The prime minister’s speech in Florence may well help, in the short term, to clear some of the obstacles that currently stand in the way of the UK’s departure from the EU in 2019. But here is a heretical thought: in the longer term, however unlikely it now seems, do not be too sure that a Conservative government, under a different leader and in changed circumstances, will not one day be looking for a way back in.
Next month sees the 45th anniversary of the European Communities Act — the legislation that took the UK into what was then the European Economic Community. It was passed, of course, by a Conservative government.
We need to be careful, however, not to draw too simplistic and stark a contrast between the Tories’ Europhilia of yesteryear and their Euroscepticism today. Conservative prime minister Ted Heath, after all, only managed to secure parliamentary agreement to accession with the help of Labour’s social democrats and in the teeth of furious opposition from some of his own MPs.
Go a little further back to earlier, unsuccessful attempts to gain entry to the EEC in 1961 and 1967, and it becomes obvious that the Tories have long been arguing over the UK’s relationship with “Europe”, in all its guises.
True, Margaret Thatcher handbagging her way to a budget rebate in 1984 and making her Bruges speech in 1988 brought these passions to a pitch. The ferment continued with her subsequent defenestration in 1990 and the country’s humiliating exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday two years later. Passing the Maastricht treaty in 1992 saw the Tory benches in the Commons riven, with nine MPs deprived of the party whip. The Lisbon treaty (2007), Tony Blair’s decision to allow unfettered access to the UK’s labour market to eastern European migrants after enlargement in 2004, and the eurozone crisis, all reopened the wounds.
But these events only meant so much to Tories because they tapped into a much deeper well of age-old Conservative concerns: about paying something for nothing; about the machinations of scheming foreigners; and about sacrificing national sovereignty, border control, and both diplomatic and economic room for manoeuvre.
And while we cannot dismiss each and every Tory Brexiter as a nostalgic imperialist, pathetically hankering after a revived Anglosphere, many of them see our involvement in Europe and our ability to trade freely with the rest of the world as a zero-sum game.
So far, so Conservative, some would say. They would be wrong. One reason why the Tory party can lay claim to being the world’s longest surviving and most successful political party is its ability to meld together, more or less convincingly, several contradictory strains — not least the longing of some of its adherents for (neo) liberal clarity and its more pragmatic members’ instincts towards messier compromise and incrementalism.
As a consequence, there will always be tensions within the party — profound faultlines that Europe, perhaps more than any other issue, has a nasty habit of exposing.
For instance, for all that Brexit may fulfil some present-day Conservatives’ fantasies of Britain’s gloriously deregulated global destiny, it seems to run completely counter to the party’s long-established political economy which, since the collapse of empire at least, has relied on progressively freeing up the movement of goods, services, capital and people within our nearest, most lucrative overseas markets. The most striking example is via the qualified majority voting embodied in the Single European Act — designed by Thatcher’s personal pick as European Commissioner, Arthur Cockfield, and signed into law by her in 1986.
At an even deeper level, the current government’s determination to undo decades’ worth of economic and political integration flies in the face of what Michael Oakeshott, the party’s pre-eminent postwar philosopher, termed the conservative “disposition” or “temperament”. The conservative, wrote Oakeshott “is not in love with what is dangerous and difficult; he is unadventurous; he has no impulse to sail uncharted seas; for him there is no magic in being lost, bewildered or shipwrecked . . . What others plausibly identify as timidity, he recognises in himself as rational prudence . . . He eyes the situation in terms of its propensity to disrupt the familiarity of the features of his world.”
Of course, any quick-witted Tory Brexiter will argue that this is precisely the advice that Macmillan and Heath — and even Thatcher by her campaigning for a Yes vote in the 1975 referendum — failed to heed. Are we not, half a century later, simply righting a wrong, rejoining the prudent path from which we should never have strayed so recklessly?
Likewise, to the blindingly obvious psephological argument that a large majority of today’s younger voters regard Brexit as utterly bonkers, and that the Conservatives only win elections when they are seen to embody the future as well as the past, the party’s hardcore Leavers can claim to be doing just that. The west, they will argue, is on the wane. Power is shifting inexorably to Asia. Get with the programme! You may think we have stolen your future. But Brexit will get you there faster.
It is this very eclecticism and flexibility of thought that has served the Tories so well over two centuries that has allowed the party to enthusiastically embrace Europe, then renounce it and all its works. But remember these qualities — they also mean it may not be the end of the story.
Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/2f2c6512-9ebe-11e7-8b50-0b9f565a23e1