Charles Moore writes for The Daily Telegraph on his Margaret Thatcher Lecture 2012.
"Slowly, too slowly, the Tories are embracing ever looser union
As Michael Gove has proved, it is no longer a shock to consider life outside the EU
To win anything in politics, you have to know what you really want. I apologise for this statement of the obvious, but so often politicians do not stick to this rule. British leaders have failed to stick to it for the entire 40 years that Britain has been in what is now called the European Union. They expended so much political effort getting us in that they then sank back, exhausted.
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Since then, the policy has been essentially the same and usually inert – “Europe, jolly good thing; we’ve got to be in it; but don’t let’s go too fast.” Even Margaret Thatcher, who wrestled valiantly with the consequences of our membership, never succeeded in developing an alternative policy to attain a clear set of goals. She won many battles, but lost, in her political lifetime at least, the war. It was the continental founding nations and their integrationist thinkers who set the pace and direction.
This pattern still holds. Look at the trajectory since David Cameron became Conservative leader. At first, for reasons of party image, he did not want to “bang on about Europe”. Unfortunately, that also meant that he did not want to think about it. He secured a brief period of peace and quiet.
Then came the eurozone crisis, which roughly coincided with Mr Cameron reaching Downing Street. The British Government’s initial reaction was “We’re all right, Jack [or rather, Jean, Hans, Giovanni] – we aren’t in the euro, you are, ha ha ha.” But we weren’t all right. Eurozone slump hit us. European regulations tightened their stranglehold. Before long, our embattled Chancellor started talking about European “headwinds” holding us back.
Throughout, the eurozone leaders, however beleaguered, have maintained their 60-year-old sense of purpose. To them, the answer to each nightmare episode in the European dream is “more Europe”. Mrs Merkel now wants a new treaty imposing unprecedented EU control of national governments’ rights to tax and spend.
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So Mr Cameron has to bestir himself at last. He knows he will not survive in politics if he accepts “more Europe”. You will recently have read and heard hints that change is afoot.
The Conservatives at the top of the Government – the Liberal Democrats have learnt as little from the new situation as the Bourbons from the French Revolution – are doing something unusual. They are thinking. They recognise that an opt-out here, a delayed entry there, is not good enough. They agree, as Conservatives have never previously agreed, that the whole structure of the EU must be renegotiated.
Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet Office minister involved in the rethink, is in the unusual position of having considered this long ago. In 1986, fresh from membership of Mrs Thatcher’s Policy Unit, he published a pamphlet for the Centre for Policy Studies called Drift to Union and subtitled “wiser ways to a wider Community”. A quarter of a century later, his party seems ready to wise up.
In essence, the scheme is to turn the EU into two concentric rings. The inner ring shares the euro and undergoes political union. The outer ring avoids both these things and has a looser, trading membership grounded in national parliamentary sovereignty.
You could say that this split already exists, in fact if not in theory, but the difference is that, in the emerging model, the EU would be legally reconstituted. The inner ring would not be permitted to dictate to the outer. The Brussels version of Sauron’s “one ring to rule them all” doctrine would be broken at last. The authors of the idea expect that it will appeal to other EU member states who either fall out of the euro in coming years, or shy away from joining it, and also to members of the European Economic Area. But if it did not do so, they would still go ahead and negotiate these terms for Britain alone.
The political strategy recognises that the Liberals won’t agree, and so aims the change of policy not for this Parliament, but at the ballot box – the European elections in 2014, the national ones in 2015. “This is what we Conservatives will negotiate,” they will tell the voters. “When we have done so, we shall put it to you in a referendum.”
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Well, this is much better than anything anyone previously sitting in Downing Street has ever been able to offer the British people. But there are a few problems.
The first is trust. Among many natural Tory supporters, there isn’t any. Calls for a referendum come because people see it as a way of tying treacherous leaders down. In opposition, the Tories promised a referendum (on the Lisbon Treaty). There wasn’t one. If they promise one at the next election, on a deal not yet negotiated, will the voters believe them?
Related to the problem of trust is the problem of time. The developing Tory strategy assumes that the acute period of the euro crisis has passed and become chronic instead.
But what if that is not true? What if a nation suddenly falls out of the euro, or if a local problem leads to a systemic collapse? Then we cannot just sit and wait till 2015.
The same problem applies the other way round. If there is no acute crisis for some time, the EU will feel much stronger about batting away British demands for change. The moment for reform might pass and then, one must suspect, the Government would forget about it once more. British policy-makers should not sit around like weather forecasters observing which way things are going in Europe. They should be trying to make the weather.
Whether they make it or not, it is changing. When Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, let it be known recently that he would consider voting to leave the EU if the chance arose, the reaction was interesting. There hardly was any. Until very recently, anyone saying such things would have lost all chance of a front-bench career in any of the three big parties. It was the political equivalent of saying, after recent revelations, that Jimmy Savile wasn’t a bad chap.
Mr Gove, extremely close to Mr Cameron, suffered no rebuke. All he got was a warm, but low-key welcome from allies and hardly a word from anyone else. He has not been thrown out of polite society and has boosted his leadership chances. Until recently, the subject of Europe was governed much more by taboos than by argument. Today, those taboos have almost gone. Where it is a question of argument rather than atavism, Euroscepticism tends to prevail.
Can the Gove example go further? If Mr Cameron himself said that he wouldn’t mind leaving, he might lose Ken Clarke from his Government, but I suspect that his party could contain its grief. The Coalition would totter on.
As Mr Gove’s case shows, it is not a shock to contemplate life outside the EU. It is a rational choice – one with difficulties, yes, but many advantages too. The idea that our Continent needs close alliances is right. The idea that it needs to bind us all into one great Union is a historical anomaly, like the Union with the word “Soviet” in front of it.
The Tories need to say this, and mean it. The way to win any negotiation is to convince yourself – and therefore your opponent – that if you do not get what you really want, you will walk away. Only when voters know that a British political party will renegotiate with the EU in that spirit will they back it."
To read the article at its original destination, visit the Telegraph website.