These polls show that only 22 percent of the British are positive about Europe, 19 percent are negative but wish to renegotiate some sort of membership, though not a federal or centralized one, and 26 percent are negative and want out altogether. Prime Minister Cameron personally has a 28 percent approval rating, an equal 28 percent don’t approve of him but don’t prefer the vintage Labour leader Ed Miliband (who has ditched any pretense to New Labour), and another 28 percent disapprove of Cameron so thoroughly that they do prefer Miliband. Overall, Labour leads the Conservatives 38 percent to 33 percent and the Liberal Democrats and the UKIP are both around 10 percent. But almost all the UKIP votes come from the Conservatives, and they are spread fairly evenly throughout the country.
Despite his problems, which were aggravated by his proximity to the much-mistrusted Rupert Murdoch organization in the hacking scandal last year, Cameron still leads on the major issue of the economy, 43 to 26 percent, and on the third issue, immigration, and on Europe. His standing on that last question has been reinforced by a promise of an in-or-out referendum in 2017. This was the best he could do, as his coalition partners would desert him if he tried such a referendum now. If Britain were to lurch into the arms of Labour at the next election, it would follow the Gadarene route to immolation as a serious force that France is now charging down under its new socialist president, François Hollande.
Cameron is trying to redress the errors of Blair and Brown, without recalling what are still popularly seen as the “uncaring” severity and excessive traditionalism of Thatcher. But the underlying strategic difficulty the United Kingdom faces is that the pre-Thatcher Conservatives under Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath (prime ministers 1957–63 and 1970–74 respectively) plunged headlong into Europe and ditched their long and very useful relationship with Britain’s senior associate states in the Commonwealth: Canada, Australia, India, Singapore, and New Zealand, which have all done much better than Europe in most of the intervening years, and are united with Britain in language, institutions, and a democratic inheritance (from Britain herself). Thatcher thought better of that and placed all her bets on the American alliance with Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. It worked, but it didn’t last. Obama has no interest in the special relationship, or what was called in the days of Churchill and Roosevelt, with reason, the Grand Alliance, and Britain is an orphan: no special ally, no coterie of kindred and flourishing states, and no room to grow in the European inn.
In their long and illustrious history, the British have met sterner challenges. But they will need a majority government with a clear mandate and a stronger leader than Cameron has appeared to be. The likeliest bet now is that if he falters, the folkloric star mayor of London, Boris Johnson, will get the call from the Conservatives, who have sacked virtually all of their leaders since the voluntary retirement of Stanley Baldwin in 1937. (Even Winston Churchill was eased out at 80, and Margaret Thatcher was pushed out for predicting exactly what has happened in Europe.) Whether or not Cameron stays, he will probably have to dump the Liberal Democrats as he dissolves Parliament for elections in two years, in favor of an arrangement with Farage. In such times, great statesmen of the past such as Walpole, the Pitts elder and younger, Fox, Palmerston, Russell, Disraeli, Gladstone, and Lloyd George flourished. As in most other countries, the current crop, except perhaps for Farage, does not appear to be cut from the same cloth. Britain always muddles through, but it’s dodgy.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].