Monday, 28 January 2013

Let's get out of the EU just like we got away from the US

To be chief of staff to Tony Blair is a bit like being keeper of the curious compounds to the Borgias, so I’m not always inclined to regard Jonathan Powell with relaxed confidence. Nevertheless, he spent a while in diplomacy – another of those jobs not always marked by its qualities of straightforwardness and frank speaking – so he probably knows a bit about how one state ought to handle their relationship with others.

Powell: probably an authority but, hey, a Blairite. Lock up the spoons.

So it was interesting to read Powell’s paper in Monday’s Guardian about David Cameron’s long-awaited speech on Britain’s relationship with the European Union. As he argues, the speech was designed to win Cameron an immediate boost in short-term popularity, and it seems to have worked: the latest polls show him 3 or 4 points closer to the Labour opposition than he was before.

However, as Powell says, Cameron’s made any such gain at the cost of launching a five-year campaign over whether Britain stays in the EU or not.

Cameron has said he will only campaign to stay in the EU if he is first able to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership. Until he pulls off that fairly improbable feat, he’ll presumably have to hold his peace; and if he fails, as seems likely, what will he do? He claims to be a convinced Europhile: would he have to argue against his conviction?

In the meantime, the Eurosceptics will be under no restraint to silence their increasingly virulent attacks on British membership. On the contrary, they’ll take encouragement from Cameron’s having declared open season on the EU.

So our membership of the EU is at risk. The Eurosceptic current in the population is delighted. They see the millions it costs us to be members but somehow miss the hundreds of millions in additional trade it provides us; they see the way it forces us to let Johnny Foreigner in but don’t see that new arrivals are less inclined to claim benefits than native Brits and do jobs we can’t persuade anyone else to take on; they see that the Union imposes legal restrictions on us but don’t see that the same provisions guarantee us rights, including the opportunity to live and work in any of 26 other countries.

Now there’s nothing new about this kind of unenlightened thinking. Most peoples, but the Brits more than many, love to focus so much on the shortest of short terms that they lose track of the long-term advantage they’re giving up. Funnily enough, I’ve just been reading some more about one of the more obtuse instances of Britain behaving that way in the past.

Back in the eighteenth century, Britain fought a bunch of wars against those perpetual party-poopers from across the Channel, the French. Given the opposition, the Brits naturally won, but it cost a bit.

‘Blimey,’ they said, ‘who can we get to pay for this?’

So they took a look across the Atlantic and saw those enterprising colonists making money out in America. ‘I know,’ they said, ‘we’ll tax them.’

Sadly, the Colonists didn’t see things quite the same way. ‘Raise your own bloody money,’ they said, ‘we’re taking our ball away and won’t play any more.’

I read recently about John Adams of Massachusetts and Ben Franklin of Pennsylvania heading a delegation to visit the Lords Howe, one brother an Admiral, the other a General, in New York. Classic, isn’t it, that Britain was represented by two sprigs of the nobility, old Etonians, occupying their top positions thanks to their birth, because their talent certainly wouldn’t have got them there?

John Adams was worried about the likely behaviour of the Howes, but was astonished and delighted by the smooth courtesy and polished charm the two gentlemen displayed over dinner. Again, perfect isn’t it? Their descendants combine urbanity and incompetence in just the same measure.

Admiral Howe: not a lot of cop militarily, apparently
But he doesn't look a bundle of laughs either, to be honest

The discussions led nowhere and within days the Howes were in action against the colonists, winning crushing victories. However, each time they whipped the dastardly Yanks, the Howes went back to their charming dinners for another month or so, while their opponents slipped away and regrouped ready to attack again when the opportunity presented. And isn’t that appropriate too? Cameron wins his little skirmishes and then relaxes on his laurels while the war slips away from him.

Now Cameron 
isn’t an eighteenth-century general. Or even an admiral. And the EU isn’t a set of British possessions. But the North American colonies turned into the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth, and Britain’s short-term approach ensured that it would be no part of that. All for the sake of a little money they needed right then, and didn’t get anyway, and for want of a strategy properly elaborated and consistently applied, they turned their back on pretty cracking opportunity, the best they probably ever had.

Today, Cameron is looking at the possibility of working more closely with one of the world
’s biggest economic blocs, one likely to grow still more powerful in the future. He has deliberately adopted an approach that will marginalise Britain from it. He’s done that for the sake of an uncertain short-term gain. 

That feels like exactly the kind of respect for tradition that we appreciate in Britain.

‘That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history’ said Aldous Huxley. He was British. He was well placed to know.

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