By Jörg Schindler in London
The sparring over Britain’s relationship with Europe didn’t just escalate with 2016’s Brexit vote: The Conservatives have been bickering over the EU for 30 years with nary a care about the consequences of leaving. Why?
On a relatively temperate evening in late November, around 600 conservatives gather in London for what is essentially a public therapy session. They’ve been promised they will learn about the future of their party here at the Emmanuel Centre, a massive circular building in the heart of Westminster. The event has been organized by The Spectator, a weekly political magazine that generally maintains close ties with the Tories, but has lately despaired of them.
Organizers have placed a caricature at the front of the podium: It depicts the government as a mob of furious saber-rattlers preparing to finish off Prime Minister Theresa May between them. Rather coincidentally, three words from the New Testament, Matthew 1:23, can be seen on the cornice above in bronze: “God with Us.”
One could be forgiven for having one’s doubts.
“Things are bloody awful at the moment,” says historian Anthony Seldon, adding that even the Suez crisis in 1956 seems minor in comparison to Brexit. If you think about it, Seldon says, things have never been this bad in the Tories’ 230-year-history — and things could get worse yet. If the party doesn’t “loosen the buttocks,” Seldon says, a socialist might soon move into 10 Downing Street.
The crowd starts to murmur. If there’s anything left that can still arouse the Tories’ survival instincts, it’s the fear of the left.
What follows are 90 minutes of helplessness. That is, until something occurs to young parliamentarian Suella Fernandes: Nothing is preventing Britain from aiming to become the world leader in the digital revolution, she says. If the country came up with a self-driving car, for example, it could once again “move forward.” Some in the audience sigh. “A driverless car,” quips one, “that’s precisely our problem.”
These are dark days for the Tories, and that’s not just a product of the harsher than normal winter. The primary reason is that the government has essentially stopped governing in the wake of Theresa May’s unnecessary move to gamble away her absolute majority in snap elections in June. Since then, every member of her cabinet has been primarily focused on saving their own skin. May, meanwhile, has become the anti-Midas: Everything she touches seems to turn to led instead of gold.
Meanwhile, the people are turning their backs on the Conservatives, with many bolting to a Labour Party that has adroitly learned how to exploit seven years of Tory-led austerity. The health care system is on the verge of collapse, the housing shortage has become so acute that the number of homeless people continues to rise and the gap between rich and poor is widening.
And while Labour, under the leadership of socialist Jeremy Corbyn, has risen to become the party with the largest membership in Western Europe, the Tories have been hemorrhaging members. While the party doesn’t publish its membership figures, one estimate holds that there are only 70,000 left. During the 1980s, the party had more than a million members.
In recent weeks, Theresa May has sought to regain lost ground. After only barely surviving the first phase of Brexit negotiations in December, she has pivoted to focus on policies to benefit normal Brits, including plans to combat excessively high university tuition and excessively higher executive salaries in addition to creating more affordable housing across the country. The message is clear — there are other problems than just Brexit.
But it hasn’t helped. No matter what May or the Tories try to do, Brexit — this unprecedented experiment with 66 million people, whether they want to participate or not — is hanging around their necks like a millstone. Ultimately, the referendum to leave the European Union did not bring about the internal peace to the Tories that many had hoped for. Instead, it has divided the party into a number of camps that are arguing with unsurpassed zeal over just how hard Brexit should be, regardless if they are shooting themselves in the foot in the process.
Where does this masochism come from? And can the wounds be healed?
“I don’t see how that is supposed to happen,” a man they used to call Tarzan says with a forlorn expression on his face. Michael Heseltine is sitting in his glassed-in office on Victoria Street, a stone’s throw away from Westminster Palace but much farther away from the center of power after May fired him as an adviser last year. The former deputy prime minister had made some statements that were too friendly toward the EU for her taste.
Heseltine is now 85 years old. He’s a towering man, but now stoops slightly, though his gray mane of hair is still as untamed as ever. The same applies to his thinking. Heseltine has been a part of every battle over Europe that has taken place since Britain became a member of the European Economic Community in 1973. He has always fought for the EU, even at times when it was just to keep the Germans in check. He’s had fellow party members pelt peanuts and cocktail wieners at him for his efforts. “It was pretty bad back then,” he says, “but it is nothing compared to what we are experiencing today.”
People like Heseltine once comprised the vast majority of their party. When Britain voted in 1975 on Europe, the majority of Labour Party members opposed membership, whereas the Conservatives boasted of being the “Party for Europe.” Given the country’s battered economy at the time, Tory head Margaret Thatcher warned against leaving Europe. “It would be bad for Britain, bad for our relations with the rest of the world and bad for any future treaty on trade we may need to make,” she said at the time.
Thatcher, Heseltine says, “instinctively belonged to the old school” that views the Commonwealth and the United States as being more important than Europe. “But she was smart enough to understand that it would have been disastrous to just stand by without making any move as the single market was established.” And she was also strong enough that her party followed her.
A Decades-Long Dispute
But then in 1988, Jacques Delors, who was president of the European Commission at the time, said that a mere economic union would never make Europeans love the EU — it would also need a “social dimension.” Social? To many Tories, that sounded suspiciously like “socialism through the backdoor.” Thatcher traveled to Bruges to give a speech warning against a “European super state.,” while back in Britain, euroskeptics immediately established the “Bruges group.” The seed had been sown for a dispute that would simmer for decades.
John Major, Thatcher’s hapless successor, never had a chance in the 1990s against an anti-EU front that was growing stronger. One reason for that strength was a largely conservative British press that began crusading against the EU in increasingly nationalist and chauvinist tones.
The Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, in particular, drew attention during the early 1990s after he described the EU in his columns as a pseudo dictatorship. The young man, a certain Boris Johnson, constantly looked as though he had just survived a rough evening. But his articles were full of alert warnings of a Brussels command economy which, he said, was wilder and more expensive than anything Stalin ever created. The internal market, Johnson wrote, would open the doors to drug smugglers, terrorists and all manner of migrants.
Johnson, who years later would become a leading Brexiteer, produced “fake news” even before the term had invented. His columns bore headlines like, “Snails are fish, says EU” or “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that euro-manure smells same.” Other newspapers found it so funny and outrageous that they simply adopted his style.
Years later, Johnson revealed to the BBC, “I was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party — and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power.”
A Comfortable Bogeyman
Europe gradually became a comfortable bogeyman for the one-time “Party for Europe,” with foreign powers on the Continent blamed for anything that went wrong at home. Besides, Britain only reluctantly joined forces with the Continent in the first place. “We did not join for existential but for economic reasons,” says Thatcher biographer Charles Moore. “It wasn’t like Germany after the war or France wondering what to do about Germany or poor countries like Spain thinking how they can emerge into a democracy — it was more practical. It was never the same passion.”
There was, however, plenty of passion when it came to infighting within the Tories. Every party head since Major has failed in efforts to unite the party. “The Tory divide over Europe is almost a blood feud,” says Moore. At some point, the British grew tired of the spectacle and they voted the Conservatives out of office in 1997.
The new prime minister, Labour politician Tony Blair, moved his country decisively closer to the EU. In 2004, however, he made a decision that would have serious consequences. In contrast to other EU member states, he granted the citizens of the nine new Eastern European EU member states with unrestricted access to the British labor market. Within a year, the number of EU immigrants in the country increased six-fold. Suddenly, it was no longer just pesky bureaucratic rules crossing the English Channel, but also tens of thousands of foreigners. That was the only ingredient missing for the EU-haters in Britain.
A short time later, it looked for a moment as though the Tories might finally bury the hatchet in their battle over Europe. In a somewhat surprising move, they elevated David Cameron to become party head, a young, smart politician whose horizons extended beyond the British islands. He also, for a change, seemed willing to focus on the problems of people living inside the country.
At his first party conference, Cameron warned: “While parents worried about child care, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life, we were banging on about Europe.”
In 2010, Cameron led the Tories back into power. And that, Heseltine says today, should have served as a lesson to his party. “Cameron was the first conservative since Major to win an election, and he was a friend of the EU. There is a moral to learn from that.” But the party didn’t. From the very first day, euroskeptics who wanted out of the EU club began badgering Cameron. At first, the party head responded pragmatically, and then with irritation. In 2013, he finally went on the counterattack. Cameron promised his party that if he won the next election, he would allow a national referendum on future EU membership.
It was an attempt to muzzle Europe’s enemies — and likely the most consequential miscalculation in recent British history. The consequences are now plaguing Cameron’s successor, Theresa May. The fact that she could even rise to become prime minister in the first place is also a product of the unresolved question of Europe within her party. During the referendum campaign, the 61-year-old somehow managed to come across as being both for and against the EU. The Tories were in need of a compromise candidate like that, a hinge.
May would love nothing better than to drive the obsession with Europe out of her party. But she has so far failed in her efforts to give the Tories a friendlier face. Instead, she’s constantly up against rebellions by both enemies and friends of the EU in Britain. Brexit overshadows everything.
That was also reflected in the long awaited recent cabinet reshuffle. May lacked the power and courage for a clear change of course. All of the prominent champions of the EU remained in office, as did all those who oppose membership — even though the two groups have little to say to each other at this point. In May’s cabinet, the two groups resemble the Cold War policy of mutually assured destruction.
The victorious Brexit camp has also long since disintegrated into splinter groups, ranging from those who want to see nothing change in the country’s relationship with the EU to those who want everything to change. And that is before the most crucial negotiations with hated Brussels have even taken place. To prepare for that next phase, May is set to deliver her next major address on Brexit in the coming weeks. Expectations on the Continent, however, are low. Few in the EU believe it will shed much light on the British negotiating position.
Back at home, the electorate is also mumbling noticeably. For the time being, the prime minister is acting as if the whole Brexit issue is exaggerated. To demonstrate that she also wants to save the planet with her climate-friendly policies in addition to everything else, May just days ago visited some wetlands in southwest London. There, she peered into binoculars to look for endangered species. She also could have just looked into the mirror at home.