“Brexit”, that is to say the withdrawal of Great Britain from the European Union (EU), is no longer a fantasy. While a clear majority of the British people remain in favour of continued membership of the EU, their support is ultimately fickle.
- The referendum will be characterised by a concerted media campaign to denigrate the EU’s institutions and to back the arguments of Brexit’s supporters
- Today the main proponents of withdrawal are less academic in their language, but more in touch with public opinion, than the conservatives of the 1970s
- Contemporary British Euroscepticism vindicates the ideas and positions taken by an extraordinary intellectual: Enoch Powell
If Prime Minister David Cameron were to fail in his attempts to obtain yet more opt-outs for Britain from the Treaty of Lisbon, a substantial segment of British public opinion could easily be influenced by Eurosceptic slogans in the referendum that must take place within 2017. Enthusiasts for the EU, as it is presently constituted, are thin on the ground.
The British press is (and will remain) Eurosceptic. Some of the nation’s principal newspapers – "Sun", "Daily Mail", "Daily Telegraph", "Express", "Times" – spend every day painting a gloomy portrait of the EU and its problems.
Only a handful of ‘quality’ newspapers, notably the "Guardian" and the "Financial Times", express critical support for the European project. It can be taken for granted that the referendum will be characterised by a concerted media campaign to denigrate the EU’s institutions and to back the arguments of Brexit’s supporters.
Last but not least, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), not to mention a significant part of the Conservative Party, will campaign hard for withdrawal. UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, has more than once underlined that Euroscepticism has secured a central place in the discourse of British politics.
Whereas in the 1970s opposition to the EEC (European Economic Community) was led by a group of formidably intellectual politicians (among the Conservatives, Enoch Powell and Angus Maude; on the left, Douglas Jay, Michael Foot, and Peter Shore) with little backing among ordinary middle class voters, today the main proponents of withdrawal are less academic in their language, but more in touch with public opinion (and far more astute at manipulating it).
Farage himself, not to mention the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who might well play the Eurosceptic card in his quest to beat Chancellor George Osborne in the race to succeed David Cameron, both possess an engaging sense of humour, which is always an asset in British politics. British Euroscepticism, right-wing populist though it may be, does at least have a human face.
Nevertheless, if one wants to understand what British Euroscepticism is about, one cannot but begin with Enoch Powell. Contemporary Euroscepticism in a sense vindicates the ideas and positions taken by this extraordinary intellectual.
Powell was a brilliant scholar of ancient Greek (he became full professor at the age of 25), a soldier of distinction (he joined the army in the war as an infantryman and rose to the rank of brigadier general, the only man in the British army who achieved this feat).
In the 1950s and early 1960s his political career was marked by a series of clashes with Harold Macmillan (prime minister 1957-1963), who considered him a right-wing fanatic and – worse – not enough of a gentleman. Powell broke definitively with the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1968, over the question of immigration.
He considered that the liberal immigration policies followed by all British governments between the end of the war and the late 1960s were a ‘folly’ that were bound to end in racial conflict between black and white (and between the communities who had emigrated from the Indian subcontinent; Powell had been a soldier in India, spoke fluent Urdu, and feared a repetition on British soil of the communal clashes that had marred the end of the British Raj).
Powell’s speeches on immigration, not least because of the vivid imagery that he employed, led to his being denounced as a racist. The leader of the Conservative Party, Edward Heath, excluded him from the Shadow Cabinet and did not include him in the government he formed in 1970, despite Powell’s reputation as one of the finest debaters in the House of Commons, and his record as a minister of proven competence.
Deprived of office, Powell became a one-man opposition. He was a strident critic of Heath’s economic strategy – there is a real sense in which Powell was the originator of the economic doctrine that became known as Thatcherism.
Powell was convinced that if Great Britain made a moral effort to combat inflation by living within its means, it would swiftly return to its former status as one of Europe’s most dynamic economies: in Powell’s mind, Britain did not deserve its reputation as the sick man of Europe – indeed, he thought that only the arrant defeatism of its leaders was holding back its renewal.
In foreign policy, Powell was a little Englander. Since the Empire had been lost, Powell could see little point in Britain’s striving to be a global player; he averred it should concentrate on getting its public finances in order.
Powell also had an almost mystical conception of the centrality of the House of Parliament in the British political system and was hence a vehement opponent of the post-war shift towards the centralisation of power in the executive branch, regarding it as a dangerous development for British national identity.
Given these core beliefs, it is easy to understand why Powell became an uncompromising opponent of British entry into the EEC in 1973 (his notorious decision to urge the electorate to vote Labour in the 1974 elections was motivated by his anti-Europe convictions).
So far as Powell was concerned, an artificial construction like the EEC might prove a worthwhile venture for new democracies such as France, Italy and West Germany, whose institutions had not yet had time to take root in the national consciousness of their peoples, but it could never supplant the place of Westminster in British hearts.
Also, Powell regarded entry into the Community as yet another attempt by the British establishment to find a quick fix able to solve the country’s economic problems and preserve its place on the international stage. By contrast, the notion that Britain had to renew itself by its own efforts was a crucial strand in Powell’s thinking.
It is for this reason that the experience of Thatcherism is a crucial bridge between the political thought of Enoch Powell and the contemporary success of UKIP.
The reforming experience of the Iron Lady’s governments represents for many right-wing voters (but not only; it is a sentiment common on the Blairite wing of the Labour Party) the reassertion of Britain as a model for other European nations: its rebirth.
It is a crass error to explain British Euroscepticism with clichés about the latent nationalism of the British people. Rather, the Eurosceptic mood derives from a renewed sense of confidence in the nation’s potentialities.
For a great many British citizens, ‘Europe’ is simply one more of the many misjudgements made by the incompetent and vainglorious governments of the 1960s and 1970s; a useless and harmful expedient, like nationalisation, laws protecting the trade unions, and income tax at 83 pence in the pound.
For such citizens – even if they don’t always speak their thoughts out loud – ‘Enoch was right’. It is up to the supporters of the European project to prove him (and UKIP) wrong.
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