In politics, fundamental changes occur far less often than exciteable headline writers would have us believe. Sometimes, however, there is a basic realignment. Often, the early stages are imperceptible. Then everyone realises that events have spun out of the politicians' control. The eventual outcome may not what be anyone would have wished, but nothing can be done. History has altered course. The list der vernunft has a new mistress.
A German phrase is appropriate, because of Angela Merkel – though if she thinks that she is the new mistress, she has many another think coming. A few days ago, she came to London to invite the British to be better Europeans. One only hopes that the German Embassy has given her an accurate account of her reception: as the current Ambassador is a purblind dullard, that may be unlikely. Frau Merkel's was the most counter-productive German intervention in British domestic politics since Lord Haw-Haw. She did move the debat -, from scepticism to hostility. Listening to her, a lot of Euro-sceps – I am not talkig of phobes – came to a conclusion. She was implying that Britain could be cutting itself off from the EU. She may well be right. So we had better start preparing and planning.
I said all that to an immensely distinguished retired Ambassador, a man of formidable intellect, who spent most of his career working to strengthen the ties between Britain and Europe. Far from disagreeing with my assessment of public opinion, he replied that he and many of his friends shared it and were increasingly worried: they had to do something to present their case. I told him that his lot had a number of problems. The first was the single currency. They had all been in favour; how could they explain that away? The second was Euro-idealism. Even before the Eurozone degrigolade, it had never been a popular cause in the UK. Few of its adherents had been willing to proclaim their faith. Now, it is harder than ever.
The alternative to idealism is fear: to warn the British people that they would be worse off outside Europe – as Lady Haw-Haw was doing, in her "Germany calling" message. But as anyone with even a superficial acquaintanceship with modern history ought to realise, it is not easy to persuade the Britsih by trying to intimidate us. One does not know how much history Chancellor Merkel has read; it is easy to understand why Germans do not rush to the history shelves for light entertainment. But that creates a problem. In part, because they shrink from the scalpel of historical self-examination, the Germans are not good at understanding other countries. Cliches do not earn their status unless they are true, and it is true that the Hun has a propensity to be either at your feet or at your throat. These days, most Germans have one over-riding belief about Europe: that the rest of us would be much better-off if we were more like them.
No-one could deny that they have a point; consider, for instance, Greek public finances. But it was the Germans who insisted against all reason and common sense that Salonika should use the same currency as Stuttgart. It was the Germans who cannot understand that other peoples value their freedom. Finally, the British Europhiles have to live with the lie of Lisbon. The Labour goverrnment promised a referendum and then reneged on its promise. If a public company had behaved in that way, those responsible who have been on their way to gaol. The whole affair proved that it is as safe to trust a federast with truth as it was to trust Jimmy Savile with youngsters. Lisbon left a legacy of mistrust and bitterness. We Eurosceps concluded, as we should have known already, that there was no limit to the deceit and amorality which the federasts would deploy.
But our pessimism is overblown. A generation ago, William Rees-Mogg had a most valuable insight (one of many). He pointed out that institutions often seemed at their most formidable when they were actually well into decline. The Spanish Empire and the British Empire were good examples, as was the British trade union movement. The EU's threat to the UK is the latest instance, which is one reason why the Euro-sceps can relax. The Ambassador and his Europhile friends have lost. History has moved against them, inexorably, inevitably. There is no danger of us losing our currency or being absorbed into a federal European state.
This does not mean that everything is benign. After all, these islands have had a troubled relationship with Europe for most of our history. The Eurozone is an economic threat to us and to itself. Around this time last year, I thought that its collapse was imminent. I can only apologise, for grossly underrating the demented obsessiveness with which the Euro-nomenclatura would continue to defy reality. Two eminent historians, Ian Kershaw and Max Hastings, have addressed the same tragic question. At the end of the last War, why did the Germans go on fighting, condeming cities to destruction and millions of people to death, long after it was clear that they had lost? The victims of the Eurozone have an easier time. These days, it is merely cities to riots and millions to unemployment. But yet again, stubborn-ness and irrationality are in harness (v. observations on the German character, above).
So what should happen now? First, politely but very, very firmly, the government should make it clear to our partners that we regard British withdrawal as an option, not a nightmare. We do not want to sever ties. We would be enthuistic about remaining in a Europe of free trade and political co-operation. We understand that this would involve a reasonable element of burden-sharing, which we would accept, as long as it were reasonable. But we are not bluffing. We are in earnest about the need for a renegotiation.
This would not be easy. No-one in Europe would mistake a British insistence on renegotiation for the first Christmas present of the season. There would be many cries of "good riddance". Even so, we would have allies. A chum of mine has just come back from Scandinavia. He reports a widespread dismay about the prospect of the UK leaving, because it would weaken the cause of economic liberalism. A lot of people in Eastern Europe like us and regard us as natural friends. There is a difficulty. They would prefer it if we paid more money to the EU; some of it would reach them. But they do not want us to leave. They do not want a German-dominated Europe: been there, done that, got the shroud.
The French would be delighted if we left. They still hope that the EU could be run by a French jockey on a German horse. But that would not endear them to the other runners and riders.
There will be trouble ahead, and it is impossible to foresee the outcome. It is inevitable that there will be a renegotiation, followed by a referendum. But there is no need to rush into battle; think Quintus Fabius Cunctator, think Montgomery. Moreover, it is still possible that the Eurozone could implode. Widespread disorder, renewed recession; sometimes, there are temptations in politique du pire.