Righteousness and risk in building a European policy

Another week, another car-crash of public policy. After last night’s vote on the amendment to the Queen’s speech – with more than half of all Tory backbenchers voting in favour of the motion – it is hard to see how today’s ballot for private member’s bills won’t result in the draft bill on a referendum (or some similar measure) being selected by one or more of the lucky winners. In the meantime, David Cameron flies to the US to push (in part) on a EU-US Free Trade agreement and talks of how ‘relaxed’ he is about it all.

The widespread view is of ‘Tory splits’ and there is a lot to that, even if the splits are largely between antis and pragmatists, rather than pros and antis. However, it also reflects two deeper trends on which we might more profitably dwell.

The first of these is righteousness. Perhaps the most striking feature of euroscepticism is not its existence, but rather its persistence. For all the bluster, eurosceptics have yet to make any real impression on policy – nationally or at a European level – at any point in the past two decades: even the British decision to stay out of the Euro was driven more by deep-seated ambivalence across the political spectrum of its political or economic value, rather than the actions of the Referendum party or Major’s ‘bastards.’

So the question has to be: why – in the face of such a lack of impact – have sceptics continued to fight their position? For me, a large part of the answer is this idea of righteousness, that the fight is a Good fight and must be fought, whatever the cost, whatever the set-backs.

Too often, non-sceptics assume that with a bit more education on how integration ‘really works’ and some engaged discussion, sceptics will have a moment of clarity and leave aside their views and actions. But this is to misunderstand the often visceral nature of much scepticism, its connection to deeply (and fundamentally) held views on the nature of the nation, identity and democracy. Such views would require a life-time of discussion to move, and a political system that didn’t undermine that message by constantly referring back to them. Even the brightest optimist could not bring that into being and I don’t know that I would want them to. In a political age when most people don’t believe in much and don’t trust in others, they hold on to what they do believe and trust and any challenge to that is a challenge to the fundaments of a democratic system that relies on some notion of community (national or civic).

If sceptics are righteous, and we cannot change their minds, then we need to think about how we construct institutions and policies that let them come inside and play a constructive role. In the case of the EU, whatever happens in the future, the UK will always be geographically, politically, economically and socially close to the continent, so we need to have some modus vivendi.  Indeed, I think we could argue (a la Beck) that this is a general problem across Europe rather requires some new form of social compact: we should not let the British case distract us from the structural dynamics in operation.

Unfortunately, this brings in the second element, of risk. Sceptic righteousness is inchoate, in that it is essentially negative (‘we don’t like the EU’) and does not offer a positive alternative. At the same time, no one seems to offer a positive alternative: neither ‘more Europe’ nor ‘less Europe’ really cut the mustard as rallying cries. This goes to the heart of David Cameron’s problem, in that his inability to articulate a clear vision of what the Union should be leaves him open to bidding by those around him. This is what the current ‘debate’ is about: how far can we move the Conservative leadership one way or the other?

It is – seemingly – only the pragmatism of government that seems to hold back the sceptics, and pragmatism isn’t a positive agenda, just a holding pattern. Like a besieged king in his castle, Cameron awaits a white knight to ride over the hill and rescue him, or hopes that some blight will kill off the gathering masses outside. Both those options are not inconceivable, but as time passes more and more of those knights will decide it’s not worth the effort and the growth in the number of besiegers will offset the loses to blight. To over-extend the metaphor, Cameron needs to break out of his castle, flying a bright standard under which both besieged and besiegers can rally.

All very nice, but not very likely. European integration is still not important enough to the electorate to make such a fight worthwhile, for one thing. However, this shouldn’t stop us trying to sketch out new options and work to find understandings and accommodations. Let us not forget that the EU itself is the product of a wave of righteousness that swept across the continent after the Second World War: that initial wave has passed, but we should not forget the value of the structures it has left.