Brian Wilson: Tories must make case for Europe

Lord Lawson. Picture: PA
Lord Lawson. Picture: PA
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IT IS not immediately obvious why anyone should pay much attention to the views of Lord Lawson who, for the benefit of younger readers, was the catastrophic Chancellor of the Exchequer in the mid-Thatcher era of British history.

Under his guidance, interest rates rose to 15 per cent. Vast numbers of families could not pay their mortgages and thousands of small businesses went to the wall. Then things got worse. After he was driven out, the Lawson Boom of the late 1980s turned to the great recession of the early 1990s.

Subsequently, he has been best known for being the father of Nigella, writing a book on weight loss and reinventing himself as a “climate change sceptic” who does not believe that the Arctic ice is melting at a disturbing rate. The best thing to be said about him is that he lives in France.

Lawson’s sudden reappearance as a political savant relies heavily on short memories. It also demonstrates a significant factor in the whole tortured debate about EU membership – the Tory attempt to rewrite history about how and why we got here in the first place, in order to lend credibility to their current contortions.

Leading Tories of Lawson’s generation have to live with the knowledge that it was they, more than anyone else, who took Britain deeper and deeper into Europe. For starters, while Lawson was Chancellor, the Thatcher government put through the Single European Act which greatly extended the areas of EU decision-making so much complained of today.

For good measure, they also signed up to rule changes in the Council of Ministers which made it much easier for the collective will of Brussels to prevail over national governments. Jacques Delors, then president of the Commission, said in 1988 that within a decade 80 per cent of national laws would be made in Brussels. Thatcher did not demur: “What we need are strengths which can only be found together … we must have the full benefit of a single market”.

In his Times apologia yesterday, Lawson states that the justification for the European Community was “to eliminate the threat to Europe and the wider world … by placing the German tiger in a European cage”. I can only assume that he is conflating the decades. German militarism was not an issue in 1986 when the Tories signed the Single European Act.

And then, admittedly after both Thatcher and Lawson were old news, the Tories did it again. It was a Tory prime minister – not some mysterious alien force – who signed the Maastricht Treaty which again reinforced the institutions of Brussels – the Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice.

The UK opted out of the euro but not out of anything else agreed at Maastricht – including the name change, for the avoidance of doubt, from Community to Union. At every stage, they were ferociously opposed by sworn enemies of closer European integration on their own right wing. But they repeatedly faced down that opposition in order to get us to the place where we pretty much now are.

It is actually quite a distinguished record, for which ultimately the Tories paid a heavy price, since it was the anti-EU “bastards” on their back-benches who, as much as anyone, destroyed John Major’s government and handed Labour 13 years in office. Tories such as Ken Clarke still want to go out and proclaim European integrationism as one of his party’s historic achievements – and he would be right. Whether from principle or pragmatism, it was they who made the big pro-European decisions.

From my perspective also, I am glad that they did so. True, there were always necessary elements of con-trick as well as courage in their approach. In order to appease sceptical supporters, they maintained a steady flow of anti-Brussels rhetoric which usefully diverted attention from the fact that they were indeed leading us deeper into the EU – for the very good reason that it was the only place to go.

That is the essential background to the dramas now being played out. David Cameron no more wishes to leave the EU than Thatcher or Major seriously contemplated walking out rather than signing up to the Single European Act or to Maastricht. Indeed, the biggest additional factor is that we are 25 years deeper in than when Lawson left office and the alternatives – on which he is notably vague – have narrowed rather than expanded.

But then, enter Ukip stage right – the accident that was always waiting to happen. In the Thatcher-Major years, all significant anti-EU sentiment resided within the Tory Party itself. While the Bill Cash-Iain Duncan Smith brigade did plenty of damage from within, it never seriously occurred to them to start a separate party built around this single issue. The fact that one now exists is a game-changer because it seems the natural home for many Tory voters and indeed MPs.

Throw into the mix a volatile electorate, understandably frustrated with the professional political class and the absence of easy solutions. Then add a large dash of opportunism, as demonstrated by Nigella’s dad – doubtless with more to follow – from those who see the chance to rewrite their personal histories on the issue, irrespective of how much additional discomfort it might cause their successors in office. This one will simmer for a while yet, then next year’s European elections will provide an extra stir of the pot.

Curiously, the polling in Scotland is not that much different from the rest of the UK. According to the most recent findings, 58 per cent want a referendum on continuing EU membership against 36 per cent who do not – and that is in a UK context even before the additional, hypothetical Scottish complexities come into play.

The biggest danger from this apparent shift in public opinion is that it silences those who should be making the positive case. Who today is saying with conviction what Mrs Thatcher – yes, Mrs Thatcher – was proclaiming almost 30 years ago: that we are better together in Europe as part of the biggest market in the world than we would be apart? The parallel argument about Scotland within the UK is entirely consistent.

The danger for the Tories lies in being so anxious to appease those who appear to threaten them that they neglect the pro-European arguments which they successfully sold to the British people in the past. The danger for the country lies in waiting too long before reminding people that these arguments still exist.