Bruce Anderson is a brilliant British political columnist and was formerly Political Editor at The Spectator and a regular contributor to the Daily Mail and The Independent. In his youth he was a Marxist. It is often said that Bruce has a brain the size of a planet.
It is so tempting. In many ways, Britain never really joined the EU. When we applied and finally signed up in the Sixties and Seventies, the politicians who advocated membership were dismayed by the UK’s chronic economic weakness. Europe seemed much more dynamic and successful. Our leaders hoped that some of the success would rub off on us.
They ignored the fundamental differences. To us, Europe was about trade. To them, it was an escape route from centuries of conflict. In 1945, amid shattered cities and despairing populations, the future leaders of the EU concluded that the only way to save European civilisation was to move beyond the nation state: to start with economic integration and then work towards political union.
Saved by the Channel from the worst horrors of continental wars, most Brits shared none of the Europeans’ emotional urgency. The continentals had lost faith in their nations’ ability to protect them. The British soldiers who had been fighting to save Europe could not wait to return home, to the country which they still relied on for laws and liberties.
European trading opportunities had advantages for the UK. But there again, cultural differences became apparent. We had always earned much of our living on the high seas, and were natural free traders. They tended to prefer tightly-regulated economies and labour markets. Especially after Margaret Thatcher liberated Britain’s economic energies and brought our trade unions within the rule of law, the differences between us and them became increasingly apparent.
Then came the Single Currency and an accelerated pace towards European political union. Up to that point, many Brits had been inclined to dismiss ‘political union’ as the kind of high- own rhetoric which the Europeans – and especially the French – enjoyed. Although it might sound good over the brandy, it had no purchase on reality. It rapidly became clear, however, that many Europeans meant it, especially the Germans, still oppressed by war guilt, still lacking confidence in German patriotism.
Confronted by such divergences, it might seem natural to leave. In reality, that would indeed be imitating nature, in the sense of the ostrich posture: bury your head in the sand and hope that the world will go away. But the real world is too much with us: complex, bewildering, threatening. What will China look like in six months’ time? Or Russia? Even if the answer turned out to be ‘much the same’ would that be any reason for longer-term confidence? What is the next phase in the brutal muddling of the Middle East? If Donald Trump became President, what effect would that have on American leadership, or world stability? In Europe, apart from the UK, most economies are sclerotic: most political leaderships, weak. High unemployment is a chronic problem: with appalling levels of youth unemployment. Where that is concerned, for ‘chronic’ read ‘dangerous’ and there are few signs of improvement?
Tempted to gloat over Europe’s problems, the Brexiters are inclined to say ‘serve them right’. But even if you have never got on with your neighbour, once his house catches fire, you do not warm your hands on the flames. You call the re brigade. The EU is our most important trading partner. Our safety is bound up with its security arrangements. Let us be unflinching and realistic. Its problems are our problems. Throughout history, the twenty miles of Channel have insulated us from many dangers. But in the contemporary world, twenty miles is not enough.
There is a further and obvious – not to say conclusive – point. If it were in Britain’s interests to leave, it would be in other peoples’ interests for Britain to leave. Other financial centres would hope to pro t from closer ties with a liberated UK. So where are these financial centres? Which of them is calling for Britain to Brexit? There is a simple answer: none. On the contrary: if we were to leave the EU, most of the rest of the world would conclude that we had lost touch with reality. For a nation which depends on trade and which has greatly benefited from inward investment, that would not be a helpful assessment.
This may all sound negative. If so, good. We are living in a world full of negativity and risk. In calmer circumstances, there would be a case for leaving the EU, or at least for renegotiating our membership so that it was solely based on free trade and political cooperation. These are not calm circumstances. We are on top of a mountain, enveloped in deep fog, and surrounded by cliffs. The Brexiters want us to take a leap in the dark. That would be insanity.