JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 2.11.12
ANYONE CAN HEAR it, these days, rippling across the Tory benches every time the European Union is mentioned; the visceral hiss and rumble of hatred, disapproval and dissent. It was reflected in the fierce, air-punching support David Cameron received from his own back benches, 11 months ago, when he sauid “no” to British membership of the EU’s new fiscal union. It could be heard again in the giggling, sneering response to the recent announcement that the European Union had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
And on Wednesday night, in the House of Commons, it achieved its greatest success so far, when an strange alliance of Tory back benchers and Ed Milliband’s Labour Party subjected the government to an embarrassing defeat on a proposed modest increase to the EU’s annual budget. It is difficult, now, to remember that there was once a time when the Conservative Party was broadly pro-European; and increasingly clear that the 2010 intake of new Tory MP’s yearns for the day when the UK will walk away from the European Union altogether. A group of them recently published a book called Britannia Unchained, about the potential they believe would be unleashed by such a change. And one young Tory I encountered at last month’s Battle Of Ideas in London even argued that Britain’s departure from the EU might help to save the Union; if Scots liked the idea of being independent in Europe, he reasoned, then the absence of the European safety net would make us the more likely to cling to the UK.
The problem with that analysis, though, is that the current Conservative surge in anti-EU sentiment is based on two sets of political assumptions, both of which Scottish voters are likely to find unattractive. The first is a kind of gut British patriotism, a visceral dislike of foreign interference in UK affairs. According to social scientists, there is a small proportion of people in every population – not more than around 10% , but always over-represented in active politics – who struggle with ideas of multiple identity, and like allegiances to be single and simple. And just as some hard-core SNP members – although not the current leadership – see all forms of British identity as bogus, and mere political fictions, so the fundamentalists of British identity in the Conservative Party see the European Union as a “pretend” political entity, with no legitimacy, no roots, and no clear accountability.
It’s therefore fairly obvious, to any student of British statecraft, that this simplistic attitude to British identity is in itself damaging to the Union. The vast majority of Scots have no difficulty in seeing themselves as both Scottish and British, and are therefore able – with relatively little psychological difficulty – to begin to accommodate the new, European level of identity that has evolved in the postwar period; at the deepest cultural level, they find the Tory anti-European impulse unsympathetic, and difficult to share.
What makes the new Conservative anti-Europeanism far more dangerous to the Union, though, is the strand of ideological flat-earthism which also informs it; many Conservative anti-Europeans dislike Brussels not only because it is in a foreign land, but because Europe still stands, in however fractured and threatened a way, for a different social model from the transatlantic free-market orthodoxy embraced by most 21st century Conservatives. In that sense, the EU represents a union not only of markets, but of social, civic and economic rights for ordinary citizens; and it is this social-democratic ethos that provokes an almost allergic reaction from the new Tory right, whose adherence to strict free market orthodoxy has only grown more rigid – as belief-systems based on denial tend to do – since the near-catastrophic collapse of our deregulated financial system in 2008.
The evidence continues to mount, of course, that the age of unbridled market theory is coming to an enforced end. This week alone, the Coalition government has been assailed by two reports – one from veteran Tory grandee Michael Heseltine advocating more vigorous government intervention to promote economic recovery, the other from an impressive cross-party Commission on Living Standards, pointing out the stagnation and decline in real British middle incomes over the last decade – which signalled the need for a radical change of direction, and for a rapid and decisive redistribution into ordinary pockets of some of the huge stockpiles of private and corporate wealth accumulated in recent years. It is increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that a new global dispensation is needed, one which will free governments from the diktat of markets that become ever more rapaciously short-termist in their views; and gradually restore their power to run their societies in more just and sustainable ways, which offer reasonable security to hard-working middle earners.
And it’s in a small but vital corner of a world facing this choice that the debate over Scottish independence will be played out, between now and 2014. The hope that some form of progressive Unionism will begin to play a role in the debate seems, sadly, to grow weaker by the minute. At a time when every self-respecting social democrat in Europe should be seeking to support and reinvent the European Union as the home of the most sustainable and decent form of western market economy yet devised, the best the Labour Party could manage, at Westminster this week, was an opportunistic and intellectually indefensible vote with the Tory right, against the current EU budget.
Yet there is no guarantee, either, that Scottish voters’ traditional support for centre-left values will finally compel them to vote for independence. The grip of the free-market right on the terms of debate remains so tight that voters may well be persuaded, over the next two years, that a social-democratic future is no longer possible; although that surly acceptance of the supposedly inevitable will hardly make us happy long-term Unionists, under a right-wing UK government. “Facts are chiels that winna ding”, said Robert Burns, more than two centuries ago. Amid the smoke and mirrors of modern political debate, though, awkward facts can easily be made to disappear for decades at a time; to be replaced by shifting clouds of fear and prejudice, blown into our faces by those with most to lose, from the sharp smack of truth.