Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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Not insular, but everywhere

26 April 2004

In agreeing to hold a referendum on Europe, Tony Blair has set himself the ambitious task of re-writing powerful British myths about themselves and their neighbours.

The issue of Europe has long had a toxic effect on British politics. Governments come unstuck on it for no good reason, because the way in which the subject plays in the national political debate defies reason at every turn. Why this should be so is a complicated issue, but that it brings out the most peculiar aspects of people is beyond doubt, as two unrelated by similar incidents from last week show.

The first, of course, is the extraordinary behaviour of Express owner Richard Desmond at a meeting with executives from the Daily Telegraph. In apparent reference to the possible take-over of the Telegraph titles by the German Axel Springer Group, Mr Desmond is reported to have given vent to an anti-German tirade, including the remark that all Germans are Nazis. According to witnesses he also went goose-stepping about the room in a parody of Hitler and required his executives to sing Deutschland Uber Alles.

Meanwhile, in Bradford, the Conservative deputy leader of the Council resigned after he made a Nazi-style salute and said "Sieg Heil" to a German-born councillor following a speech she made on community safety. Apparently incidents of this nature among Britons are rather common, and Germans with British connections are well inured to them.

Such childish repudiation of all things that lie beyond the English Channel is part of the currency of a certain section of British society, and it receives a strong echo in certain sections of the media. The chief targets for abuse are Germany and France, Britain's historic competitors who act in this relationship as a proxy for the whole of Europe, and with whom the culture of rivalry appears deeply ingrained. And for every buffoon that grotesquely oversteps the mark of good taste, there are plenty of serious people for whom any issue in politics, the media, law or business with a European perspective automatically acquires a cultural aspect. Disagreement gives rise to a sort of "what do you expect" attitude illustrated by that American characterisation of the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys". It seems impossible to look past such cultural assumptions and examine the real issues that lie beyond.

The cultural assumptions themselves are the stuff of myths; myths about Europe but also about Britain. Against the mythic vision of a Europe that is centralised, bureaucratic and authoritarian but also corrupt and mismanaged is set a golden vision of the British counterpart - honest; direct; efficient (but effortlessly, not ruthlessly so); freedom-loving; independent minded. What comes to mind is the image of Drake at bowls on Plymouth Hoe, with "time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards, too." There is an echo, also, of the spirit of 1940, after Dunkirk, when Britain "stood alone"; by implication rather relieved to have become detached through circumstances from unreliable continental allies.

These myths have had their uses, but the truth that they conceal is quite other; a story of dissemination and diaspora with Britons not insular but everywhere, both in person and in ideas and influence in politics, culture and social norms both throughout Europe and across the globe. But because the principle cultural reference is language, Britons do not observe this phenomenon evenly. They imagine social and cultural cousin-hood only where their language is spoken, and thus appear more comfortable stretching their arms across the Atlantic than they do embracing their foreign-language speaking neighbours nearer home.

It might surprise Britons to know that more Americans trace their ancestry back to Germany than to Britain, but that is by the way. What is incontrovertible is that Britain has far more in common politically, culturally and socially with her European neighbours than with the United States. Attitudes to wealth and money, progressive taxation, social security, health service provision, criminal justice and the death penalty, sexual politics, religion, the use of military power - in all these areas mainstream British opinion is far closer to that which predominates in continental Europe than that which would be deemed typical in the United States.

The problem is that Britons are not routinely exposed to European opinion in the way that the American picture invades living rooms every day. In that sense the success of the English language is creating a rising barrier between Britons and those who do not speak their pesky tongue. Most peoples - especially most European peoples - have to get used to the idea that their own is not the only way of speaking, and in some European countries two or three languages is the norm. But Britons have been insulated from this requirement; there is no single need-to-know language demanded of them and the acquisition of foreign language skills has tended to slip down the list of educational priorities in British schools. The gradual unification of Europe, therefore, is at risk of coming up against a cultural wall at the English Channel because people in Britain do not recognise the cousin-hood of peoples whose language serves to emphasise foreign-ness rather than closeness of relationship.

All of which is bad news for Tony Blair as he shapes up to the implications of his ill-judged decision to hold a referendum of the forthcoming European treaty. It is difficult not to feel some sympathy for him as he struggles to chart a reasonable route on the much need European constitutional changes, only to find himself constantly tripped up by the unrelenting press-generated hostility that appears to have provoked his dramatic volte face. But this sympathy is tempered by the knowledge that Blair, like everybody else in positions of influence, is too fearful of that hostility to set out the strongly and consistently positive line that would be necessary to counteract it.

The original decision that the new constitution was not a suitable subject for a referendum was clearly right. It is not qualitatively different from European treaties and agreements of the past, some of which have had greater significance that this. The only other referendum was on the principle of joining the Common Market, as it was called. The issue of "in or out", like that of yes or no to Scottish and Welsh devolution, is the sort of broad "destiny" question that a nation might be entitled to answer intuitively. But the question of a working constitution for an enlarged Europe of twenty five members is a complex, procedural matter that cannot be answered intuitively and is scarcely suitable for semi-informed national debate.

The problem, however, as Mr Blair has belatedly noticed, is that the question on the card is not the question that voters are intending to answer. Irrespective of the wording, the referendum on the constitution will wind up as an official opinion poll on the European Union as viewed by the British people in the vaguest and most general of terms. Having spotted that this is the case, the Prime Minister has decided that such a debate is necessary and useful since, if won, it will silence the sceptics and carpers for ever.

There may indeed be some logic in that. But to win the debate over Europe "for ever" Mr Blair has not merely to win an argument but to engineer a complete sea change in Britons' perceptions of their nearest neighbours. This really would be - to use a well-worn phrase - an historic achievement, but to have even the slightest hope of bringing it about Mr Blair must rapidly redirect his gaze away from the North Atlantic towards that continent of which he claims that Britain's place is at the heart.