Saturday, 6 June 2009

A conflict of loyalty

With the European Parliament elections over and with all our dutifully placed X's in that increasingly meaningless little eurobox, I'd like to take this opportunity to seriously challenge every single Tory voter out there. Having tottered home from the polling booth to the quite exquisite sight of a Prime Minister-in-roasting, my question to you is this. How close did you get to doing it? You know what I mean. Come on... how many times did that string-tied little pencil dart from one end of the (rather large) ballot paper to the other? In all seriousness? For I hazard there was barely a blue finger in the land that did not totter, even for a moment, over that most tempting of forbidden fruits - I speak, of course, of voting Ukip.

It is a temptation that has, for better or worse, already consumed a number of Adams from the Conservative party in recent months. Lord Pearson, Lord Willoughby de Broke, Lord Dartmouth, Stuart Wheeler, and most recently former chairman Stanley Kalms. Lord Tebbit may prove to be the latest casualty of this trend if he doesn't learn to keep his mouth shut. At the end of Tory Bear's Conference after-party in Birmingham last year, I myself (vaguely) remember having to help convince one young member (while blind drunk) that remaining with the Conservatives was the wisest and, in the long term, more effective choice over joining Ukip (p.s. if you're ever in a position to be DJ-ing at Party Conference, lay off the free champers...).

It seems to me that the cause of this whole storm in a teacup may be the nature of politics itself. The question being; is it all about integrity and conviction or is it simply pragmatism and expediency? Arguably the fine art of politics is finding a balance between the two - between what you believe to be right and what you believe you can do. Yet, in a two-party system it can often seem as though the latter assumes a significantly greater importance. This seems particularly true concerning the European Union because its very structure, it's raison d'être goes right to the heart of so many core Conservatives ideas on democracy, the state, the rule of law, markets, liberty and national identity. Every single one is touched (one might say trampled) upon directly by the EU. This fundamentally undemocratic, unaccountable, protectionist, coercive, illiberal, wasteful and vastly bureaucratic monolith that undermines, in every one of its institutions, the very idea of sovereignty itself - whether that be national or popular.

Yet still two of the three main parties wholeheartedly support our membership of this gorgon. Furthermore, that the Conservatives' position is ambiguous at best, non-existent at worst makes the matter profoundly more frustrating. Splits orchestrated by a few 'big beasts' in the 1990s have naturally made discussion of EU membership a taboo subject in the upper echelons of the party machinery. Yet practically every grass-roots Tory you are likely to meet is, for whatever reason, virulently anti-EU and I dare say, strongly for withdrawal. All the same, the Conservative party does nothing. The fear of splits is all-embracing and, right before a general election, perfectly understandable. The much-celebrated presence of Kenneth Clarke in the Shadow Cabinet - who has already spoken against party policy on a number of occasions - becomes something of a liability in this respect.

And yet the most pressing argument on the subject is also the one that appears to be the least heard. Namely, that the Europe the British people approved membership of in the 1975 Referendum was not the same as the Europe we have today. It didn't even have the same name - the European Economic Community sold to us then was of a Common Market and nothing more. Edward Heath, the incumbent Conservative Prime Minister at the time of our accession (1973), was very vocal on this point, stressing that it did in no way entail any loss of sovereignty, then or in the future. Labour incidentally were very much against the Common Market, which is why the Referendum took place following their election victory in 1974. How times have changed.

The puzzle is that, even having made this promise to the nation, Heath maintained to his death in 2005 that gaining EEC membership for Britain was his greatest achievement - even after the EU had already made extensive inroads into our national sovereignty. Today, more than thirty years after the 1975 Referendum, the EU makes more than 75% of the laws passed in this country. Yet we have been a denied a referendum on a treaty that would enshrine an even further encroachment of this already precious remaining sovereignty. Time and time again the British public are told that they are wrong by the political class, despite 55% opposing EU membership.

This is the fear that appears to drive the many crises in faith we are seeing among Conservative members - that the only realistic way to stop this now very open and unabashed drive towards political federalism is unilateral withdrawal from the European Union. What I gather is making Ukip so appealing is the belief that the Conservatives are never likely to deliver on this. As the only vaguely eurosceptic of the main parties, their ambiguity appears to make Britain's absorption into a federal European super-state and the permanent loss of our sovereignty all but inevitable. 

For make no mistake - if the Lisbon Treaty is successfully put into law, the sort of concessions that John Major extracted at Maastricht in 1993 will become a thing of the past. Britain's voice - which has always strayed far from the course taken by those in Europe - will be subsumed under a tidal wave of qualified majority voting in a 27-member union. Any who maintain the illusion that we have ever exercised any influence in shaping the EU would surely see this vanish under Lisbon. Our unique laws, legal system, economy and constitution would be mercilessly trampled under the stampeding tyranny of a foreign majority. Not for nothing did Peter Drucker claim in The End of Economic Man (1939) that 'The new freedom preached in Europe is ... the right of the majority over the individual'. Any power we have left to prevent the mauling of our constitution and our liberties would be lost. And let's face it - they've already taken quite a beating under Labour.

Don't get me wrong - I have no doubt that David Cameron dislikes the EU just as much as Nigel Farage. It's just that there is very little he can actually do. He leads a very broad-based party and would lead the country - both of which have very powerful and influencial voices against any radical change in Britain's membership. Some have a genuine enthusiasm for the EU, while others - though hardly enthusiastic europhiles - seem to believe that the consequences of our leaving would be too damaging to Britain's trade and standing with the rest of the world. It is also frequently leveled at the Conservatives - and not without justification - that any referendum on the Lisbon Treaty would be legally useless once and if it is ratified. The moment it becomes law, the only way to reverse it would be to leave the EU altogether. Indeed, this has been cited by Polly Toynbee and other 'liberal' voices as grounds for not giving the public a say in the matter at all. This kind of a headache I can perfectly understand David Cameron wishing to save for better days.

So what will he do? At this point the answer seems quite uncertain - he could really go either way, and the decision will reveal much about the strength of his convictions. Does he believe he can achieve more in positive dialogue with the EU or in unleashing the British public's misgivings to it? The whole conflict reminds me very much of the personal and political antagonism between William Pitt and Charles James Fox. As a biographer of Pitt and future Foreign Secretary, I do hope that William Hague might appreciate the analogy. He will, after all be the public face of this government's action or inaction with regards to Europe.

Both Pitt and Fox led factions in the House of Commons that called themselves Whigs (though Pitt is now considered the first modern Tory) and their policies were broadly of the same aristocratic mould. Both favoured some degree of electoral and constitutional reform, in particular limiting the powers of the monarch. However, whilst Pitt - as the King's First Minister - approached this with a great deal of caution, Fox passionately bellowed from the Parliamentary hilltops as a matter of personal and political principle. Where the French Revolution had effectively torpedoed Pitt's must-cherished hopes of reform (and at times even pushed him to suspend habeas corpus), for Fox it served only to fan the flames of his already very vocal radicalism and hostility to George III. Indeed, since the American Revolution he had taken to wearing only the blue and cream colours of the Continental Army at all times.

Of course, the crucial thing to note about the careers of Pitt and Fox is that for the 20 years between 1783 and 1806, it was Pitt and his party that were in government while Fox was in seemingly eternal Opposition. Indeed, it brings us neatly back to that fundamental question - what is politics? Is it the Foxite expression of pure, undying principle and integrity, or the more Pittite art of the possible? More specifically; is an anti-federalist more influential in the Conservative party or in Ukip?

I believe this question is central to the conflict raging in the hearts of a good many otherwise loyal Tory supporters. It will be one of the many difficult issues facing the new Conservative government when this current motley crew finally goes overboard, and will need to be addressed with both sensitivity and boldness. Failure in this task would undoubtedly be a disaster both for the country and for the Conservative party, the latter of which have arguably suffered enough over the question of Europe. Nonetheless, it will need to be settled. For, if you will excuse the reference, if it is not, the time may come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which we have ourselves wrestled with for perhaps too long.