Writing more than twenty-five years ago in Hubris: The Tempting of Modern Conservatives, a book I co-edited, the late political theorist Kenneth Minogue asserted that the worst thing about Britain’s membership in the European Union was that it had induced a rhetoric of deception that went far beyond the usual prevarications and half-truths of politics. Minogue, who often appeared in these pages, was not unaware of the other costs of membership, among which he rightly listed the lunacies of the Common Agricultural Policy, limits on trade with countries outside the Union, excessive regulation, and acquiescence to the dangerous folly of seeking to build a European superpower. “These things,” he wrote, “are serious, but not, I think, as serious as the corruption of the political process.”
As Britain heads uncertainly for the exit, it is timely to consider the impact that forty-five years of membership in the European Union have had on British political culture and upon the conduct of politicians. For Minogue was surely correct in supposing that in significant ways British politicians began to behave differently after entry, applying different standards of conduct and acquiring a new political vocabulary that distanced them from the electorate. The most obvious change was the readiness of ministers to cede powers to Brussels as the European project, based on the goal of “ever closer union,” took shape. Political life in Britain during the early part of the twentieth century, as in many other countries, had been characterized by the increasing power of the national government in regulating the lives of its citizens. Now ministers seemed ready, even eager, to transfer powers to others. The Daily Mail journalist Andrew Alexander, an acute observer of the Westminster scene, wrote that, having observed British politics for half a century, he remained baffled by the willingness of the British political class to submit to this act of castration.
No less remarkably, it became clear that ministers behaved differently when things went wrong. In most places, and at most times, it can be taken for granted that ministers will not be eager to take responsibility when blunders occur and that many will display considerable ingenuity in distancing themselves from the scene of the crash. Not so in the case of failed policies and legislation introduced in Britain as a result of E.U. membership. On such occasions British ministers routinely failed to identify Brussels as the source of the problem, either because they did not wish to feed anti-E.U. sentiment, or because they could not bring themselves to say, or perhaps even to acknowledge to themselves, that a political project into which huge political capital had been invested was at best deeply flawed, at worst an error of historic magnitude. This applied to sins of omission as well as of commission. As the former Conservative minister Peter Lilley pointed out, members of the government were now constantly being told by their civil service advisors that what they sought to do in the national interest could not be done because it breached E.U. law. On most occasions, however, this could not be acknowledged because to do so would inevitably call into question the policies of every government since Britain’s accession to the European Communities in 1973, as well as the deeply held prejudices of metropolitan elites. Members of Parliament, men and women mostly of good character, most of whom had entered politics with a desire to serve the public, routinely dissembled; not to do so would have meant acknowledging unpalatable truths and would have made career advancement more difficult.
In situations where, quite obviously, the root of the problem originated in Brussels—as in the case of the growing mountain of absurd or unnecessary regulation—ministers reacted by promising reforms to the way in which the European Union would do business in the future. These claims were often bolstered by the pretense that Britain was now “winning the argument” in favor of E.U. reform and that henceforth the principle of subsidiarity would prevent the further loss of powers to Europe. In any case, the enlargement of the Union resulting from the accession of new members, which Britain strongly supported, would prevent the further deepening of its institutions. Or so it was said. The reality, of course, turned out to be exactly the reverse. Neither the subsidiarity principle nor enlargement prevented further deepening, which occurred with the treaties of Maastricht (1992), Amsterdam (1997), Nice (2001), and Lisbon (2007). The claims of successive prime ministers Major, Blair, and Cameron to the effect that Britain would forge an alliance with new members and perhaps also with the Danes, Italians, and the Dutch, so limiting the integrationist zeal of France and Germany, similarly proved to be an exercise in the most naive forms of wish fulfillment.
To be sure, from the very start the founders of the European project recognized that in every member state their grand, visionary top-down project would have to be introduced gradually without the disclosure of its ultimate character, if it was not to run into powerful public objections. But in Britain, which once quite prided itself on the fact that its politics were more stable, honest, and accountable than those in continental Europe, the degree of deception was paradoxically the greatest. The European Union—or the Common Market as it was then known—was sold to the British people, quite fraudulently, as a limited commercial enterprise. In a television broadcast ahead of British entry, Prime Minister Edward Heath famously declared: “There are some in this country who fear that in going into Europe we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty . . . . These fears, I need hardly say, are completely unjustified.” Were they? In 1991, Heath was asked by Peter Sissons, a television interviewer: “The single currency, a United States of Europe, was all that in your mind when you took Britain in?” Heath replied: “Of course, yes.”
Papers released three decades after entry show that Foreign Office officials predicted that it would take thirty years for the British people to wake up to the nature of the project, by which time it would be too late for them to do anything about it. The author of an FO file note (fco 30/1048) correctly forecast that “The transfer of major executive responsibilities to the bureaucratic Commission in Brussels will exacerbate population feelings of alienation towards government.” As the note made clear, the solution was to pretend that no such transfer was taking place. “After entry there would be a major responsibility on hmg [Her Majesty’s Government] and on all political parties not to exacerbate public concern by attributing unpopular measures or unfavourable economic developments to the remote and unmanageable workings of the Community.”
In short, lies were necessary. Because without them, popular resistance would prove fatal to the development of the visionary European project; and resistance to the project was inevitable once its true nature was known. To quote Minogue:
the more governments embark on visionary projects of social transformation, the more that authority (which is essentially limited) will falter, and the more it will need supplementation by a mixture of force and manipulation. Manipulation requires distortion and does not shrink from deceit. We may indeed turn this principle round: the amount of distortion, deception and manipulation in the conduct of government is directly proportionate to the visionary character of its ambitions.
All this dissimulation came as a shocking discovery, not least for those in Britain who had once believed that the European project was about free trade, among whom could be listed Margaret Thatcher. In many instances the realization of the true nature of the European Union was gradual, but nonetheless painful. The result was the steadily growing sense of anguish that has gripped, tormented, and divided the British Conservative Party for three decades. Of course, nothing of the sort could be found in Brussels (or for that matter in Paris or Berlin), where everything, including the truth, was subordinated to the goal of ever closer union, an objective established in the founding Treaty of Rome and contained in every subsequent E.U. treaty. In this particular way, the emerging European order resembled the Soviet Union, where truth was defined in terms of whether it served the interests of the proletariat as defined by a political elite, rather than in terms of its correspondence to reality. Just such a comparison is implied by Bernard Connolly, a high-ranking E.U. official who once believed passionately in the European dream but who came to regard it as “a confidence trick designed to subordinate the economic welfare, democratic rights, and national freedom of Europe’s citizens to the will of a bureaucratic and political elite, hell-bent on creating a European super-state.” In The Rotten Heart of Europe (1995), a book that promptly earned him dismissal from the European Commission, he explained that he had been motivated to speak out because of the lies and deception which pervaded the system:
The more blatantly obvious the falsehood, the more insistently its perpetrators repeat it. My own decision to write this book . . . was born first of incredulity at the hundreds of “black is white” statements made about the erm [the European Exchange Rate Mechanism], and then of the anger at the treatment given to anyone who tried to point out the lies.
Connolly went on to compare the European Union’s ruthless crushing of dissent with that which occurred in the Soviet Union. This turned out to be an apt comparison; E.U. sources responded to the publication of his book by suggesting that Connolly was “psychologically unstable,” echoing the Soviet practice of detaining dissidents in hospitals for the mentally ill.
In Britain, deception has been combined with threats, sometimes of a hysterical kind. Those raising objections to further steps of political integration were constantly told that Britain was in danger of being isolated, left behind, seeing the train leaving the station, etc. This approach reached its apotheosis during the campaign preceding the referendum on membership in June 2016, when seventeen million people voted to leave the European Union. In referendum campaigns, as in war, truth is an early casualty, and the Leave campaign was not as scrupulous it might have been in describing the precise dimension of Britain’s financial contribution to the E.U. budget. But when it came to downright lies, the Remainers’ scare campaign plainly outperformed the Leavers’. George Osborne, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, warned that a “leave” vote would result in a crash in house prices, a recession, millions of lost jobs, a sterling crisis, a stock market collapse, and an immediate emergency budget that would introduce tax rises and public-expenditure cuts. Although sterling weakened in the aftermath of the vote, none of these other things occurred; Britain’s stock market is presently near its all-time high and unemployment is at its lowest level for more than four decades.
Evidence of growing dissatisfaction with E.U. institutions, not just in Britain but in most member states, could not be ignored entirely, however, not least because the European Union has appeared to be in a perpetual state of crisis. The Laeken Declaration of 2001 had the stated aim of seeking to bring Europe’s political institutions and the European peoples closer together, of introducing greater openness and transparency into the workings of the former, and of doing something about what was referred to as the “democratic deficit.” Of course, none of these aims was achieved, nor indeed was there any intention of achieving them.
The Declaration called for the creation of the dystopian-sounding “Convention on the Future of Europe.” Chaired by the former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, this convention proceeded to produce the draft of a European Constitution. When this was rejected in 2005 by the French and Danish electorates in separate referendums, most of its proposals were simply transferred to the text of a treaty which was signed in Lisbon in 2007 and came into force two years later. This possessed the appearance of a constitution, even if its architects now pretended it was no such thing. So too did the Cameron government, despite the fact that Giscard was indiscreet and vain enough to boast that “to his very great satisfaction” all of the nine major changes contained in the draft of the Constitution were replicated, not just in spirit, but word for word, in the treaty. The treaty gave the European Union some of the trappings of statehood that it had hitherto lacked, including a president, a foreign minister—officially titled the “High Representative for Foreign Affairs”—and an “External Action Service,” effectively a European diplomatic corps. It also gave the European Union a legal personality so that it was empowered to sign treaties, just like nation-states, and it extended the principle of qualified majority voting, thereby ending the right of national veto in new policy areas. Thus an initiative which began with the declared aim of bringing Europe closer to the people achieved precisely the opposite, reducing democratic accountability and adding important building blocks in the creation of a unitary European state. It also confirmed the exclusive right of the Commission to initiate legislation and established the goal of creating a common European defense force. None of this could have been achieved without a complex web of deceit and manipulation.
This chapter in the history of the European Union had at least one unintended consequence. Gisela Stuart, a German-born Labour MP, had been nominated by Tony Blair to be the British member of Giscard’s Convention Presidium. Exposed to first-hand experience of how the Union of European Federalists sought to achieve predetermined outcomes while pretending to heed popular sentiment, and of how the rules of procedure were made up to suit this goal, she became profoundly disenchanted with the entire European project, eventually deciding that Britain would be better off out. During the 2016 U.K. referendum campaign, Stuart was the joint chair of the Vote Leave Campaign and among the most articulate, informed, and persuasive advocates of a “leave” vote.
Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union provides the opportunity for a return to a more open and accountable form of politics.
The systematic process of deception that has characterized the development of the European project has led inevitably to a breakdown of trust in government and politics. In the post–Second World War period, trust in the U.K. government ran at relatively high levels. Today polls show that only 36 percent trust the Conservative government led by Theresa May. The most unpopular member of an unpopular administration, May enjoys negative poll ratings.
There are of course factors not directly connected with E.U. issues that contribute to the low level of trust in government and the political process in most, if not all, European countries. But it is striking that Switzerland, a non-E.U. country, displays relatively high and stable levels of trust in politicians, and that in Norway, another non-E.U. country, polling data suggests that trust in politics and politicians has steadily risen for more than a decade.
Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union provides the opportunity for a return to a more open and accountable form of politics. But trust, once eroded to the point of near destruction, is difficult to repair. The British people are rightly wary. Withdrawal may turn out to be less than the clean break that voters sought on referendum day. In a major speech at Lancaster House in London in January 2017, Theresa May promised that Britain would leave the E.U. customs union and the European single market and win back control of its borders and laws in accordance with Tory 2017 election manifesto commitments. Although devoutly to be wished for, this outcome became more difficult when a botched election campaign later that year drastically reduced the Conservative majority.
Negotiations with the European Union on the terms of a trade deal have been agonizingly slow, largely because the Conservative cabinet has been negotiating with itself over the form that Brexit should take, but also because of May’s feebleness, inconsistency, and procrastination. There is almost universal public belief that the talks with the E.U. negotiator, Michel Barnier, have been badly handled, and, among conservative supporters in the country, there is a deep and profound anger that Britain has made needless and humiliating concessions and is handing far too much money to Brussels as part of a settlement.
A final agreement made at an August 2018 meeting at Chequers, the prime minister’s country home, blurred the red lines so clearly drawn in the Lancaster House speech that it resulted in the resignation of both the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis. Even if further concessions during the ongoing talks with Brussels are avoided—which seems unlikely—it is evident that if the Chequers proposals, or something like them, are adopted, Britain will remain entangled in the European Union’s legal and economic institutions without any ability to influence E.U. law. May continues to parrot the phrase “Brexit means Brexit,” but the clarity of the Lancaster House speech has been replaced by mind-numbing jargon and the repetition of clichés designed to conceal the fact that it means no such thing.
At the time of writing, several outcomes to the negotiations seem possible, including no deal at all, a half-in, half-out deal along roughly the lines of the Chequers proposals, a second referendum, and—most disastrously of all—a reversal of Britain’s decision to leave. But it is also clear that any further attempt at deception or obfuscation over Britain’s future relationship with Europe will rebound on those responsible. Minogue was right to warn that deception on such a scale is potentially explosive. A significant part of the electorate now realizes not just that it has been lied to but that this happened because it was judged too stupid to choose its own destiny.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 2, on page 32
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