6 October 2020

So what if we’d never joined?


In May this year, Sir Keir Starmer rejected the possibility of an extension to the Brexit transition period. It’s fair to say this surprised many people, including me. Starmer was Remain’s standard-bearer during the December General Election. The architect of Labour’s manifesto promise to hold a second referendum, his commitment to Europe was never anything less than wholehearted.

Of course, one could argue he was cognisant of the immensity of Labour’s electoral defeat — and that his referendum policy played a role in it — and hamstrung by coronavirus, but the limp way he rolled over suggested other things were in play.

Professor Vernon Bogdanor, whose knowledge of constitutional matters is unparalleled, elucidates those “other things” with wonderful clarity in his Britain and Europe in a Troubled World, which was published late last month. In short, Starmer made no attempt to relitigate Brexit or extend the transition period because “Europe” and “banging on about it” deracinated British politics (both major parties and all the minors) for the best part of 50 years. The extent of this history is hard to credit, but Bogdanor pulls the story off con brio.

In 145 extraordinarily succinct pages, Bogdanor does something else, too: he forces the reader to ask whether the UK should ever have joined what later became the European Union, while acknowledging the reality of that accession and its effect on British politics. I didn’t think this was possible and suspect no one other than him could write such a book.

I say this because, when I was a little girl, one of my mother’s favourite quips — inevitably directed at me when I was trying to unpick some past foolish act — was “if ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ were pots and pans, there’d be no need for ironmongers”. Bogdanor sets out how, in many respects, Britain joining was foolish. He explains why it was foolish, and why so many interests on both sides started out thoroughly misaligned and stayed so until the 2016 Referendum result. However — and this is crucial to understand, and why I cannot recommend his book highly enough — there is no blame. He does not take a “side” as such, unless it is that of constitutionalism and peace.

He cannot be pinned as Leave or Remain and, for all its political analysis, his book is sensitive in its account of Britain’s three great traditions: liberalism, social democracy, and conservatism. Bogdanor flies the flag for liberalism (as he always has done) but it is a capacious liberalism, one large enough for both Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer and their respective parties, let alone historic liberals (and Liberals) who were always more pro-accession than Labour or Tories, going right back to the 1950s.

Simultaneously, he provides what amounts to the first half of a standard, year-long “Law of the European Union” course, something to every interested person’s benefit regardless of how he or she voted. His history of what people like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman set out to achieve in establishing the European Coal and Steel Community — and the extent to which it was a peace plan — is crafted in such a way as to warm the most ardent Leaver’s heart. That said, the ECSC and its successor organisations’ supranationalism coupled with broader (and legitimate) British hostility, over decades, towards Europe’s unelected politicians and elected officials is recounted in such a way as to set the most ardent Remainer back on his heels. Bogdanor makes Vote Leave’s democratic deficit argument better than anyone in that organisation ever did.

“What mechanism did the Schuman Plan propose? Schuman proposed that the coal and steel production of France and Germany be placed under a common governing body called the High Authority. That High Authority was to be a transnational body. Its members would be appointed by the member states, but they were not to be representatives of the member states. They were instead to represent a common European interest, an interest which transcended the interests of the separate member states. They were to embody a European, not a national perspective” [p 12].

The High Authority’s members were bound by ECSC rules to make decisions that favoured both Germany’s and France’s interests. They couldn’t support one country over the other, and they couldn’t do both down and so enter a mutually destructive spiral. In effect, the system was designed to prevent a classic game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, and all the while both it and its successor organisations remained small and its nation-state members had shared economic and political characteristics, it worked splendidly. As more countries (including the UK) joined and the Community expanded, the system became sclerotic, even inoperable.

Bogdanor’s account also emphasises the extent to which liberalism fell out of love with nationalism and democracy, shifting from its 19th century concern to give effect to, say, popular movements for self-determination, to seeing nationalism in particular but also democracy as enemies rather than friends. If Britain and Europe in a Troubled World has a core claim, it’s one that says liberalism, democracy, and nationalism need to mend fences, and swiftly, or the European Union could itself be consumed by the same forces that produced Brexit. 

To give readers an idea of the care with which Bogdanor both queries the wisdom of Britain joining in 1973 while also acknowledging the political realities attaching to membership, his discussion of Charles de Gaulle’s attitude to the UK and comments on the Common Agricultural Policy are instructive. As with the rest of his book, parts of the argument ruffle Remainer feathers and others pull Leavers’ tails.

As is well known, General de Gaulle bitterly opposed UK membership of the European Community, twice deploying France’s veto and only being overruled in death. His behaviour is often viewed as churlish and petty, but Bogdanor goes a long way towards rehabilitating his reputation as a statesman aware of both his own country’s history and what later became the EU’s shortcomings.

After his first “Non!” in 1963, de Gaulle observed that the European Communities comprised six continental states “which were of the same nature”. Britain, he said, was “insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines, to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones”. For de Gaulle, the Common Agricultural Policy was at the heart of the European Community, which amounted to little without it. Relatedly, he thought that if the UK joined before the CAP was nailed down, the Brits would seek to sabotage it.

And he had a point.

Bogdanor notes how, when the UK first sought accession, Britain’s agricultural sector contributed just 3.6% to its GDP and had little political cachet. In France, by contrast, agriculture was almost 20% of the economy, in Italy 25%, and in Germany 12.5%. Worse, European political parties of the centre-right depended on the votes of peasant farmers, who resisted high direct taxation. Between the wars, those same peasant farmers also formed a large part of fascist movements, and when they became indebted to moneylenders in bad years they often turned to crude anti-Semitism. De Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer and leaders in the Benelux countries developed and then defended the CAP out of acute awareness of “what they had done” (Bogdanor’s phrase, paraphrasing de Gaulle and others) during the last European war.

Before 1973, the UK’s management of its very different economic position was simplicity itself: it imported its food from the Commonwealth while providing its few farmers with “deficiency payments” to manicure the countryside. By the late 50s, it was clear Australia and Canada were already agricultural and resource superpowers with which European farmers could not compete. Not only did de Gaulle (rightly) point out that Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand farmers were richer than French or German farmers, they were also astonishingly productive and their produce was of higher quality. “Britain continues to supply itself cheaply in Canada, New Zealand, Australia,” he complained at one stage. “What will we do with European, and particularly French surpluses? If we have to spend 500 billion [francs] a year on agricultural subsidies what will happen if the Common Market can no longer assist us?”

The problem, of course, is that the CAP did not work like Britain’s taxpayer-funded deficiency payments. The CAP subsidised agriculture not through taxation but through guaranteed prices, which meant that Europe’s food was more expensive than that on the world market. In short, the consumer paid, and once Britain joined, its buyers were supporting continental food imports at the expense of those from the Commonwealth. Eighteen months after the 1975 referendum, when Britons had voted 2-to-1 to stay in, pollsters found the percentages had reversed — largely in response to increased food prices. In other words, the 2016 referendum result had agricultural roots, and it was clear British support for the wider EU “project” may have been miles-wide in June 1975, but it was only an inch deep.

“Sometimes perhaps one’s adversaries see one’s situation much more clearly than one’s friends,” Bogdanor observes at one point, drily, after yet another round of the Community versus a Britain that only wants to join because inflation is running at 26%.

As of last month, I’d written approximately 100,000 words on Brexit for outlets across four countries. I’ve read hundreds of academic papers, reviewed dozens of books, and spent last year watching far more BBC Parliament than is healthy. Sometimes I think DIED OF BREXIT is going to wind up on my tombstone.

If, however, you have no special interest in Brexit wonk-world and simply want to understand the arguments people made at the time and still make now, then Britain and Europe in a Troubled World is what you should read. It’ll only take you a few hours. And you’ll be both better informed and wiser as a result.

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Helen Dale read Law at Oxford and won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. Her latest novel is Kingdom of the Wicked; it was shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize for science fiction.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.