Ewan Crawford: A mature debate on Europe is long overdue
LABOUR’S consistency of attack on the Tories may score political points, but it doesn’t help Scotland get a hearing in talks on the future of the bloc, writes Ewan Crawford
WHEN political leaders move from opposition to government, the speed with which they adopt the language of power can be remarkable. No matter who wins the election it is only a matter of time before the victorious party, when responding to criticism of economic policy, accuses the opposition of “talking the country down”.
And there are few catastrophes that cannot be blamed in some respect on either “the mess the previous lot left for us to clear up” or outside events.
When Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown were in charge of Britain’s economy, the recession, they patiently explained, was nothing to do with them or the Labour Party. Instead it was the result of mysterious and clearly malevolent forces: global factors, US-style sub-prime lending and greedy bankers.
The Conservatives, of course, rubbished this explanation. They said it was just another example of how a Labour government always ran out of money because of incompetence.
However, once they were across the threshold of Downing Street and presiding over another recession those external factors once again came in handy. This time it was of course nothing to do with domestic stewardship of the economy, but mainly the crisis in the eurozone.
For Labour, by contrast, the problem has miraculously become primarily a local one. This recession, it says, is made in Downing Street.
The polling company YouGov this week found that the external explanation for Britain’s woes had found some traction among UK voters. Although both the Chancellor and his Labour shadow Ed Balls received a firm thumbs-down, it was “global factors and the debt crisis in the eurozone” that was held to be more responsible than either main Westminster party for the fact that Britain is still in recession.
I suspect a similar poll confined to Scotland might put a much larger share of the blame in the hands of the London parties, and in particular the Conservatives (judging by the Tories’ most recent level of support north of the Border).
But it was the eurozone crisis – and, crucially, its use as a political tool – that was the backdrop to the Prime Minister’s statement to the House of Commons yesterday on the outcome of last week’s EU summit.
David Cameron’s position seemed to be that these feckless Europeans had to sort it out and in the meantime he should be congratulated for ensuring Britain was not going to have to contribute to any bail-out fund.
Unfortunately for Mr Cameron, some of his Conservative colleagues see the problems over the eurozone as the means to force a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union itself.
In response, the Prime Minister, while being careful to rule out an immediate referendum, was clear that in the future it may well be right to consider getting “the fresh consent of the British people”.
For Ed Miliband, the line to take was clear: there was confusion over a possible referendum on EU membership because of divisions inside the Conservative Party.
In this, the Labour leader was echoing the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, who said: “I regret that this prime minister seems to be more concerned with managing party interests than governing in the national interest when it comes to Europe.”
Re-reading the diaries of Tony Blair’s former press secretary, Alistair Campbell, it is striking how that Labour line deployed against the Conservatives has been deployed consistently for more than 15 years.
It was a key weapon used against John Major’s government when the then Tory prime minister was being harried by party colleagues unhappy at the direction of European policy.
In truth, it does not seem an unreasonable charge to make, given how hostile so many Conservatives appear to be to the EU.
However, in the new context of a Scottish independence campaign, it does present Labour with a big question to answer.
Given the importance of European developments to this country, it is quite a feat to argue that one of the two principal parties of power at Westminster consistently over many years has put its own narrow concerns ahead of the UK’s vital national interests (and therefore presumably Scotland’s interests) while at the same time saying it has somehow been in our best interest to cede control of Scotland’s European policy to that party.
To be fair, all political parties tend to see their own interests as coinciding with the national interest. The Tories who are calling for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, however misguided, are not presumably doing so because they think it will be bad for their constituents.
The fact that there is debate within parties and within countries over the future of the EU is in general a healthy thing. There will be many people who will feel that for years decision-making about European integration has been too remote from voters.
The actions of some governments now in response to attempts to save the single currency are perhaps a response to that sense. Finland, for example, has baulked at some of the measures suggested during last week’s summit.
The structure of the EU and eurozone is such that the Finnish government, or any other national administration, cannot be ignored. There is real urgency over the need to find a package of proposals that will rescue the euro, but this cannot be done by further alienating national electorates.
For Scotland there is a clear lesson in this. There is a major debate going on over the future of Europe, but one at the moment we are largely excluded from. At a time when small and large countries are seeking to both protect their national interests and to forge a common way forward, we should surely be involved too. After all, do we really want to leave it to William Hague?
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