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The Tories’ Darkest Hour

Gary Oldham stars as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Picture: Cover Images - Credit: Cover Images

The Conservatives have abandoned decades of pragmatism in pursuit of a pipedream. A former adviser to William Hague argues the Party desperately needs a rethink.

Will Darkest Hour sweep the board at the Oscars? Its theme of Britain standing alone heartens Brexiteers on both sides of the Atlantic. Channelling Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill, Tory and UKIP nationalists are fashioning a revolution in Conservative Party policy, reversing decades of commitment to European participation and integration.

Brexiteers fondly quote Churchill – ‘We are with Europe; but not of it’ – but don’t mention that he wrote these words in 1930, for an American magazine. In fact, wartime and post-war Churchill set the tone and precedent for a different conception of the British national interest in Europe.

From Churchill’s May 1940 offer of an indissoluble union with France, the text of which declared ‘France and Britain shall no longer be two nations,’ through his support of Britain’s application to join the European Economic Community in 1961, pragmatic realism defined his approach.

In 1950, Churchill warned of ‘disadvantages and dangers of standing aloof’ from Europe, stating that the opposition was ‘prepared to consider, and if convinced to accept, the abrogation of national sovereignty, provided that we are satisfied with the conditions and safeguards’. Critical of the Labour government for spurning the European Coal and Steel Community, the EEC’s forerunner, Churchill welcomed the 1957 Treaty of Rome establishing the Common Market, saying ‘we genuinely wish to join’.

The realpolitik of Churchill and his successors was influenced by Britain’s post-war decline. British GDP per head, higher than that of France and West Germany in the early 1950s, was lower than both nations by 1960; by 1977, it was 71% that of France and 68% of West Germany’s.

Commitment to Europe and market economics underscored Conservative party policy and, following the Labour Party’s adherence to much of this in government from 1997 to 2010, arguably eliminated Britain’s post-war living standards deficit. After lagging behind the ‘Community of the Six’, UK per capita GDP now equals France and is higher than Italy – while still lower than (unified) Germany and the Benelux countries.

In this, the ultimate Tory pragmatist was Margaret Thatcher, who signed the Single European Act, mandating ‘an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured’. The first international trade agreement to include services, which now comprise 80% of the UK economy, Thatcher introduced this landmark reform with customary conscientiousness and trademark tenacity, telling her private secretary: ‘I’ve read every single word of this Treaty.’

Thatcher’s spats with Europe over the budget and plans for a single currency and social policy endear her to Brexiteers, but stemmed significantly from a desire to facilitate and protect Britain’s recovery. By 1980, Britain had become a substantial net budget contributor – yet was the third poorest of 10 member states.

Critical of plans for a European single currency and social policy in her Bruges speech in 1988, Thatcher also said: ‘Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe as part of the Community.’

Ultimately, a cross-party consensus over Europe’s evolution emerged. Just as the Labour Party dropped objections to Community membership and many Tory reforms before 1997, so too Conservative policy changed in opposition. The Tories reversed prior resistance to UK participation in the European Union’s Social Chapter and ratification of the Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon Treaties.

This bipartisan settlement gave Britain arguably the best of both worlds – a position inside the world’s most populous multinational free trade zone, responsible for half our international trade – but outside the euro with its attendant inflexibilities.

Recently, over-confidence has replaced cautious compromise, taking for granted nearly 50 years of painstakingly-accrued concrete gains by gambling on the unpredictable and unknown. The party that opposed the 1975 referendum threw caution to the wind by promising and delivering another, the result of which was far from certain. This self-inflicted wound was the first of a rash of decisions with far-reaching ramifications, including self-limiting the time to negotiate exit, absent a flexible ‘transition’ by triggering Article 50 and calling a snap election, which reduced the government’s room for manoeuvre.

Speculative gains are touted while real world benefits are disdained and pragmatism is substituted for pie-in-the-sky. Doublethink is the order of the day: leaving a giant transnational free trade area and the treaties it leverages will expand our trade; we will become more open, liberal and global by enacting the wishes of those who voted to be less so; and optimism is required about a course that most ministers believe is not in the national interest – a judgement confirmed by the government’s own impact assessments. In place of worldliness, there is wishful thinking. It is in the EU’s interests to give us what we want, Brexiteers claim, without evidence that the EU agrees.

Tories who question the party’s traditional preference for practicality over ideology are now ascendant. Tory Brexiteers of a free-market persuasion see the EU as a barrier to their agenda of further rolling back the frontiers of the state. In this they mirror the anti-EU Left’s opposition to Europe’s ‘capitalist club’, similarly promising a radical transformation to follow the implementation of plans currently impeded by membership – but also by lack of electoral support.

Other Brexiteers in the Tory party assert that departing a half-billion-person free trade area and removing the reciprocal rights of Britons to work, live and study in Europe is a price worth paying to reclaim sovereignty – while contemplating UK adjustments to American law. Still others, eyeing eurosceptic party members, calculate career advantage.

Might the famous survival instincts of the West’s oldest and most electorally-successful political party steer them toward familiar, more predictable, terrain? The promise of a hard Brexit did not yield expected electoral benefits last year; historically, loss of power, or fear of it, has preceded party rethinks.

Tories are poised to implement a policy the party previously argued would be an act of national self-harm – a judgement many ministers, Members of Parliament and members share. After such an audacious and rapidly executed U-turn, the party would surely own the consequences.

• Barnaby Towns is a former government special adviser to William Hague and was a campaign adviser to London mayoral candidate Steve Norris. He is CEO of Pioneer Strategy, a communications firm, and a Tory Party member

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