The European Question: A weird populist enclave in British politics

The place of the European debate in British politics strikes me as completely bizarre. My own reactions to the EU treaty/constitution are so far removed from those of the Eurosceptics that I feel like I’m coming from a different political culture. To me the Irish referendum and the pronouncements of Giscard d’Estaing and the slight redrawing of the boundaries on Qualified Majority Voting are a matter of complete indifference. I am bored utterly with them. One of my grounds for being glad that Britain has decided not to have a referendum on ratification is that I won’t have to take the trouble to better inform myself about the contents of a document which – whether a good or a bad thing for Britain – is a prose-quagmire concocted by twenty-five sets of arguing lawyers.

Other people seem to find this absorbing, politically central. They want to talk about the Irish reference and Giscard D’Estaing and Qualified Majority Voting. In fact, they want to shout about it, go red in the face over it, drench their interlocutors in inadvertent spittle for the sake of it. And it’s not even the British constitutional lawyers, the anoraks and the politcos who are doing it: it’s the tabloids. The Sun has made a hobby-horse of the whole dreary affair and shows every indication of wanting to ride it to death. And it’s not just the Murdoch Press who have signalled their intention to fight this in the ditches; the Conservatives have climbed in there too – perhaps not with the single-minded gusto of old, but with at least enough determination to suggest that they won’t shut up about it anytime soon. The general public are just as bad as well. Question Time is still unable to find audience members who won’t inarticulately attack the European Union whenever Dimbleby ill-advisedly allows the microphone to stray too far from the panel; and after these clumsy, tangential interventions you can always be sure that you will have to wait a good few seconds for the applause to subside before serious political discussion can resume.

Most political commentators seem to have become used to these strange happenings. To them it seems perfectly normal that determinedly unintellectual newspapers and ordinary voters become so exercised about the minutiae of eye-wateringly technical constitutional issues. And that the form that this passion takes should be deafening calls for referenda and attacks on the insinuating tentacles of the great “Brussels” octopus is taken for granted. To them, it is not something that needs to be explained. The heat that characterises anti-European sentiment and the terms which Eurosceptics have been able to impart to the debate are just accepted as givens, features of the political landscape to be described rather than questioned.

I think that it needs to be examined for the bizarre phenomenon that it is. First of all, I don’t think that one can explain the political centrality of these issues to Eurosceptics by reference to constitutional issues. Eurosceptics are not so worked up about the treaty/constitution because they believe that constitutional issues are central to politics. Domestic constitutional issues – proportional representation, an elected House of Lords, state funding of political parties – don’t interest them anywhere near as much. They aren’t banging their shoes on the table because they are fighting tirelessly for the ideal political constitution in Britain. They seem happy enough to accept what we happen to have at home, in spite of all of its obvious failings.

The second potential explanation to dismiss is that this is all about power. The strength of the Eurosceptics opposition isn’t explicable by reference to a simple loss of power. They haven’t had the same problem with Britain’s long-term decision (and probably the right one) to make its foreign policy subsidiary to that of the US. And surely most would recognise that Britain’s power to control its own fate is enhanced if cross-border cooperation can be smoothly pursued via the EU on issues like climate change, terrorism, immigration and organised crime.

I think that what one sees instead over Europe is the intrusion of a completely different model of politics to that within which UK domestic and foreign policy conventionally operates. Much of the debate over the European Union in British politics operates within a populist paradigm of politics that has always been weak in Britain, and which is in the ascendant in no other area of policy. Anti-European sentiment is grounded in the fear of being controlled by some sinister foreign influence. This fear of external control is tied in with the idea that the agents of that control are distant elites, detached from the reality of our everyday lives and with no real sense of our values. The antidote to this sense of a great divide between the actual seat of power and its theoretical grounding in the sovereign people is the referendum. The referendum is a tool for coercing the political system; a weapon developed by ‘the people’ for use against political elites whom they consider to have exceeded their authority.

This populist way of construing politics has rarely had any political purchase on British politics and no one makes any real effort to apply its key assumptions in other areas of politics. Instead the rest of British politics is representational and elite-driven. Most people think that NHS spending, the way schools are organised or the war in the Iraq are much more important than Europe, but there is no popular clamour in these areas for referenda. Nor does one see that same tendency to develop simplistic dichotomies between ‘the people’ and the elites, which one sees with tedious regularity in American politics. There is some talk of the ‘Westminster Bubble’ and of our politicians ‘being out of touch,’ but there is no suggestion that MPs are an excrescence on the country, a cabalistic elite so far divorced from the people who sent them to Parliament, and so much corrupted by their position, that they are unable effectively to govern. Representational politics is based on the idea that the people to whom we delegate authority will be like us; probably on average a bit cleverer and a little more willing to read soporific briefing documents, but basically like us. It is that idea that populist politics rejects. And from that everything else follows.

The animating influence here is chauvinism, or parochialism. By that I mean simply a preference for in-group members: people who are like us. The British people are comfortable surrendering authority over their lives to MPs, cabinet and Prime Minister because we all belong to the same group, to the same imagined community. The fact that we all come from the same country means that we can rely on shared experiences, shared traditions and shared values to ensure that MPs confront political problems from the same perspective that we would. Our politicians can be trusted as proxies because of the things that we unavoidably share.

The same thing does not hold for “Brussels” and its abstract, but sinister, bureaucrats. We don’t really know what the politicians in “Brussels” are like, but we’re pretty sure that they’re not like us. And that’s enough. We don’t want power to be usurped by out-group members. Our rulers have to be an ‘us,’ not a ‘them.’ “Brussels” becomes caricatured as an imperial city, a sort of latter-day Rome, full of the power-hungry, the corrupt and the decadent. That’s why I keep surrounding it with scare-quotes – because the Eurosceptics are not talking about the place Brussels or the institutions of the EU (many of them intergovernmental); they’re talking about something evil, a reincarnated Cold War Moscow.

The referendum is the way to prevent this foreign control. And it is not just a weapon against EU elitism, it is a weapon against Westminster elitism too. Many Eurosceptics are deeply concerned about their own elite. They fear that the British elites will cabal with this pan-European elite and choose them over us; that they will allow themselves to become clients of the great European power. Direct democracy takes the power to make that sort of Faustian pact out of their hands.

I’ve suggested that this represents a historical departure for British politics, but it is just possible that this represents the resurfacing of two very old traditions in British politics. One is a chauvinistic Protestantism. Eurosceptics might just be assimilating the power of “Brussels” to the rule of a foreign Prince. “Brussels” might be the new secular Papacy, the citadel of a homogenising pan-Europeanism. The second tradition picks up that idea of pan-Europeanism and celebrates Britain’s traditional foreign policy position as a power which intervenes on the continent to maintain the balance of power and prevent the emergence of a European hegemon whether it be Bourbon France, the Hapsburgs, Napoleon’s Empire, or twentieth-century Germany. To talk in this way sounds fanciful, but these traditions are embedded very deeply in British history and it is quite possible that they are being accessed and reappropriated unconsciously.

6 Responses to “The European Question: A weird populist enclave in British politics”

  1. newmania Says:

    The reason there is more heat attracting to this issue than to (eg ) proportional representation for is that we do not have proportional representation…. I can promise an equally outraged defence of democracy against that vile plot fro courtiers to replace representatives . Our alliance with the US is the main strut of our defence and popular .We do not take orders from the US and they do not enact legislation over us except in the clever-little-me imaginations of silly provincial Liberal debating societies. Cooperate , yes of course . The heirs of those who saw equivalence between the USSR and the USA grow more tedious by the decade IMHO
    I do not think there is any departure really , I understand your point about patrician love of order and judicious involvement on the Continent but these are to old to be applicable . The country has always defended itself from foreign rule , does not wish to be ruled by foreigners and does not accept that the opinions of French or Polish people about the way we live our lives is of any relevance whatsoever. I think you will find no change their and when you look at , for example the attitude of Churchill or the Conservative Party as it has evolved the anachronistic just so stories of this sort rapidly deconstruct
    You characterise ancient loyalties as chauvinism and imply that you belong to an intellectual Priesthood able to see beyond this primitive emotions . This sort of student arrogance together with the obvious enthusiasm of elites to be les visible and part of the “Big Player” with tasty sinecures on offer , is ample reason for distrust .That the Euro sceptics have been proven to be right in every details of their predictions about the Common Market soi disant is another strong pointer .You pretend there has been no debate there has been and not between well informed Euro fanatics and idiot antis but rather visa versa. During the time that this debate has been lost the political reality has moved in the other correction and that is why the Irish vote is so pivotal. We are now treated to the sight of politicians visibly conspiring to defraud their electorates none more than ours . The true nature of the beast is at last revealed , you might say

    I see the Euro religion as an anti nationalistic movement and an evolution of rationalist solutions always popular on the Continent contemptuous of the Communitarian instincts of the British. To such people loyalty to family , country , ethnicity, church and unreasoning love of all kinds is an inconvenience to be slyly denied political expression . That is one point . The economic argument is weakened and as that was the only part that ever interested the Conservative Party it is able to coalesce around dislike of a foreign imposition of laws .

    Still , we can agree on one thing .As you do not understand and have no interest in the Lisbon Treaty , I am assuming you will not mind if we do not have it . Thanks for that , we can move from there towards the trading association and cooperation between independent nation states which is all anyone ever wanted .

    I am sorry for your incomprehension of nation hood . Can I put it this way ; it is quite possible that the French would do a very good job of ruining this country , the Germans have made two applications for the job and why not ? Think of the savings ( al that Parliament nonsense) and convenience .For all I know we would soon have trains flying about at 250 miles per hours , nice cheese and a civilised café culture . Nonetheless for all its obvious attractions I prefer not to be ruled by foreign people and believe that for us to decide what we will do there has to be a “we” . This , as I say , might be called a Communitarian view of society whereas your would be Humanist and atomising of sub state connections . There is a the additional problem that the Continent is in the permanent hands if the Left centre and this is not what I want . We have far more in common with the US and if we really must have imported votes then can it be there as and then I can have the government I want in common with the majority in this country. The argument for us forming another Sate of the USA is , it seems to me , a stronger one , no doubt there would be quibbles about majoritarian voting along the way and who knows l some unreasoning pig headed objections but such primitive populism is to be ignored …no ?

    This was the sort of essay a Politics student writes . You have read a few books but you , as yet have a shallow understanding of this country its people and their views. I am not at all sure you are as much cleverer than everyone else as you suppose

  2. adammcnestrie Says:

    Newmania, of course I am ‘as much clever than everyone else as [I] suppose.’ Thanks for the comment and you raise some interesting points.

    I should say that I’m not entirely out of sympathy with your communitarianism. I worry about atomism, fragmentation and anomie. A politics which values the familiar, the near and the particular isn’t without its attraction as an antidote to this – and one version of that politics is conservative nationalism. When I talk about chauvinism I am not using it as the commentator’s swear-word that it has become: I am simply mean, preference for what is close to us.

    For all that, though, the rational part of me that subjects my prejudices and impulses to scrutiny tells me that nations aren’t real. They were made up, and their ideology nationalism too, in the nineteenth century. A nation is an imagined community and it became possible to imagine these communities in the nineteenth century because of a communications revolution and because of developments in political thought (esp. romanticism). That doesn’t mean that I want a fully federalised Europe, it just means that I can’t admit the validity of opposition to European integration inspired by nationalistic objections.

    I’m not a member of some far-sighted commentariat priesthood. I have chauvinistic impulses too; everyone does. But it seems to me that this is an atavistic impulse on the whole. We would probably do better to try and enlarge the sphere of the ‘we’ (in the way that Rorty thinks novels help us to do), rather than to be defensively inward-looking.

    Just one nitpicking correction. Continental Europe isn’t always in the grip of the centre-left. Sarkozy in France is on the right, as is Merkel in Germany and – although I don’t know the politics there well at all – I understand that Eastern Europe is pretty right-wing with a number of countries even having flat-taxes.

  3. newmania Says:

    Shakespeare showed quite astonishing foresight in imagining a Nation some centuries before it really existed then and the fact no Esperanto Shakespeare has yet arrived ( or ever will ) might cause you to question whether there is more to culture and tradition than Miss Tiggy Winkle`s favourite Pinny of your story . When I use the phrase ‘sinister and inhuman’ about your views you will understand that I do not mean this in a pejorative sense…. Ho ho If by chauvinism you mean loyalty then I am afraid I must insist there is a difference .
    That any social convention or emotional attachment is liable to rational …um de-contextualising ( This Latinate stuff must be contagious) is not something which would concern any Conservative who , at times was at times the first to lampoon the of the arbitrariness of the House of Lords as well as quietly concluding it was better than the alternatives . When it lost confidence ceased to be viable but not for any supposedly rational alternative , well not only .I happen to be reasonably well informed about genes in the human population and the genetic closeness of your family is inconsequentially different to the shared closeness between others in the same population. Perhaps then loyalty to ones family should be abandoned in a rational way Not by me ..Cigarettes are clearly more harmful than prescribed drugs of various kinds and yet we accommodate them. This is a historical accident and yet I still look askance at Flint causing the implosion of British Pub by acting as my proxy mother. You overate rationalism , a most dangerous form of extremism and resting on the intergalactically preposterous assumption that you know all that you need to know and can predict the consequences of your actions . You sneer at the masses because they do not always articulate an -ism but the wisdom of crowds is does not reside in one individual . You conception of a man as ascending from bestial emotion toward angelic reason is the usual 18th century idea of Politics Graduate which I assume to you to be . It is an entirely inadequate picture of a man who Conservatives would conceived of holistically …well deep waters which I do not need to get into to loathe the EU

    I expect you would like a Europe of regions , that is of course behind the attempt to divide England into digestible portions and the flood of EU money encouraging Welsh and now Cornish separatism. You probably like World music as well .This is to hollow out real structures and reduce them to theme Parks and flavours . The fact that or money is being used to attack the country is one of things that makes some people somewhat peeved .

    France and Germany are both ‘left ‘ compared to this country whatever they may be regarded as domestically. If you do not care about the country , which at least , you honestly admit , then your views are likely to remain a minority. If I expand my sympathy I also make it shallow , if I increase my empathy I become morally supine and so on. Things are complicated and a Conservative would never suggest that only those who had a n IQ of whatever level or had passed some exam should have vote as you implicitly do

    What I like about what you say is that the real motivations are far more explicit than they usually are especially here . You are not alone in hoping in some vague way that the world will be a nice place but your supposition that this can be imposed by a rancid and outdated bureaucracy in defiance of every human instinct is out of time. The future is the interweb not your IBM mega brain as imagined in the 60s with the EU.

  4. zzz Says:


  5. adammcnestrie Says:

    Newmania, I don’t have time to defend myself point-by-point. I think that you’re trying to fit me into a conceptual scheme for which you have readymade arguments, but into which I don’t fit. Clearly one of the arguments that you regularly have is against rationalists with their grand designs, universalism etc. But that isn’t me. I have lots of problems with rationalism. I consider myself a critic rather than a slave of Enlightenment thinking.

    Stop attacking me for having gone to University and read books too as if this somehow makes me less qualified to commentate. Oh – and it was history too, not politics.

    I must say, though, that I like your attack-dog panache and unrelenting dogmatism.

  6. Jon Worth Says:

    An interesting analysis. Problem is that with MPs, and by extension of that, the Prime Minister of the UK, we can get rid of them if we don’t like them. While we might manage to get rid of MEPs we don’t like, the European Parliament has no real say over institutional reform or the overall direction of the EU integration process. The 27 Heads of State and Government are the ones in control, and no-one (as you point out) votes nationally on the basis of what a party says about the EU. Hence there’s also an institutional reason for the elite problem.

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