Ken Clarke has one great advantage over his colleagues in government: experience. He has been there a long time. He is old enough to remember why we applied for membership of what was then known as the European Economic Community, and is now the European Union.
Back in the late 1960s, our economy was in low water, failing badly. Membership of the EEC seemed to offer the best chance of economic revival. So the Heath government entered into negotiations that were successful, and we did indeed benefit.
The general prosperity which we have enjoyed for most of the past 30 years owes much to our membership of the EU. Clarke, a successful Chancellor of the Exchequer in John Major’s government, has no doubt about this. His staunch pro-European stance undoubtedly cost him the leadership of his party. If he had been willing to compromise on this, then he would surely have been elected instead of David Cameron – and possibly before then. To his credit, he declined to do so and stuck to his principles.
Now he is a rather lonely figure in his increasingly Eurosceptic party. Nevertheless, he has stuck around and, in what is likely to be the evening of his career, has been given a role by Cameron in the negotiations of a trade deal between the EU and Nafta (North American Free Trade Agreement).
Writing in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, he made the point that this sort of deal could only be made effectively between “the leaders of evenly matched economic blocs”, and observed that US president Barack Obama’s officials have said that they would have “very little appetite” for a deal with the UK alone. In other words, the benefits that may be expected from any such agreement depend on our full membership of the EU.
He went further. “Brexit”– that is, a British withdrawal from the EU – “would mean curtains for our ability to have any leadership role in these world-defining plays like these free-trade agreements”.
Then he twisted the tail of his critics in his own party by describing Cameron’s enthusiasm for this agreement as “Thatcherite”, and by observing that Margaret Thatcher achieved results in Brussels by getting in there and arguing hard, sometimes cajoling her colleagues, sometimes charming them. As a member of her cabinet, he knows very well, that, till her last months in office when her judgment was becoming erratic, Thatcher was a good, if often awkward, European.
There are, of course, many who question Clarke’s judgment on the grounds that he would have had us sign up for the single currency – the received wisdom being that our current economic and fiscal difficulties would be a great deal worse if we had taken his advice. Perhaps they would; one can’t tell. What is clear, however, is that, not being a member of the eurozone, we have fallen back on the old Treasury device of seeking to escape the consequences of the mess we’re in by deliberately devaluing our currency.
In the short run, this may bring benefits – though it doesn’t seem to have helped our export trade as devaluation is supposed to do. In the long run, the consequences of devaluation are usually damaging. Who would bet heavily against a Labour government making an application to join the eurozone if in a few years the euro has stabilised and the eurozone has returned to growth?
Nothing that Clarke says, however sensible it may be, will disarm that section of his party that has come to detest the EU, and would have us walk away from it. Many Tory MPs are closer to Ukip than to David Cameron, let alone Ken Clarke. They would separate Britain from Europe, just as the SNP would separate Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom. I think that, like the SNP, they hanker for a sort of independence that is out-of-date in an ever more inter-dependent world. They believe we would be “Better Alone” than “Better Together” or “Better United”.
When Clarke was a junior minister in the early 1980s, the people who wanted out of Europe were to be found on the hard Left. They used to talk about Fortress Britain and “real Socialist policies”. Now the opposition comes from the Right and, if they don’t use the term “Fortress Britain”, it would seem to be at the back of their mind.
Some assume that you can walk away from a club and still keep whatever you think are the advantages of membership. In this, too, they resemble the SNP. But things don’t work out like that. If you reject a club, then its members are likely to feel some resentment towards you and, therefore, will be unwilling to grant you the privileges of whatever sort of loose associate membership you may ask for. If you choose separatism, separate is just what you will most probably be.
The EU has its faults and weaknesses, like every other human institution. Reforms, as Clarke himself wrote, are desirable, some necessary. I doubt if Clarke can convince the Eurosceptics. Yet I have never doubted that the EU’s creation and development are the best things, politically speaking, to have happened in my lifetime.
Next year is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Though some of it was fought beyond Europe, and though it eventually involved the US, it was really a European war, a terrible one in which Europe tore itself apart.
Nowadays, the leaders of the states of Europe sit at a table and talk and argue until they can agree common ground. The outcome is often described, fairly enough, as a fudge. But a fudge is preferable to mobilisation. A fudge is better than a war: 100 years ago the guns boomed and it was more than four years before they fell silent. The horror was repeated from 1939-45.
Now the guns have been silent in most of Europe for a long time. We have boring arguments in Brussels instead. And a good thing, too. Over the years, we have come to be Europeans as well as whatever is our primary nationality, and the world is a better place as a result.