Marc Glendening is Political Director of Democracy Movement.
One week ago, at the Fabians’ Why Europe? The Left’s Answer, sponsored by the European
Commission, Labour MEP Richard Howett said that those opposed to the EU were
‘racists and xenophobes’. I asked him from the floor if he included in that
category Tony Benn, as well as Labour MPs Graham Stringer, John Cryer, Kelvin
Hopkins and Kate Hoey? He refused, revealingly to answer this inconvenient question and instead said:
“Mark Reckless, Bill Cash, William Hague, Nigel
Farage and Nick Griffin are racists”.
Mr Howett then said defiantly, playing to the Fabian
audience: “I will not back down and apologise.”
He has been challenged subsequently to repeat this
allegation and to provide firm evidence to back up his oafish accusation. He
has now gone silent. He has failed to respond on twitter to those challenging
him to back up his claims. Not quite so brave now. Howett’s intervention is one
manifestation of the campaign the mainstream pro-EU lobby has been waging for
some time and which they can be expected to intensify in the long run up to the
possible referendum in the next parliament. The New Labour inclination has
always been keen to play the man rather than the ball.
What was strange about an event advertised as being an
intra-left discussion on Europe was that nobody critical of the EU from the
Labour movement was invited to participate. The only anti-EU speaker in a whole
day of ‘debates’ was Stephen Woolfe from UKIP. No doubt the organisers were
disappointed to hear him say that he had been a former member of the Labour
party and the Fabians twenty years earlier. Last year’s Fabian Europe
conference similarly featured no left EU-sceptics, but, yes, you guessed it, a
Expect much more of this drive to conflate criticism of
the EU with the hard right of politics. This is a key aspect of what might be
described as the Euro-McCarthyite agenda. On February 6, apropos of nothing, Newsnight decided to screen an interview with Marine Le Pen, that well known
representative of British/European EU-scepticism, from the European Parliament
on her reaction to David Cameron’s promise of a referendum in Britain. Why? This
was the second time in two years
Kirsty Wark had interviewed the Front National leader.
If the BBC had been so keen to interview a member of the
European far-right about Europe why didn’t Newsnight
interview Gian Franco Fini, the former Italian foreign minister, pro EU
enthusiast and leader of the ‘post-fascist’ Alleanza Nazionale? He was the
individual who on a state visit to Britain during the Blair years harangued
John Prescott for not getting a move on about joining the single currency.
Perhaps he would not have given quite the responses about Europe the BBC was
looking for with the Le Pen interview.
Another characteristic of some on the modern centre left,
as well as Fabians going back to the Sydney and Beatrice Webb, has been an
elitist, disparaging and culturally superior attitude to the working and
(non-intellectual) middle classes. At the Fabian conference Peter Kellner
speaking on another panel predicted that many of the people who don’t like the
EU because they “don’t like foreigners, foreign aid, are against globalisation
will end up voting to stay in because they are shit scared of the consequences
of leaving.” The great pollster never provided any statistical evidence to back
up the EU-sceptical stereotype he was glibly articulating to the smug
self-satisfaction of the audience.
Throughout the day speakers and members of the audience
made references to the horrors of the tabloid media’s coverage of the EU issue.
This was advanced as one of several reasons why the so, allegedly, intellectually
gullible, unwashed masses must not be allowed to vote on Britain’s collective
constitutional future concerning the EU. This was a theme Shirley Williams
enthusiastically devoted most of her speech to at last year’s Fabian Europe
conference. A dissident member of the audience reminded the grande
dame of the centre left that the logic of this argument could be applied,
rather dangerously, to general elections as well. And did she consider herself
to be the sort of idiotic voter who could be swayed by tabloid coverage alone
of major political issues? Again, no real response.
The master of this type of neo-McCarthyite campaign was
most enthusiastically pursued by former arch-Blairite, Denis McShane. At a
debate last year at Sheffield University he told the audience not to listen to
his two EU-sceptical opponents on the grounds that: “They want to turn Britain
white.” Neither of the speakers, one
being myself, had mentioned basing immigration policy on racially defined
quotas, or, indeed, even the issue of immigration at all. He, notoriously when
Tony Blair’s Europe minister, accused the British people, yes all of us, of
having a “dark streak of xenophobia and racism in our mentality.” He accused
EU-sceptics of harbouring a ‘xenophobic hatred of the Germans or the French.”
Presumably he wasn’t thinking of Labour MPs Gisela Stuart or Natascha Engel
when he said this.
The Fabian conference was also instructive in terms of the
weakness of the case that was actually put for remaining within the European
Union. There was obsessive focus on the flawed Norwegian relationship with
Brussels, but a running away from any examination of the trading relationships
Switzerland, South Korea and 63 other countries have managed to develop based
on WTO rules and bilaterally negotiated agreements. Nor were they keen to
answer inconvenient points about the EU’s economic and demographic decline, or,
indeed, on the contradictions between the single market and many cherished left
Because the case for the EU is now so weak, the
Euro-McCarthyites will seek to distract attention from the real issues that
should form the basis of the rational, forensic debate we should be having
about Europe. What they want instead is a culture war in which they can present
themselves as being on the right side of history and those of us who oppose
them as antediluvian racists under the bed. Those of us who favour change will
need to devise ways to ensure that this debate takes place.