Politics & Policy

Will Britain Leave the EU?

The status quo always looks impregnable until it looks doomed.

I suppose I must long ago have come across Ernest Hemingway’s line about the two ways of going bankrupt — “gradually, then suddenly” — because I read The Sun Also Rises about 40 years ago. But it didn’t stick with me until I read it again, quoted in a column by Mark Steyn in March of last year, in reference to the impending bankruptcy of the good old U.S.A. Others must also have been reading Hemingway or Steyn in the intervening year because I come across this quotation about every other day. (A Google search registers about 3,240,000 results.)

Usually it refers to the impending bankruptcy of the good old U.S.A., but as both Hemingway and Steyn would probably agree, it can reasonably refer to the collapse of any long-established but crumbling institution. Hemingway actually witnessed the collapse of many such institutions during and after the First World War. Steyn has written about the way in which seemingly impressive structures such as the Hohenzollern and Romanov dynasties more or less evaporated when the loyalties on which they rested were blown away by the same war. The status quo always looks impregnable until it looks doomed.

Is the European Union, or at least Britain’s membership of it, going from impregnable to doomed? And if so, is it going gradually or suddenly?

Until this week I should have said it was going gradually. As a notorious Europhobe, I have for many years had the experience of people sidling up to me, glancing nervously around, and, thinking themselves unobserved, whispering, “I think we should leave the EU too, old boy.” By this test we seem to be quite numerous. But we were still in “gradually” territory until this week. Most of these “better-off-outers,” as they are called, never admit their heresy in public speeches or articles. In the absence of a secret handshake, one has had to rely on “coded” speech to identify them — especially since Prime Minister David Cameron has let it be known that no overt better-off-outer will be given a job in his administration. And the status quo accordingly looked fairly impregnable.

Remember, however, the great Prussian general von Moltke, of whom it was said that he had smiled only twice in his life: once when his mother-in-law died, and a second time when told that a certain fortress was impregnable. For, suddenly, we seem to be in suddenly territory.

On Monday Lord Lawson of Blaby, who was Chancellor Nigel Lawson in Margaret Thatcher’s second and third administrations, announced in an article in the London Times (alas, behind a paywall here) that he favored Britain’s leaving the European Union on the grounds that the economic gains from doing so “substantially outweighed the costs.” Nor did he leave it at that. He added:

“The heart of the matter is that the very nature of the European Union, and of this country’s relationship with it, has fundamentally changed after the coming into being of the European monetary union and the creation of the eurozone, of which — quite rightly — we are not a part.

“Not only do our interests increasingly differ from those of the eurozone members but, while never ‘at the heart of Europe’ (as our political leaders have from time to time foolishly claimed), we are now becoming increasingly marginalised as we are doomed to being consistently outvoted by the eurozone bloc.

“So the case for exit is clear.”

Lawson’s intervention was crucial, and everyone realized the fact. He was a great reforming chancellor under Mrs. Thatcher; he is a first-class economist who could beat the “Treasury Knights” at their own technical game; and he is what people call a “Big Beast” in the jungle of British politics. If Lawson announced that the case for EU withdrawal was respectable, indeed compelling, then the usual establishment tactic of hinting that the heretic was mad, unbalanced, or dim simply wouldn’t work.

Nick Clegg, the Europhiliac deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition, made a game effort to employ it all the same. Like a young subaltern going over the top armed only with a swagger stick, he declared stoutly that leaving the EU would mean the loss of 3 million jobs. Lawson’s retort was devastating.

“Of course that’s poppycock,” he said genially. “But I don’t think Nick Clegg, who’s a charming young man, has ever purported to know anything at all about economics.” Such putdowns are risky. They work only if everyone privately knows them to be accurate. Alas for Clegg, this one worked.

If Lawson had nothing much to fear from opponents, within and outside the government, the crucial question was: Would he gain allies and supporters? If the debate over British withdrawal from the EU was to go from gradually to suddenly, then other figures of similar weight (or only slightly lesser weight) would have to join Lawson. Otherwise his intervention would be a brilliant rocket going up but a simple stick coming down. In early returns, three pretty big beasts seem to have come down on his side.

The least surprising of the three is Lord (Norman) Lamont. He is the former Tory chancellor who struggled with the deflation imposed on Britain by John Major’s insistence that Britain remain in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (a kind of preparation course for the euro), and who after taking Britain back out of it laid down the economic course that handed a “golden” inheritance to the incoming Labour government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. (“What do you want me to do?” Brown reportedly snarled on being given the good news by Treasury officials. “Send them a thank-you note?”) Lamont knows from bitter experience that EU membership has more pitfalls than benefits for Britain. He has now said that he would vote to leave the EU if an attempt to rewrite the terms of British membership failed (as probably even Lamont feels that it would.)

A more unexpected intervention came from Lord (Denis) Healey, who as chancellor in the Labour governments of the 1970s stands out in history as the only postwar chancellor to cut actual public spending (as opposed to projections of future spending). He also adopted monetarism, admittedly under pressure from the IMF, as a key element in economic policy before Mrs. Thatcher. Even today he is probably the single biggest Big Beast on the left side of the political spectrum. Last week he told journalist Michael Crick: “I wouldn’t object strongly to leaving the EU. The advantages of being members of the union are not obvious. The disadvantages are very obvious. I can see the case for leaving — the case for leaving is stronger than for staying in.”

The third intervention is the most surprising of all. Michael Portillo, a defense minister in the John Major government and a kind of ex–Big Beast of Toryism (since he has left politics and is today a pundit and broadcaster), wrote in the Times here that the “referendum, were it to occur, would not be simply about withdrawing from the EU or going on as we are. It would really be about pulling out, or in due course entering political union.

“That is why I would vote no and I fervently hope that the British have more guts than those who govern us, and more than those who govern us think we have.”

What makes Portillo’s intervention so significant is that, unlike Lamont and Lawson, he is today seen as being in the progressive or “modernizing” wing of the Tory party, indeed a pioneer of it. It shows that the anti-EU revolution has now spread throughout the Tory party and, indeed, into Labour politics too. “Europe” no longer has the automatic allegiance of those who think of themselves as liberal, progressive, or modernizing.

The grounds of Portillo’s decision to support EU withdrawal are significant too. He believes that the EU’s supranational institutions simply don’t suit Britain’s liberal spirit and that a referendum confirming British membership would lock the country permanently into political union, the destructive euro, and an undemocratic future. So he takes aim at the “defeatism” of the political class that Thatcher banished but which has returned under her successors — and which he, as an original early Thatcherite, finds partly shameful, wholly silly.

Mrs. Thatcher too has intervened from beyond the grave in this debate. Her biographer Charles Moore revealed in a discussion of his book that she wanted Britain to leave the EU, maybe as early as 1992, but that she was persuaded by friends and advisers not to say so publicly because that might “marginalize” her in public debate.

That is true, but it should be very unsurprising, and it gradually became untrue in the last 20 years of her life. She made clear her increasing distrust of the EU to many people in private. She voted against the Maastricht treaty extending its power. She opposed British membership of the single currency. And she wrote in her final book, Statecraft, that if Britain could not get a major reform of the EU, then withdrawal would become necessary. Retirement, illness, and the ravages of old age prevented her going further than that and calling straightforwardly for Britain to leave. But she was undoubtedly a “better-off-outer,” and it is ironic that by bowing 20 years ago to requests that she remain silent or at least delphic, she ensured that her judgment has become known at the very moment when it will have the most effect.

So has that “suddenly” moment arrived? Or are we still in the last stages of “gradually”? We might know later today, after Prime Minister David Cameron has met with President Obama in Washington. If the president then makes a speech arguing that the U.S. would pay little attention to a Britain that was outside “Europe,” we will know that the prime minister is desperately striving to keep “suddenly” at bay.

For as Michael Portillo has shrewdly noticed, “defeatism” has become the best, perhaps the only, argument of the Europhiliacs.

 John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.

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