Here we go again. Europe. Europe. Europe. We are pro-Europe, but realistic about Europe. We are realistic about Europe, that’s why we are Eurosceptic. We are Eurosceptic, but want to stay in. We are Eurosceptic and want to get out. On it goes, the never-ending dance. Parties are destroyed. prime ministers fall. The dance goes on.
Many of the moves are deceptive and calculated partly to deceive. Ed Miliband’s speech to the Confederation of British Industry recently and his interview in The Sunday Telegraph was quite a solo performance, showing that he has acquired some artful guile from the New Labour era. The Sunday Telegraph’s columnist Matthew d’Ancona saw Miliband’s stance as a potential “Clause Four” moment, signifying a historic shift away from Labour’s pro-European stance.
Yet take a step back, to what New Labour used to call the “big picture” and not much has changed at all. Miliband and the shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, were never intoxicated by “Europe.” I recall very early in the New Labour era Miliband observing to me, astutely, that for the likes of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson “Europe” had become a historic cause because they had turned their backs on more familiar left-of-centre objectives. Meanwhile, Balls was the key figure in persuading Gordon Brown to drop his enthusiasm for the euro and then preventing Blair from seeking to join the eurozone. Both were and are pragmatically pro-EU.
In power and indeed in opposition so was Tony Blair. Ignore the party’s many tonal changes and it becomes clear that pragmatic support for membership of the EU has been Labour’s position since 1983. Sometimes, because of the changing mood music around Europe, it has helped Labour’s leadership to stress that it is passionately pro-EU, and at other times to highlight its support for reform, sometimes both. Neil Kinnock won his only UK poll in the 1988 European elections, fighting on a strong pro-EU platform against a very Eurosceptic and silly campaign fought by the Conservatives.
By the time Tony Blair became leader in 1994, being “pro-Europe” brought him close to many business leaders alarmed by the frenzied, unrealistic Euroscepticism of the divided Conservative government. But Blair played games, too, absurdly deploying a British bulldog during the 1997 election campaign and writing in The Sun how he loved the pound. In power, his government was confused, pragmatic, sometimes bravely principled and occasionally opportunistic in relation to Europe. Probably, a Miliband-led government would be similar.
For the Conservatives there is always a volcanic eruption waiting to occur. Nothing has changed since the 1990s. This week, the former shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, put forward the case for two referendums. His argument was characteristically ingenious and would probably bring about the Conservative party’s collapse. Davis suggested a first referendum should be held in this parliament to give Cameron a mandate for fundamental renegotiation.