This is going to be a crucial period in British political history, and the outcome is profoundly uncertain. At one extreme, it could lead to a British exit from the EU and the break-up of the Cameron government. At the other, it might end with a successful renegotiation of British membership on a sustainable basis, while Mr Cameron remains in control of his party. At present, there is no firm basis for making predictions.
This is not a new problem. The British have been arguing about the EU since the 1950s. When we agreed to join in 1973/75, it might have been thought that the arguments were over. So they were, for about five minutes. It quickly became clear that Britain had not actually joined Europe. Instead, there had been transplant surgery. A major new organ had been inserted into the British body politic, with the assistance of immuno-suppressant drugs. The enthusiasts assumed that the drugs could be phased out. On the contrary: the dosage was steadily increased and the danger of rejection is greater than ever.
There are two basic and related problems: geography and history. When Britain was sundered from the European mainland – patriots might see that as divine providence – our history inevitably diverged from the mainland’s. We were protected by our moat, the Channel. This became especially important in the era of nationalism and the wars of nations. European nationalism appeared to emerge from the Enlightenment and the universities. But the scholar’s gown quickly gave way to the jackboot. By 1945, Europe had almost been destroyed by nationalism.
It is hardly surprising that many Europeans had come to distrust the nation-state and to believe that only in supra-nationalism could Europe find survival. Hence the EU. But we in Britain had a radically different outlook. We had no reason to fear the nation-state. Our own one had protected our liberties, shaped our laws and inspired our patriotism. To us, the threat and the wars had come from attempts to create a European superstate: Philip 11, Louis X1V, Napoleon, Hitler…the EU. On the opposite sides of the Channel, there were two entirely different political cultures.
This has led to constant misunderstandings. Much of the European elite is sincere in its Euro-idealism. Its members are willing to pay a price for creating Europe. (A cynic might say that they are happier to do this because the price does not fall on them personally). To them, Britain’s reluctance to participate in all this betokens a lack of political morality. We seem only interested in Europe for what we can get out of it. We really belong with the Americans: their economic harshness, their lack of social solidarity – their irresponsible bankers and financiers.
The British have an obvious retort. First, we have always been net contributors to Europe. Second, this high-flown idealistic language is often a cover for bureaucratic sclerosis – and for mass unemployment, especially among the young. You cannot build Europe on a rubble of shattered hopes. If you try to do so, social unrest will rapidly ensue. There is a danger that the demons of the European past have not been exorcised, but are merely sleeping: an increasingly restless sleep.
That argument could continue indefinitely on parallel lines. David Cameron has now tried to find a compromise based on English pragmatism. He would like to stay in, as long as the EU is a tool which Britain can use, and is proposing a template for British membership which is far more compatible with our political culture. He has four main aims. First, to protect the City. Second, to insulate the UK from all this talk about ever-closer union. Third, to promote growth and competition (almost everyone in Europe pretends to agree with this, but nothing ever happens). Those three are all achievable; the problem comes with the fourth.
The Tory manifesto promised to reduce immigration from the EU. The PM proposes to do this by curtailing foreign workers’ rights to welfare benefits. This has upset some of our partners, who insist that free movement and equal treatment of labour are at the core of the EU’s values. Contrary to some reports, this has not led Mr Cameron to back down. He has merely said that if people object to his proposed way of achieving his goal, let them propose another method – but achieve it he will.
It is by no means certain that this renegotiation will succeed. David Cameron wants to stay in, but not at any cost. He also knows that he has little room for manoeuvre. A significant section of the Tory party, including at least thirty MPs, are committed Brexiters. No concessions would satisfy them. But at least twice as many MPs, and many Party activists, feel that their leader should have asked for much more and refused to take no for an answer.
So what will happen now? One point is clear: David Cameron can only succeed if he is prepared to carve out time for politics, campaign hard, and to repeat himself until he has got his points across. He will argue that although this is not a perfect deal, we do not live in a perfect world, but one which is becoming steadily more dangerous. While we could of course survive outside the EU, this is not the moment to disrupt our arrangements with our neighbours. The UK has one of the healthiest economies in the advanced world. Yet in this global environment, all economies are fragile. It would be foolish to take risks with our security.
The ‘Yes’ campaign has one asset: a sizeable majority of the weightiest and most reassuring politicians – and indeed statesmen. The two great propositions which have shaped so many elections will come to the fore: ‘time for a change’ and ‘the country is in good shape: don’t let the other lot wreck it’. Having started by writing that it would be folly to make a prediction, I shall commit an act of folly. There will be a successful negotiation, and the UK will vote to stay in by 55:45. But everything depends on the PM’s political leadership.