‘It may be that the era of pure representative democracy is slowly coming to an end,’ reflected Peter Mandelson, in a 1998 speech. ‘Representative government is being complemented by more direct forms of involvement from the internet to referenda. That requires a different style of politics. People have no time for a style of government that talks down to them and takes them for granted.’
So here we are, coming to the end of the most important referendum campaign in four decades, and it’s tempting to ask, in a formulation familiar in social media: How’s that ‘different style of politics’ working out for you?
Back in the 1975 referendum, life felt so much simpler. The political mainstream was (mostly) united and (mostly) respected, and the people were (mostly) happy to play follow-my-leader. Urging us to remain in the EEC were Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and Jeremy Thorpe, supported by every major national newspaper. Against them were Tony Benn, Enoch Powell, Ian Paisley, the Communist Party, the National Front, Sinn Fein and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists – a collection of ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists,’ as a later politician might have put it.
Over the last few months, the Remain camp has been behaving as though those conditions still apply. And consequently they’ve been thrown into a state of panic, when opinion polls suggest that the voters aren’t quite as prepared to play their part as they used to be. It turns out that Mandelson was right: a political class that ‘talks down to them and takes them for granted’ no longer commands their loyalty.
In such circumstances, it’s easy to see the appeal of Leave, as a way of rebelling against our rulers. Harder, though, to see an army led by the Old Etonian Boris Johnson and the former commodities-trader Nigel Farage as rampart-storming, anti-establishment types. And hard, too, not to notice that, as they line up in battle-order, the ranks get very thin on the ground out towards the left wing.
There is a longstanding Left argument against the European project, of course. As articulated by Barbara Castle, Peter Shore and Bryan Gould and others, it combined social democracy, control of the national economy, and a sense of patriotism. There are still some prepared to put the case, but they are increasingly isolated voices, and they haven’t been heard anywhere near the top of the Labour Party for decades: I rather like Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart, but with the best will in the world, they aren’t in the same league as Castle and Shore. There is a critical shortage of Left politicians in the Leave camp, and if Britain votes against the EU, it will be claimed as – and will be – a victory for the forces of the Right.
There is, however, another strand of left-wing thinking on Europe, a much more positive vision. One could, for example, look back to the proposition put to the International Peace Congress at Geneva in 1867:
Is the reign of peace to which humanity aspires as the latest development of civilization compatible with those great military monarchies which rob the peoples of their most vital liberties, maintain formidable armies, and tend to suppress small states for the benefit of despotic centralizations? Or is it not rather the essential condition of perpetual peace between nations – liberty for each people, and in their international relations the establishment of a confederation of free democracies constituting the United States of Europe?
The thinking was characteristic of the time. Europe was in a state of confused transition, all too often manifested in military combat. Just a year earlier, Prussia and Austria had been at war, as Germany struggled to establish its identity, and that conflict had spilt over into the Third Italian War of Independence. An end to war in Europe, the role of the nation state, the need for cooperation – these were issues that preoccupied many on the Left in the 19th century. And the attraction of a pan-European dream, drawing on the successful and sustainable model of post-revolutionary United States of America, was clear: peace could only come through international cooperation.
The message was picked up with enthusiasm in some quarters. ‘Let us proclaim the liberty, equality and fraternity of the peoples, and let us form United States of Europe,’ declared the International Workingmen’s Association in 1870. ‘Long live the universal republic!’
The First International (as it posthumously became known) was based in London, but all its key figures were foreign, and this sort of stuff didn’t really make much impact in Britain itself, where conditions were very different. Britain had a territorial integrity that was unmatched by any other country in Europe, and a couple of generations had passed since it was last dragged into war on European soil. The concept of a universal republic seemed unnecessary, impractical and utopian.
There was, though, a brief moment when such idealism did come to the fore on the British Left. In 1927, with the horrors of the Great War still raw in the memory, Ramsay MacDonald, leader of the Labour Party, called for international disarmament and for the formation of a United States of Europe (that phrase again). He found support in the Trade Unions Congress, which voted that year in favour of a proposal by Ernest Bevin of the Transport and General Workers’ Union ‘for a Labour policy aimed at overcoming the enslavement of economic Europe by political barriers’.
It didn’t take, of course, and an idealistic embrace of Europe has seldom been in evidence in recent times in Britain. For many of us, the European Union as currently constituted doesn’t immediately evoke those nineteenth-century dreams about the highest form of civilization. Some of our neighbours, on the other hand, have at times seen things in a more optimistic light. Populations that have, within living memory, been ruled by fascist and communistic dictatorships, whether voluntarily or otherwise, have proved more enthusiastic in their aspirations to that proposed ‘reign of peace’. The closest we get is the occasional half-hearted claim by David Cameron that the EU has brought peace to Europe, a thought expressed so clumsily that he’s parodied as predicting the coming of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Which is a shame, because I suspect there’s some truth in his comments and his implied warning. Nato may have been the key to avoiding conflict with the Soviet Union (in the European theatre, at least), but the real guarantee of peace between the Western nations has been the spread and maintenance of democratic governments. And the EEC/EU has – thus far – provided the underpinning for Europe’s slow emergence into democracy.
It may well be that this isn’t sustainable. There’s very little reason, based on geography or history, to assume that the continuation of democracy in all corners of Europe is at all secure. This is a continent surrounded by, and containing, some very dubious and dangerous ideologies. And the Balkan Wars, only twenty years ago, suggested that the resort to slaughter hasn’t exactly been eradicated from European culture.
It may also be, as some argue, that the very existence of the EU and, particularly, of the euro, centralizes power so much that it provokes a reaction in the form of extremist anti-democratic forces. There are several far-right, and some far-left, parties growing in strength right across the continent.
I suspect there’s some truth in that, as well. Nonetheless, I think the EU is still the best hope for keeping Europe together and for maintaining freedoms. If I try to imagine a Europe in which the Union ceased to exist, I find myself feeling a good deal less safe and less confident about the future than I do now.
And because Britain remaining a member would help the EU to survive, and might – with its long unbroken democratic traditions – help it to exert a positive influence, then I conclude that Britain is morally obliged to remain a member. The EU needs Britain – probably more than Britain needs the EU. If we made our excuses and left, it wouldn’t prompt the Third World War, but it would greatly destabilize an already fragile union. Neither Britain nor Europe would be a nicer place as a result.
This is, I’m aware, a somewhat negative reason for voting Remain in the coming referendum. Does that means that it’s part of the much publicized Project Fear? Yes, probably. I do indeed fear the consequences of a weakened and wounded EU. And these are fearful times, even for those of us so pampered and privileged as to live in Britain in an era we can still refer to as being post-war. There’s a lot of pessimism around at present.
It wasn’t always so. The great Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini was unable to attend that International Peace Congress in 1867, but he wrote to the conference, urging progressive groups to proclaim and celebrate the dream of a united Europe:
The object is one last great and holy crusade – a battle of Marathon for the profit of Europe, for the triumph of the principle of progress over the principle of inertia. Such is the end. Do not hide it, do not mask it. Have the courage of your faith, and inspire with this faith and this courage the sleeping peoples.
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone be that open and optimistic. And I’m not sure that it’s a very saleable political message at the moment. Which is why we have Project Fear instead.
So here’s some proper fear-mongering: Do I really want to go to bed on the morning of 24 June with the knowledge that the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Kelvin MacKenzie and Simon Heffer are crowing in triumph? Will I sleep happier knowing that Nigel Farage still has a political career? Will I be cheered when I wake up and switch on the radio, only to hear a jubilant Boris Johnson or a smug Iain Duncan Smith?