It comes as a surprise to my generation that the Tories used to be the pro-European party. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that it was a Conservative government that took Britain into the EEC and that it was Margaret Thatcher that argued the following:
“We can play a role in developing Europe, or we can turn our backs on the Community. By turning our backs we would forfeit our right to influence what happens in the Community. But what happens in the Community will inevitably affect us. The European Community is a powerful group of nations. With Britain as a member, it is more powerful; without Britain it will still be powerful. We can play a leading role in Europe, but if that leadership is not forthcoming Europe will develop without Britain.”
Tories have not always been ‘banging on about Europe’, so when did they start? In the sweeping eurosceptic narrative, it all began because the British people only signed up for a common market, nothing else…..but they were tricked! They did not sign up for regulation after regulation, directive after directive, and treaty after treaty drafted by foreigners assaulting British sovereignty.
Ah, sovereignty is the answer. We are an island nation after all. It was us wot beat Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler. We had an Empire, didn’t you know?
Hard as I try, something doesn’t ring true with this patriotic procession. If the Tories oppose the sacrifice of sovereignty, why are they happy with EDF running nuclear power plants or the Germans, Americans and Japanese running the UK’s prestigious automotive industry? More fundamentally, why are they happy with US bases in Lakenheath, Mildenhall and Alconbury? What about Trident?
Perhaps it’s political and the Tories oppose ceding sovereignty from Westminster to multilateral organisations. Let’s take the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as a point of comparison. The WTO is one of the most intrusive of all multilateral organisations and compels member countries to adhere to strict rules on import tariffs, competition in the service industries, subsidies for national industries, intellectual property protection, hygiene standards and, in the case of developed countries, allowing foreign competition for procurement contracts. Currently there are WTO legal cases deciding on a whole range of economic, ethical and hygienic issues including whether the EU can ban seal products, if Canada can promote local, green industries and if non-naturally occurring hormones are permissible in beef products.
So where is the beating of the drum? Damn this assault on our sovereignty, we want to subsidise our renewable wind industry! We must leave the WTO to stop its meddling, we want British procurement for British companies and British workers! And therein lies the difference. The Tories don’t care about ceding sovereignty to the WTO because they believe in free markets, they want foreign competition, they believe in high levels of intellectual property rights protection and they couldn’t give two hoots about renewable industry.
So if it’s not sovereignty, what’s their problem with the European Union? It can be traced back to 1988. Not to Margaret Thatcher’s famous Bruges speech but to Jacques Delors’ address to the TUC conference in Bournemouth. During this speech, Delors won over delegates with a promise of an EU ‘social dimension’ including guaranteed social rights, measures for temporary workers and the right to lifelong education. This speech is credited as a crucial factor in swaying the unions and the Labour Party towards the pro-European cause. The speech doesn’t get the credit it deserves for pushing the Tories in the other direction and leading to Thatcher’s famous rebuke:
“we haven’t worked all these years to free Britain from the paralysis of Socialism only to see it creep in through the back door of central control and bureaucracy from Brussels”.
It got worse as the 90s and 00s wore on with new measures such as the ‘great satan’ working time directive, consumer protection laws and the EU’s climate change agenda. The final sting in the tail was EU financial regulation to match EU financial liberalisation. Tories like the second part but not the first. ‘Defending the City’ has reached almost hysterical levels since the EU responded to the financial crisis by introducing a whole swathe of regulation (mostly based on the G20 and Basel agendas) which does not fit in with the Tory light-touch model. They even proposed a financial transaction tax!
Indeed, sovereignty has been used by the Tories, UKIP and the right-wing press as a veil to hide right-wing policies. The Tories don’t bang on about Europe because they’re patriots defending British sovereignty. They bang on about Europe because it stops companies from exploiting their workers. They bang on about Europe because they want a dash for gas and don’t like EU renewable energy laws. They bang on about Europe because they want light-touch regulation and low taxes for their City donors.
Europe was always part of the Tory problem but it was never fully part of the ‘nasty party’ label. That evoked images of poll tax protests, attacks on the NHS, mistreatment of minorities and the vilification of single mums, but not Europe. And that’s the great scam. The Tories obsession with Europe is born of exactly the same thinking – defending their rich city mates, smashing working and social rights, vilifying immigrants and denying climate change.
The Tories are always ‘banging on about Europe’ because they are the nasty party.
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