By Andrew Gimson
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How excellent that
the Conservative Party is arguing with itself, or with its leader, about
Europe. This debate is often reported as if it were a problem, which in the
short term it may well be. For David Cameron, it must in some ways be
inconvenient that he has been unable to shut this discussion down.
But in any but the
short term, it must be a good thing that the argument is taking place. For we need
to work out whether we wish to remain a self-governing nation, or whether it
would be more prudent, profitable and satisfying to merge our fortunes
in a larger European entity, just as the fortunes of Massachusetts are merged
in the United States of America.
To pose this
question is to incur the scorn of sophisticated metropolitan figures. Nationhood
strikes them as a primitive idea. They would rather veil it in misty assertions
about the need to decide the most important questions at the European level.
Which is why UKIP
is doing so well. Its concept of nationhood may not be the last word in
sophistication, but at least that party is asking the right question. It
recognises that the right to run our own affairs is in the end decisive.
people may retort that elections are usually decided by the state of the
economy, and of services such as health and education. This is true, but it
misses the point. Sooner or later, something will go wrong with the economy,
and the question of who has the authority to try to put it right becomes of paramount importance.
This situation has
been reached in a number of European countries. In Greece, for example, the
rate of youth unemployment has reached the almost unbelievable rate of about 60
per cent. Yet the government in Athens can do virtually nothing about this, for
in order to keep Greece in the euro, it has handed control of the Greek economy
to the European Union and the European Central Bank.
I do not mean to
imply that national governments never make mistakes. They too can make
atrocious blunders. But at least a nation which makes mistakes has the chance
to learn from them, and to adopt a new policy which enjoys greater popular
support. Greece has lost that ability, and will not regain it until it once
more possesses its own currency.
Giving up the
right to run your own affairs should not be done lightly. It is encouraging
to see so many Tories suggesting that we should recover the right to run our
own. Labour too used to be full of defenders of national sovereignty, but
somehow that strain in Labour thinking has almost died out, or been suppressed,
which is one reason why that party gives the impression of intellectual
One can understand
why David Cameron wished, on becoming leader, to stop the Tories banging on
about Europe. The details of European policy can become so tedious and
repetitive that ordinary people do not wish to be bothered with them.
people do still feel a deep sense of patriotism, and look to their politicians
to express that love of country. The Tories have pretty much lost the art of doing so.
Along with the rest of the political establishment, they feel more at ease with
a managerial approach to government. Technical improvements are supposed to be
what really matter, and are offered when people get worried about subjects like
But immigration is
actually an aspect of the national question. It goes to the heart of the
question of who we wish to be. No wonder Enoch Powell was so concerned by it.
I happen to think
that Powell made a grave misjudgment about immigration. Our political tradition is more flexible than
he realised. It is easier than he appreciated for immigrants to become British.
He failed to see how this country could be strengthened, rather than
undermined, by the arrival here of millions of energetic people who value our
idea of liberty under the law. The Conservative Party should have been in a
position to benefit far more than it has from the arrival of people who often
have an admirably old-fashioned belief in the value of hard work, enterprise,
family, religion and the monarchy.
But Powell was
right to see that our entry in 1972 into the European Economic Community, as it was then known, was a surrender of
something very valuable, which we had possessed for a long time, and for which
in living memory we had been willing to make severe sacrifices: namely the
right to run our own affairs.
occur to me with even greater force because in the 1990s I lived in Berlin and
watched Helmut Kohl sacrifice the German mark, proud symbol of West Germany’s
recovery from the horrors of the Nazi period.
The German people
had no desire to give up the mark. They enjoyed going on holiday in Italy, and
eating Italian food, but they also knew it would be complete madness to share a
currency with the Italians, let alone the Greeks. One could enter any bar in
Germany and people would tell you this. There were also great numbers of
learned professors who warned that from an economic point of view, the single
currency was bound to be a disaster, for it would be impossible to run a single
monetary policy which would suit the wildly divergent national economies that
were to be tied together.
political class refused point blank to give expression to these deep and as it
turned out entirely justified misgivings about surrendering the national
currency. Kohl bullied his own party, the Christian Democrats, into going along
with the project, and the opposition Social Democrats believed in it anyhow, so
thought it would be disgracefully populist to express the fears of the German
The cowardice of
German politicians may be explained by reference to German history. But the
forced introduction of the euro was still a terrible betrayal of the German
people, who now face the prospect of digging deep into their pockets in order
to save a currency which they never wanted in the first place. To add insult to
injury, they find themselves abused on
the streets of Athens as Nazis. Meanwhile the Greeks suffer a savage slump, a
disaster that would not have occurred if they had kept the drachma, or had at
least returned to it as soon as the disastrous consequences of the euro became
All this happened
because German politicians were frightened of having the necessary argument about
Europe. I am not trying to suggest it would have been an easy argument. But the
timid conformism of the Bundestag led to the breakdown of representative
government, and its replacement by unrepresentative government.
Which is why the
British Conservatives are right to argue both with themselves and with the
other parties about Europe. Whatever policy we end up pursuing will only
possess legitimacy if ministers have been forced to explain on frequent
occasions to MPs why it makes sense. However inconvenient the argument may become,
to refuse to have it would be worse.