John Stevens: The Conservative Party cannot be the Conservative Party until it deals with the issue of Europe
John Stevens is a former Conservative Member of European Parliament who stood at the last general election as an independent candidate against John Bercow.
Paul Goodman’s recent commentary of whether the rise of UKIP in the polls is primarily about “Europe” or “Conservatism” (following the interesting research undertaken by James Bethell, whose father was one of the finest Conservative MEPs, a true hero of the Cold War and its aftermath) has encouraged me to question the linkage, or lack of it, between the two.
I fancy most ConHome participants would see no such distinction. A true Conservative government would only be able to have a sound policy on immigration, or on crime and combating anti-social behaviour, or on re-calibrating our economy towards manufacturing exports, to penetrate the rising economies of Asia and elsewhere, or on cutting the deficit to sustainable levels, or on moving from dependence on debt to the entrepreneurial stimulus of equity, or on preserving the Union of England and Scotland, or on restoring proper quality and selection in education, and ensuring the inculcation of traditional ethics and culture, or on creating a rationally and prudently ordered health service, or on reviving a reverence for work and reducing the role of state benefits and allowing for later retirement ages, or on re-connecting people to their elected representatives, or on whatever other matter that might come to mind or heart, IF ONLY we first get out of the European Union.
The question of whether, or not, Britain (or England) is a European country and should share the vision of our EU partners for an “ever closer union” is not intrinsically right-wing. Both Right and Left can, and do, find in “Europe” either a barrier to their general political aspirations, or an enabler, a restraining, interfering external power, or a power that can project their dreams globally. Pro-Europeans recognise some interference, of course, but think, overall, the opportunities overwhelmingly outweigh the disadvantages. Anti-Europeans perceive the reverse.
Going down the list of conservative priorities set out above, I would say, naturally, that every one is vastly easier to address within the EU than outside. But I would also say that whether this is so, whether Europe is a barrier or an opportunity, now has to be resolved, if we are to go forward at all, and that this demands an IN or OUT referendum at the earliest reasonable opportunity.
I left the Conservative Party because of its hostility to the EU. But I would say that my domestic policy beliefs have remained, broadly, strongly conservative. I have been deeply frustrated that (as some of the more perceptive anti-Blairite Labour activists have recently been pointing out inside their Party) the ascendency of the European issue amongst Conservatives (and its parallel: a preference for American leadership, over European co-operation, in foreign policy and military interventionism) has diminished the bight and the persuasive power, the moral imperative, if you like, of the “conservative case” at home. Just consider, for example, how difficult it is to talk really honestly about immigration, or the deficit, or what is needed to sort out health or education.
In short, UKIP has become a threat to the Conservatives in a way that goes far beyond merely having prevented an outright majority by siphoning off support in key marginals, or making the coalition not just harder to manage day to day, by promoting horse-trading between the parties, but (more to the point) to repeat after the next election, by stealing the protest votes from the Liberal Democrats. It is so, precisely because of the way “Europe” has become a substitute for properly forcing the pace on promoting Conservatism, on re-making Britain’s values. Obviously, being in a coalition has exacerbated such evasion, though many Orange Book Liberals would, in other circumstances, with more political commitment and without UKIP at their throats, have probably proved useful allies. But it was observable long before this Government. Its roots go back to the Major years, which laid down the foundations in the popular imagination, of the monumental vacuity of Blairism, the painful recessional from which we are still enduring.
For the Conservatives, and for the Country, UKIP must be dealt with. Only an IN/OUT referendum meets the case.