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UK at mercy of centrifugal forces

by William Keegan

UK at mercy of centrifugal forces

There is a breed of Labour politicians and left-inclined journalists who entered public life as extreme left wingers, often as members of a group whose members styled themselves international socialists. Denis MacShane is one of many I have known and liked over the years.

One of the most prominent characteristics of former international socialists is that they tend, or tended, to be rebels with a cause.

For many, when the workers of the world failed to unite, that cause became Europe – and, for some, the putative importance for Britain of joining the euro area, which they advocated with religious devotion.

Operating forces

Both Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock became passionate ‘Europeans’; Lord Kinnock actually served in Brussels as a Commissioner. Denis MacShane has an extra ancestral dimension to his Europeanism, having been born in Poland and spent five years as Tony Blair’s political envoy to Europe.

He speaks several European languages and spent many years on the Continent before being elected to parliament in 1994 and serving almost 20 years as an MP.

MacShane is so passionately pro-European that I confess the title of his latest book came as something of a shock. But it is important to know that MacShane has a wicked sense of humour. I take it that he and his publishers settled on a title that was intended to shock – and to sell.

For the real message of the book is not that Britain will definitely leave the European Union, but that there are so many forces operating in that direction that the odds on the pro-Europeans winning a referendum have narrowed markedly since the 1975 referendum, when there was a two to one majority in favour of staying in.

The very term Brexit makes this correspondent shudder. MacShane hints that he may have coined it himself, as an obvious derivation of the term ‘Grexit’. But Grexit referred to the possibility of Greece leaving monetary union, not the EU.

European construction

Brexit implies that Britain would leave the entire European construction. The UK would not be leaving the euro area, which it did not join. But the country would undo the good work of all those British statesmen and civil servants who spent decades trying to overcome French resistance to UK membership of what was once known as the Common Market.

Ironically, it was British accession, and an act of the eurosceptic Margaret Thatcher, that proved the decisive influence in the EU’s adoption of the single market in goods, if not in services, in 1986.

In his preface MacShane explains: ‘Brexit seeks to argue that different tributaries – political, economic, much of the press, cultural, identity, historical – are coming together in one powerful confluence that – unless Britain awakes to the danger of where we are heading – will take Britain out of Europe.’

In the subsequent chapters MacShane does this magnificently, combining a historical and contemporary sweep which, to my mind, puts this beautifully written and carefully argued book into the ‘must read’ category.

As they discover MacShane’s passionately held views in favour of resisting what he terms ‘A centrifugal Europe’, eurosceptics will find that what is inside the book is not what it says on the cover. However, the author undoubtedly worries that the eurosceptics are winning the battle at present.

While suitably angry about the blatant antiEurope propaganda of the Murdoch press and the Daily Mail, MacShane criticises the proEuropean press for being supine when it comes to counterattacks.

His principal ray of hope seems to lie in the economics. Just as British policy-makers were attracted towards the European Economic Community in the 1950s by observing its superior economic performance, attitudes may change if the euro area pulls itself out of the economic mire – where there have been some encouraging signs – and the British economic recovery begins to come under strain.

MacShane fears that, whatever the strength of the Labour party opposition ahead of the general election on 7 May, the centrifugal forces are such that, if elected, Ed Miliband, the Labour party leader, would have to hold a referendum. I am not sure about that. And I would hope that the natural conservatism of the British people would militate against UK departure from the Union.

■ William Keegan, member of the Advisory Board, is Senior Economics Commentator at the Observer