Euroscepticism isn’t just for Tories any more
When Ed Balls lists the greatest accomplishments of his career, he does so with a wonderful lack of modesty. He may have been a mere Treasury adviser when Labour came to power, but even then he was — we now learn — pulling the strings of Tony Blair’s government. Bank of England independence was his idea. Ditto Labour’s decision to stick to the Tories’ eye-wateringly tight spending plans for the first few years of its rule. But Balls’s proudest boast, and one repeated with striking regularity, is that he stopped Britain joining the euro.
Not so long ago, the shadow chancellor would have kept this as quiet as his friendship with Damian McBride. When Balls drew up his ‘five tests’ for joining the euro, he was subverting the will of a staunchly pro-European Labour party. But British politics has since changed. No one, not even Nick Clegg, admits to being in favour of the euro. Public opinion is shifting, too: only a third of the country regards Britain’s EU membership as a good idea. The old leftright divide over Europe, which governed British politics for two decades, has disintegrated.
None the less, as Balls well knows, Europe remains a painful subject for the coalition. It leaves the Conservative leadership flitting awkwardly between its own Eurosceptic MPs and a pro-European alliance of civil servants and Liberal Democrats. Cameron and George Osborne have spoken vaguely about ‘renegotiating’ Britain’s EU membership. But civil servants simply ignore the idea.
Labour can sense the government’s weakness here. Last month, when the phonehacking scandal was at its peak, Chris Leslie led other Labour MPs in opposition to the raising of Britain’s exposure to European bank defaults. Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown had been strong advocates of strengthening the IMF guarantees, so this represented a significant U-turn. As rebel Conservatives joined in, the government’s majority was reduced to 28 — its smallest on any vote so far.
More difficulties are to come. The new intake of Tory MPs are strikingly Eurosceptic. Many believe that they are not obliged to endorse coalition cop-outs over Europe. One tells me that he regards voting against the coalition as ‘an assertion of authority, not rebellion’. Some Tory
MPs believe that the coalition is bound to collapse anyway, so they may as well impress their voters. Remarkably few backbenchers are anxious to impress the Prime Minister.
Both Labour and Tory MPs say in private — few dare discuss the subject in public — that the big divide over Europe is not between parties, but between those in government and those outside it. ‘Ed Balls and William Hague could easily work together,’ one Labour MP tells me. But whereas Hague is constrained by the man-
The old left-right division over Europe, which governed British politics for two decades,
has disintegrated darins at the Foreign Office — and the need to keep the Lib Dems sweet — the shadow chancellor enjoys the freedom of opposition. And an appetite for political hellraising.
Ed Miliband has shown no sign of opposing Labour’s growing anti-European faction. Indeed, the formation of an official Labour Eurosceptic group of MPs is being planned for October. They intend to focus their criticism on the government’s apparent inability to negotiate with Brussels, and Cameron’s habit of coming back with a raw deal. A more robust European policy, says one Labour MP, ‘was meant to be one thing to look forward to from a Tory government’. Most Tory backbenchers are just as disillsioned.
So what’s next? Various theories are floating around Westminster. An MP close to the shadow Treasury team suggests that if there are to be more bailouts, Balls could force a vote on the specifics. ‘We want Europe to succeed, and don’t mind contributing,’ he says. ‘But if we’re going to vote for more bailouts, we want to be getting something out [of it]. We’d be pushing for any British role to come with conditions.’
Even pro-euro Tories are taken aback by George Osborne’s claim, made in an article for the Daily Telegraph this week, that the eurozone needs greater fiscal union — as long as Britain takes no part in it. Many of them agree with Douglas Carswell, perhaps the most outspoken of the new Tory Eurosceptics, when he wrote that it is not in Britain’s national interest ‘to see our neighbours and trade partners ruined by grand monetary plans’.
A particular flash point could come in October, when the People’s Pledge, a campaign group that wants to force an in-orout referendum on the EU, hosts a rally. Several Labour and Conservative MPs are expected to attend, including some close to the government. David Cameron will be looking on with concern. He knows that nothing makes his party more mutinous than Europe. One Tory Cabinet minister even admits to voting Ukip at the last European elections. If Cameron cannot convince his Cabinet of the merits of the Conservatives’ European policy, how will he convince voters, for whom Europe is an increasingly important issue?
The truth is that neither party has done much thinking on the Euro since Maastricht. The same is not true for the British public. This is no longer a debate about abstract issues of sovereignty. Rather, Euroscepticism is becoming an all-party force, united in disgust at Europe’s inefficiency, profligacy and anti-democratic elitism. Cameron and Osborne appear to have no better strategy to deal with their MPs than soothing words. They need to catch up fast, or else events will overtake them.
‘I’m just popping out to the shops.
Do you want anything?’
SPECTATOR.CO.UK/COFFEEHOUSE For all the latest euro-rebellions.
the spectator | 13 August 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk Charles Moore
If it is any consolation to David Cameron, the last really big nationwide outbreak of riots was even worse for the prime minister than this lot. This occurred in 1981, when Mrs Thatcher faced maximum danger from her Cabinet colleagues and from public opinion because of the toughness of her economic policies. The riots spread, over three months, from Brixton to Toxteth, Handsworth, Moss Side and other locations whose names are now becoming familiar again. Despite her fierce reputation, Mrs Thatcher did not quite know what to do, veering between a determination to pretend that everything was business as usual, and a desire to clamp down on the violence. The presentational oddity is illustrated by the fact that one night in July she went, against her will, to Anyone for Denis?, the play in which John Wells parodied her husband (‘marvellous farce’, she said through gritted teeth), and then zoomed straight off to Toxteth (Liverpool) to see a riot-affected area for herself. The press questions thrown at her there were more accusatory than they are today. There was a much stronger presumption that ‘cuts’ were responsible for discontent, and much more criticism of the police for being heavy-handed. Although she hated the idea, Mrs Thatcher felt compelled to give in to Michael Heseltine’s pleadings and make him ‘Minister for Merseyside’. He strode up and down the broken streets looking blond and concerned and trying to spend public money.
This time, there can be no Heseltine equivalent, not least because the biggest trouble is in London, and the metropolis now has no room for more politicians. If there is an equivalent of the Scarman Inquiry into the Brixton riots, it should focus on police under- not over-reaction. Even if it turns out that the police shooting of Mark Duggan was unjustified, there will be no public appetite for any measures which inhibit the police from keeping order. If Mr Cameron chose to review the 30-year process by which the police have been hamstrung in their attempts to keep the peace, he would be overwhelmingly supported. It is vital for him to mastermind the aftermath of such disorder, which Mrs Thatcher, surprisingly, failed to do.
In Tottenham, which began everything this time, the big previous example is 1985, not 1981. Last weekend’s events suggest that things have not greatly improved since the Broadwater Farm riots there nearly 26 years ago. But what is certainly different is the political language used by the Labour party. In 1985, Bernie Grant, the black Labour leader of Haringey Council and later the Labour MP for Tottenham, made himself notorious by quoting approvingly what he said was the opinion of local youths that ‘the police got a bloody good hiding’ (this was just after the rioters had murdered PC Keith Blakelock and tried to behead him). Such talk was a gift to the Tories. This time, the local MP, David Lammy, also black and also Labour, came on television and condemned the riots. In the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher was much mocked by the posher media for sympathising with ‘those poor shopkeepers’, but the public agreed with her, and feel the same today. Mr Lammy carefully included shopkeepers in his list of innocent victims. In fact, his words were a masterpiece of Blairite ‘triangulation’, since he also found ways of criticising the police, but the difference between the two reactions shows how much Labour has learnt. The only important Labour figure still speaking the Left language of the 1980s is its leading relic, Ken Livingstone. It is lucky for Boris Johnson that Mr Livingstone will be his mayoral rival in the contest next year. Mr Lammy would be a much more formidable opponent.
This Friday, applications close for the post of Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. The Home Secretary made sure that the form says that applicants should be British citizens. But I stick to my argument that this should be changed. Bill Bratton, the distinguished former head of police in New York and Los Angeles, is interested in applying. I do not know if he would be the best choice, but I do know that the crisis in policing revealed by the riots and looting shows a desperate need for a public argument about how things should improve. It is time to break the Acpo closed shop.
Every day, I miss Frank Johnson, the former editor of this paper, who died in 2006. In this month, I miss his annual article demolishing the popular belief that ‘nothing ever happens in August’. The death of Diana and the outbreak of the first world war were prime examples he cited. Now we have the global stock-market panic and the riots to prove Frank even righter. I begin to wonder if there is some subliminal connection between the holiday season and disaster. Could it be that, in an age when most people in the western world can afford foreign holidays, those not taking them feel a rage and envy that cause them to provoke runs on markets, loot trainers from shops or start wars? Newspapers certainly love to protest when politicians are ‘sunning themselves’ abroad and ignoring crises at home. Most of these papers are edited, at this season, by the deputies, since the editors are also sunning themselves. Forcing the principals home is a sort of revenge.
Have you noticed how people’s funerals now take place longer and longer after their death? Such delay is not permitted in Judaism or Islam, religions which developed under hot suns, but it is now quite common for Christian or godless crem funerals to be held even a month or more after decease. I suppose this is the result of efficient refrigeration. It does, it is true, make it easier for friends and family to get to a funeral if there is more notice. Even so, it seems a bad trend. Death is absolute, and breaks in upon life without consideration of timing (unless you are poor King George V, with your life ‘drawing peacefully to its close’ in order to coincide with the first edition of the Times). The reality of its awful fact should not be postponed.
the spectator | 13 August 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk