So, last Friday Theresa May, the British prime minister, gave a speech in Florence (full text here) in which she told us what sort of Brexit she hoped she could achieve, notably rejecting both the “Norway model” in which the UK would be a full member of the Single Market without a seat at the table when EU policies are made, and the “Canadian model”, the latter being a straightforward free trade agreement. One section of her speech that has caused a lot of upset was this:
The strength of feeling that the British people have about this need for control and the direct accountability of their politicians is one reason why, throughout its membership, the United Kingdom has never totally felt at home being in the European Union. And perhaps because of our history and geography, the European Union never felt to us like an integral part of our national story in the way it does to so many elsewhere in Europe.
Whether we “ever really felt at home” in Europe is a subjective matter; certainly, enough Britons bought homes in Europe, including holiday and retirement homes in Spain and Portugal and chateaux in France. It’s known that some of our politicians who have made a political and media career out of banging the drum for Brexit have homes and family in other EU countries. The fact is, however, that Britian granted Parliamentary majorities to pro-EEC and pro-EU parties in 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001 and 2005 (in 2010, the Tories were still only the biggest single party; Labour and the Lib Dems were still officially pro-EU). Labour’s worst electoral performance was in 1983 when it supported withdrawal from the EEC and the leading pro-Europe elements had broken away to form the SDP; the Tories’ worst performance was in 1997 when it was divided over Europe and anti-EU and anti-Maastricht elements were in the ascendant.
One could trace the ascending popularity of the pro-Brexit position to the accession of the former Eastern Bloc in 2004 and Blair’s policy of allowing workers from those countries in without restriction, although he still won the election the following year, or to the failure to hold a referendum on Maastricht, although Blair won a landslide on a pro-Maastricht platform in 1997. What hasn’t changed is that the press has run a drumbeat campaign against both the European Union and its institutions and the European Convention on Human Rights going back to the Thatcher era where manifestly untrue stories about how “you can’t sell curved bananas” appeared in the press on a regular basis (alongside similar stories about “loony left” Labour councils), but picked up pace during the Blair and Cameron periods where the pro-EU Liberal Democrat coalition partners were blamed for the Tories not being able to do everything they wanted and Europe was blamed for, among other things, the government not being able to deport criminals or suspected terrorists. The British polity and press were not used to the idea of individuals having legally-enforceable rights (even in weaker form than, say, the US Bill of Rights) and the state not being able to stick the boot into people at their behest.
As I have said before, a large part of the discontent at the EU that was not racist or hostile to human rights stemmed from how Britain interfaces with Europe; we have a history of accepting European integration in such a way as to benefit business and leaving what makes life easier for ordinary people. Much of the EU’s laws and policies were agreed to by British politicians or MEPs (some of it could not have been voted through without everyone’s consent, not just that of a simple majority, unlike in the British parliament). Very many of the policies which coincided with us being members of the EEC were in fact purely British and not forced upon us by the EU at all.
Theresa May’s claim was a rewriting of history. The EU has not always been unpopular: pulling out of the EU has been either a vote-loser or off the table for most of the time we have been a member. The movement to drag Britain out is of very recent gestation.
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