We Need an In or Out Referendum on Europe

David Marquand says secession from the European Union would be disastrous for Britain but good for Europe

The debate around Tony Blair’s candidacy for President of the European Council is nonsense from start to finish. It would be ludicrous to give the job to someone whose country has deliberately stood aside from virtually all the crucial developments in the EU since the early nineties. Britain is not in the Euro, and has not taken part in Schengen. It has deliberately turned itself into a marginal, offshore island, irrelevant to the concerns and future of the European mainland. It would be an affront to the EU’s heartland countries to appoint a Brit to this post – or for that matter to any other prestigious EU post. Britain is no longer an asset to the EU, if it ever was. It’s a pain in Europe’s fundament.

Monnet had the right attitude to Europe’s British problem. Continental Europe, he thought, should go ahead with its integration without Britain; the British would then have to stew in their own juice; and sooner or later they would realise that they can’t get along on their own, and apply to join. That, of course, is exactly what happened. If the mainland Europeans had the guts to treat us like that again, that is what would happen again. The truth is that the extraordinary media hoo-ha about Blair’s supposed candidacy is merely one more sign that our political and media classes are living in a time-warp. They still think Britain matters. It doesn’t.

Quite apart from that, why on earth should Merkel and Sarkozy (who will necessarily be the key actors) dream of appointing a politician of the centre-left to this post, when the centre-right they lead has just won a crushing victory in Germany, and is in unchallenged power in France and Italy as well? That too would be an affront – not to the whole of mainland Europe, this time, but to its dominant political force.

In saying this I will be accused of lacking patriotism. That charge leaves my withers unwrung. Samuel Johnson said that patriotism was ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel’ and, goodness knows, he was right. However, I am in fact proud of being British. But the Britain I’m proud of is the Britain that stood alone against Nazi Germany for twelve long months; that offered France a total merger with Britain, which would have joined the French and British states in one indissoluble union in 1940; that welcomed asylum seekers from the Hugenots to Jews fleeing pogroms in the Russian pale, to Karl Marx, to the parents of Isaiah Berlin; that prided itself on an unarmed police and a long tradition of free speech and peaceful protest; and boasted that an Englishman’s home was his castle.

Tragically, that Britain no longer exists. We are the most spied-upon nation in Europe, and one of the most spied-upon in the world; our Government has almost certainly been complicit in torture; our right to live our lives as we like is threatened by the remorseless advance of the data-base state; and instead of rejoicing in the protections to our liberties given us by the European Convention on Human Rights we have an Opposition party that constantly denigrates it, and media barons who lose no opportunity of whipping up illiterate contempt for the rest of the continent to which we belong.

But I’m now getting more and more favourable to a referendum – not on the Lisbon Treaty, which is a side issue, but on the one question that really matters: in or out? I’m pretty sure that the Europhobes would lose, just as they did in 1975, but even if they won there would be a silver lining. British secession from the EU would be a disaster for Britain, but it would be a good thing for Europe. Its progress towards federalism would still be slow and halting, but at least the UK would no longer be there, throwing spanners in the works at every opportunity.

And – a bigger bonus – the UK would probably break up. Scotland and (probably) Wales would not want to leave their continent, even if England did. I’ve always been against the break-up of Britain, championed so brilliantly by Tom Nairn, but I’m increasingly coming to feel that it offers Wales, where I was born, and Scotland, where both my grandmothers were born, their best hope of escape from the deadly UK mixture of authoritarian illiberalism, gross inequality and small-minded insularity.

Professor David Marquand is a former Labour MP and adviser to the European Commission. His latest book is Britain Since 1918 – the Strange Career of Britsh Democracy. This post also appears on th www.opendemocracy.net OurKingdom blog

2 thoughts on “We Need an In or Out Referendum on Europe

  1. Interesting to return to this blog many years later given all that has happened. Would be good if the IWA could do more with its archive given present events.

  2. Thanks Leo – it’s something we’re hoping to find funding to be able to do properly at present.

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