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Tories should be proud to argue about Europe: the Germans wish their politicians had done so

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By Andrew Gimson

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How excellent that the Conservative Party is arguing with itself, or with its leader, about Europe. This debate is often reported as if it were a problem, which in the short term it may well be. For David Cameron, it must in some ways be inconvenient that he has been unable to shut this discussion down. 

But in any but the short term, it must be a good thing that the argument is taking place. For we need to work out whether we wish to remain a self-governing nation, or whether it would be more prudent, profitable and satisfying to merge our fortunes in a larger European entity, just as the fortunes of Massachusetts are merged in the United States of America.

To pose this question is to incur the scorn of sophisticated metropolitan figures. Nationhood strikes them as a primitive idea. They would rather veil it in misty assertions about the need to decide the most important questions at the European level.

Which is why UKIP is doing so well. Its concept of nationhood may not be the last word in sophistication, but at least that party is asking the right question. It recognises that the right to run our own affairs is in the end decisive.

Worldly wise people may retort that elections are usually decided by the state of the economy, and of services such as health and education. This is true, but it misses the point. Sooner or later, something will go wrong with the economy, and the question of who has the authority to try to put it right becomes of paramount importance.

This situation has been reached in a number of European countries. In Greece, for example, the rate of youth unemployment has reached the almost unbelievable rate of about 60 per cent. Yet the government in Athens can do virtually nothing about this, for in order to keep Greece in the euro, it has handed control of the Greek economy to the European Union and the European Central Bank.

I do not mean to imply that national governments never make mistakes. They too can make atrocious blunders. But at least a nation which makes mistakes has the chance to learn from them, and to adopt a new policy which enjoys greater popular support. Greece has lost that ability, and will not regain it until it once more possesses its own currency.

Giving up the right to run your own affairs should not be done lightly. It is encouraging to see so many Tories suggesting that we should recover the right to run our own. Labour too used to be full of defenders of national sovereignty, but somehow that strain in Labour thinking has almost died out, or been suppressed, which is one reason why that party gives the impression of intellectual exhaustion. 

One can understand why David Cameron wished, on becoming leader, to stop the Tories banging on about Europe. The details of European policy can become so tedious and repetitive that ordinary people do not wish to be bothered with them.

But ordinary people do still feel a deep sense of patriotism, and look to their politicians to express that love of country. The Tories have pretty much lost the art of doing so. Along with the rest of the political establishment, they feel more at ease with a managerial approach to government. Technical improvements are supposed to be what really matter, and are offered when people get worried about subjects like immigration.

But immigration is actually an aspect of the national question. It goes to the heart of the question of who we wish to be. No wonder Enoch Powell was so concerned by it.

I happen to think that Powell made a grave misjudgment about immigration.  Our political tradition is more flexible than he realised. It is easier than he appreciated for immigrants to become British. He failed to see how this country could be strengthened, rather than undermined, by the arrival here of millions of energetic people who value our idea of liberty under the law. The Conservative Party should have been in a position to benefit far more than it has from the arrival of people who often have an admirably old-fashioned belief in the value of hard work, enterprise, family, religion and the monarchy.

But Powell was right to see that our entry in 1972 into the European Economic Community, as it was then known, was a surrender of something very valuable, which we had possessed for a long time, and for which in living memory we had been willing to make severe sacrifices: namely the right to run our own affairs.

These thoughts occur to me with even greater force because in the 1990s I lived in Berlin and watched Helmut Kohl sacrifice the German mark, proud symbol of West Germany’s recovery from the horrors of the Nazi period.

The German people had no desire to give up the mark. They enjoyed going on holiday in Italy, and eating Italian food, but they also knew it would be complete madness to share a currency with the Italians, let alone the Greeks. One could enter any bar in Germany and people would tell you this. There were also great numbers of learned professors who warned that from an economic point of view, the single currency was bound to be a disaster, for it would be impossible to run a single monetary policy which would suit the wildly divergent national economies that were to be tied together.

Germany’s political class refused point blank to give expression to these deep and as it turned out entirely justified misgivings about surrendering the national currency. Kohl bullied his own party, the Christian Democrats, into going along with the project, and the opposition Social Democrats believed in it anyhow, so thought it would be disgracefully populist to express the fears of the German people.

The cowardice of German politicians may be explained by reference to German history. But the forced introduction of the euro was still a terrible betrayal of the German people, who now face the prospect of digging deep into their pockets in order to save a currency which they never wanted in the first place. To add insult to injury, they  find themselves abused on the streets of Athens as Nazis. Meanwhile the Greeks suffer a savage slump, a disaster that would not have occurred if they had kept the drachma, or had at least returned to it as soon as the disastrous consequences of the euro became undeniable.

All this happened because German politicians were frightened of having the necessary argument about Europe. I am not trying to suggest it would have been an easy argument. But the timid conformism of the Bundestag led to the breakdown of representative government, and its replacement by unrepresentative government.

Which is why the British Conservatives are right to argue both with themselves and with the other parties about Europe. Whatever policy we end up pursuing will only possess legitimacy if ministers have been forced to explain on frequent occasions to MPs why it makes sense. However inconvenient the argument may become, to refuse to have it would be worse.


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