as breaks every six hours, have long been seen disfavorably by party troglodytes.
Cameron mentioned this particular item in his speech as something he’d like Britain to not be beholden to. In the event of negotiations, many other important provisions like the right to paid holidays, health and safety protections and equal treatment for women, among others, may also face the axe.
In addition to this, environmental protections enshrined in European law could be defenestrated in the event of repatriation or an EU exit. Cameron’s stated dissatisfaction with the Human Rights Act in relationship to Europe and other progressive laws likewise bode ill.
Britain has a lot to lose on the economic front too. The shock of an EU exit on the British economy, presumably deprived of growth by a reluctance to embrace a more Keynesian approach to its troubles (short of some government policy U-turn,) may find itself in a critical state. Regional capital may peregrinate from London to Frankfurt or Paris, where a consolidated European financial centre to rival the City may establish itself.
On the other hand, Cameron may instead succeed in refashioning Britain’s relationship with Europe, repatriating many powers and maintaining London’s presence in the Union, but sending resentment towards the UK through the roof. Domestic Tory assaults on the rights of workers will be extended, and other reactionary social policies will be enabled by the lifting of progressive European laws, while affected Brits will lose their right to flee to the continent with ease.
Either way, the latest Conservative move does not bode well for Europe or Britain – despite the boost Cameron has received at home for his gamble. On the balance of analysis, the best outcome for country and continent is that the Tories lose the next election. Given Labour’s healthy lead in the polls there’s a real chance that this may happen. However, the Tories are a tenacious tribe. Given the lessons of ‘92, nothing should be taken for granted.
Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit