John Stevens is a former Conservative Member of European Parliament who stood in 2010 as an independent candidate against John Bercow.
I have not written for ConservativeHome for nearly a year. This absence was not due to any inhospitality by this site, which has always been most tolerant and broad-minded. The run-up to the General Election was no time for controversy within conservatism. Since then, my pleasure at our having, at last, a referendum on our membership of the European Union, which I have long advocated, has become increasingly addled by a sinking feeling that the victory for what must now be called the “remain” side, which I anticipate, may resolve little.
It is hard for someone such as myself, who believes that Britain should be an EU member on equal terms with, say, Germany or France, to generate much combative elan for a choice which seems to boil down to being between “right out” and “almost out”: not in the Euro, not in Schengen, not sharing any vision for a common future: for that intangible, florid, but nevertheless idealistically-resonant “ever closer union”.
I am writing now because I am struck by how my depressive mood seems to be shared by those principled anti-Europeans, who appear to already anticipate their defeat in the forthcoming contest. Do we not all wonder whether a change in the welfare payments for migrant workers (or whatever else may emerge from the Prime Minister’s renegotiation, now scheduled to be completed by December) was really the issue which has torn the Party apart for a generation? Which brought down Margaret Thatcher, crushed John Major, William Hague and Michael Howard, and excluded Ken Clarke? Which has distinctly coloured the selection of all but a handful of our present Parliamentarians? That, on obviously a far more humble plane, cost me my place as a Conservative in the European Parliament?
Doubtless under the influence of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise, during the darkest hours I have even found myself following Trotskyist constructive destructivism (or whatever), to speculate grotesquely that the quickest way for England, or maybe just initially London, to join the Euro might be for there to be a “leave” vote, with all the ensuing chaos – constitutional and economic – it would surely bring. But the continuation of the British Union is, if anything, dearer to me than Britain’s full place in the creation of a true European Union. Indeed, I believe more strongly by the day that the two go completely together.
Now it seems the anti-Europeans are the ones coming unconsciously under the spell of Corbynesque revolutionary recidivism. How often have I heard recently that all it will take is a British “leave” vote to trigger a tide of irredentist, Syritza-style rage against Brussels right across the Continent. That so dramatic a vote of no-confidence, by so significant a nation, must shatter the dream of “ever closer union”, break-up the Euro, and create the sort of European order based only upon free trade with which Britain would be supposedly entirely comfortable.
This is surely entirely fanciful. Yanis Varoufakis is an absurd hero for any Conservative. A British departure from the EU would be a severe blow, to be sure, and would impose a short-term challenge for our erstwhile partners, but after the initial shock is far more likely to accelerate, rather than undermine, deepening Continental co-operation, especially in the Eurozone. In fact, its most plausible consequence would be to guarantee that this deepening would take a form inimical to our interests, notably with regard to the City.
Entirely fanciful too, I believe, is the notion that it would not matter if a British, or rather English “leave” vote, precipitated Scottish independence. That far from being a disaster triggering other crises, in Ireland, and Wales, and in the exposure of the differences between the North and South of England, and between London and the rest, with grave consequences for our collective prosperity as well as governance, this would be a millenarian moment of liberation for the English, leading to a radiant, self-reliant, neo-Elizabethan future.
The profound divide within the “leave” camp between the populist, nationalist isolationists, represented principally by Nigel Farage’s admirers, and the patrician, internationalist free-traders, represented principally by liberal Conservatives, must render any coherent post-exit policy quite impossible. It dwarfs, above all in its practical impact, the divide between the so-called “euro-fanatics” (I must accept the title), a tiny minority anyway, and the self-styled “euro-realists” gathering, with varying degrees of conviction and calculation, around the yet unraised “remain” banner.
But none of these considerations really confound the sober and sombre assessment that, like the Scottish referendum, the European ballot has come both too late and too soon. Too late to alter attitudes towards the status quo, which have become increasingly entrenched since the late 1990’s, but too soon to pass judgment on the new conditions created, in the Scottish case, by a most necessary new pan-British devolved settlement, and in the European case, by the likely evolution of the Eurozone. George Osborne is right to make this the critical issue of our EU engagement, notably with regard to the City: but he is handicapped by the fact that it is not yet actual, and may not be so for several years. He is also, I would say of course, handicapped by the fact that it cannot ultimately be resolved other than by joining the Euro.
Thus, like the Scottish referendum, the European ballot cannot really bring closure. At most, in the manner of Germany after the Thirty Years War, it will fragment Conservatism, leaving ideological and idealistic exhaustion the only real guarantor of peace. Such is the substance of my present sinking feeling. The union with Scotland looks as if it has merely been saved, temporarily, by draining it of all conviction and meaning. The union with our European neighbours looks as if it will only be saved, temporarily, by draining it of all conviction and meaning. And the union which should be the Conservative tradition looks as if it will only be saved, temporarily, by draining it of all conviction and meaning.