The background to and consequences of David Cameron’s fateful break with Europe: a new article for openDemocracy.net
At the European Union summit in Brussels on 8-9 December 2011, Britain’s Conservative prime minister David Cameron refused to agree to a full EU treaty to support new governance for the eurozone. He was alone among representatives of the twenty-seven member-states in doing so, with the partial exception of three leaders who will consult their parliaments before making a final decision. Thus, Britain will be isolated (or near-isolated) as almost the entire union proceeds to implement the treaty, probably by March 2012.
Cameron’s ostensible reason for using the United Kingdom’s “veto” is that his EU partners rejected his demands to accord special protection to “Britain’s interests” by protecting its financial centre, the City of London. In reality the City was not threatened and is more likely to be undermined by Britain’s self-inflicted pariah status.
Cameron’s position reverses a forty-year stance of engagement (albeit often reluctant) with the rest of Europe by British governments. The overriding reason is that he will do anything to avoid an open split in his Conservative (or Tory) party. The dominant trend in the party is hostile to anything but the most minimal role for the UK in Europe; many Tory MPs and even ministers are Europhobic to the extent that they wish to leave the union altogether (the more common label “Eurosceptic” is inappropriate because it implies that they are open to reason on the subject, which for many is not the case).
For the Europhobes, holding a referendum on Britain’s role in Europe trumps all other political goals. Cameron could not afford the referendum that they would have obliged him to stage over Britain’s signature of any new treaty, since the “wrong” result would have obliged him – thanks both to his international commitments and to his Liberal Democratic coalition partners (who are mostly europhile) – to support a treaty that many in his party would continue fiercely to reject. The ensuing splits in his party and government would be fatal.
The political logic
David Cameron’s European decision belongs to a broader political context. He came to power in 2010 after an election dominated by the reality that the winner would have to manage a major financial crisis (thus the Bank of England’s governor remarked that it was a good election to lose). The outgoing Labour government had already promised cuts in public spending, but Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne announced even deeper austerity measures over a five-year term.
Thus the Conservative-LibDem government faced from the start a huge political task, which Cameron had to handle well if he were to have a chance of being re-elected in 2015. His strategy has been to consolidate his existing electorial base by focusing on cuts to the (traditionally pro-Labour) public sector rather than tax increases for the well-off and rich (his own constituency). At the same time he is trying to rig the electoral system, both by equalising the size of constituency electorates (in principle a democratic demand) and by making electoral registration voluntary (which will reduce the size of the national electorate). The certain outcome of the latter change will be that many people will be excluded – perhaps millions, and most of those young and/or poor.
The strategy, taken as a whole, faces great problems. The combination of the austerity programme and the eurozone crisis has halted the already weak economic recovery, caused tax revenues to fall, and raised indebtness further; already this has led Osborne to extend the deficit-elimination plan by two years beyond the next election, to 2017 (and then only on implausibly optimistic assumptions). Moreover, the prolonged assault on public-sector workers’ pay and pensions is likely to ensure further unrest, following the strikes of 30 November.
Against this background, Cameron’s European “veto” has proved popular with most of his party and the Europhobic press that many voters read. But there is another crucial element in the equation: the “national” one within the UK. Here, the European dimension intersects most acutely with the Scottish one, especially when the Scottish National Party (SNP) government is in power in Edinburgh and plans to hold a Scotland-wide referendum in which the options include full independence and a more limited (if still meaningful) transfer of additional powers to the Scottish parliament.
David Cameron is, like all his fellow Conservatives, a “unionist” (which in Scottish-British terms means a supporter of maintaining the UK as a unified state), and he officially opposes both these options. Yet more covertly, he has reason to favour either. The first, independence, would boost the possibility of the Tories extending their rule in England alone (since in British elections the Conservatives do better there and badly in Scotland, whereas Labour usually needs Scottish and Welsh votes to reach office); the second, additional powers, could be even better, since it would give Cameron a pretext to challenge the right of Scottish members of parliament to vote on English matters (the so-called “West Lothian question”) as a route to consolidate Tory control in England without breaking up the union.
Either way, there is a striking complementarity between the interests of Scottish nationalism (at present generally Europhile) and English Tory nationalism (uniformly Europhobic). The ex-Liberal leader Paddy Ashdown strongly criticises Cameron’s decision in Brussels and says that it offers the SNP leader Alex Salmond “an uncovenanted gift. If England is to be out of Europe, why should Scotland not be in?”
The political logic is an embrace of “Little Tory England” within the shell of the still nominally EU-affiliated and still more or less united, United Kingdom. It will be a country that keeps its nuclear weapons, its seat on the United Nations Security Council, and a high military profile. It will aim to stay a centre of European and world finance, keeping the freedoms to export to and travel in the EU, but with as little as possible to do with any other EU institutions, especially not with the European Convention on Human Rights or any sort of workers’ or social protection.
It will be a country whose financial sector is protected from the kind of regulation that might impinge on the ability of its elite to pay themselves exorbitant salaries and bonuses; whose prime minister proclaims “zero tolerance” for the criminality of rioters but indulges the criminality of powerful media figures in his own social circle; and where the official atmosphere is increasingly aggressive towards the poor, migrants and asylum-seekers. It will, in short, be like the worst of the present UK, but with the danger of further entrenchment as the Tories gain a further electoral advantage from the “loss” of Scotland.
The opposition matrix
This fusion of economic crisis, austerity, public hypocrisy, intra-UK tension, and now a semi-divorce from the Euopean Union suggests that December 2011 is a major turning-point in British politics. But there are other actors in this situation besides David Cameron – and their responses will determine whether Little Tory England is actually realised over the next decade.
A range of potential oppositional forces exist, and possible synergies between different levels of resistance. The Liberal Democrats’ collaboration with Cameron’s retoxified Conservatives has just received a mighty shock, as reflected in the responses to the “veto” of their leader Nick Clegg and business minister Vince Cable (as well as Paddy Ashdown); more fissures are likely, as well as mollifying moves by Cameron to keep the coalition on track.
This moment also presents an opportunity for the extra-parliamentary opposition, in the trade unions, the environmental and women’s groups, and the emerging “occupy” movement. In a parliamentary democracy, a mass movement can succeed only if it engages the political system. In France in 2010, a similar mobilisation against changes to the pensions system, stronger than the British movement is at the present time, escalated its protests through a powerful series of strikes, only to be defeated by a conservative majority in parliament. In Britain, a conservative parliamentary majority exists only through LibDem support. The junior coalition partner will not be easily detached, in part because it fears an early election; but the broad opposition can make any real headway only by increasing the strains inside the coalition.
The opposition needs therefore to combine internet and street-level activism with targeted pressure, especially on the vulnerable element of the coalition. At the same time, the challenge of Little Tory England demands a bolder response from Ed Miliband and Labour: a vision of Europeanism and internationalism that also addresses English concerns, and of social justice in a situation where the living standards of people across the UK are being squeezed while the rich sail on. The task is urgent, before the lockdown of power becomes irreversible.