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Don't answer the European question: vote for Euro-blur


HOWEVER faux biblical the rhetoric, there was a big idea behind the Prime Minister’s war cry this week. “Let the battle be joined!” was a serious invitation extended to us by the political class. We are invited to say where we stand on the European Union.
The invitation will be received gratefully; examined carefully; and politely refused. There will be plenty of noise, of course. The Prime Minister will hear the usual demands for closer union from the small minority of evangelical Europeanists, and the usual demands for Britain’s exit from the EU from the small minority of hardcore Europhobes; but from the majority in the middle he will encounter no shout for root-and-branch reappraisals of our place in Europe: just a low indistinct grumble.

For reasons of history Britain as a nation feels pulled in different directions on Europe. You could call it a kind of schizophrenia, but it is a condition we can live with and probably do not seek to resolve. We have no idea where we stand; we do not want to know; and we do not want to talk about it. The problem is not a shortage of information. We do not want information.

We are reluctant to make up our minds, and doubt that we have to. Secretly, we know the attractions of a Euro-blur. The ambiguity of the British people towards European integration is not careless, but studied. It is good of the Prime Minister to offer clarity, but his offer will be ignored.

Of that you will hear almost no hint in the way people are now describing the coming debate. Reacting to news of the promised referendum , almost every media commentator has dipped into the same linguistic bran tub for his metaphor. If we have read the phrase “clear the air”, we have read it a dozen times. This debate is to be a “day of reckoning” bringing “clarity” to a confused question. It will “settle the issue” (often with a “for good” popped in for effect). “Sort out” and “thrash out” have been doing sterling service in current commentary. “Once and for all” has been used everywhere, not least by the Prime Minister. We shall “finally” be asked to “make up our minds”.

It is as though we are being ordered to confront our Euro-demons. The implicit psycho-political suggestion is that it would be good for our collective mental health as a nation if we bring our anxieties to the surface, spit them out, sort them out — and “move on”. “Bring it on”, they say: “have it out”, “clear it up”. Metaphorical boils will be lanced, and toxins stripped of a dark place in which to fester.

The prospect takes on all the allure of a sustained session of colonic irrigation. It cannot be long before somebody suggests that the fabled referendum on Europe will help us British to “achieve closure” — even “allow us to grieve” — after the death of empire, then “turn the page” and “begin a new chapter” in our history. “Let’s clear it all out of the way,” Tony Blair told journalists at his press conference on Thursday.

Who dares demur? Surely open debate is healthy? In an age of detox and TV confession the case for papering things over is difficult to make, and to deny in intelligent company that awkward questions are always best confronted is not done. Few will ever declare themselves in favour of darkness and confusion. The metaphor of letting in the light trips so easily from the tongue. It is the way people like to talk.

But it is not the way we think and it is not the way we act. Consider for a moment the conduct of your own life, your own daily affairs. Is it your experience that within a marriage, a friendship or a business partnership, things are always best resolved by a showdown? Is it always best in the everyday ventures of life that we should hammer out at an early stage what we want to get from, and what we are prepared to give to, an evolving venture? Is the itch to draw up rules and demand explicit consent always wise?

No, it is within our commonsense experience that leaving certain things undiscussed, can be the best way of running an inherently rickety human enterprise. Not every grey area is best resolved into black or white, and some surprisingly inconsistent propositions and incompatible outlooks can cohabit under one roof — just so long as no sixth-form logician starts insisting that we all down tools and “have the debate”. Instead we muddle along. We brush aside or postpone the difficult questions. It does sometimes work. Muddling through is rather British.

And likewise on the political stage. The governance of Northern Ireland is grinding along comparatively bloodlessly at present precisely because British governments keep sliding round inconsistencies and postponing high noons between logically irreconcilable positions. The joint venture we call the “United Kingdom” stumbles on relatively reliably precisely because nobody does insist on getting an answer to the West Lothian Question. And look where Mr Blair’s itch to “ resolve” the position of the House of Lords has got him.

Vast economic and cultural forces move peoples and their institutions: whither, we are none too sure and would often rather not know. In time, the unavoidable will stare us in the face, reconciling us to where we are going — sometimes after we have already got there. But in the meantime it may occasionally be best to carry on regardless. Too precipitate an urge to blow a whistle and shout, “Stop! Let’s have the Great Debate”, may lead only to convulsion.

We never really had the debate about empire. It just slipped away. Arguably Britain did rather well out of backing hesitantly into a post-imperial world, keeping a lingering hold on dominions and former colonies. We have never had the debate about our relationship with the United States. Arguably we benefited, and perhaps were saved from Hitler, by our long, confused and affectionate farewell from our old colony. In recent years, and until Mr Blair lost his footing, we have been deftly placed between the Old World and the New, stubbornly refusing to “choose” between America and Europe, and on the whole getting away with it.

If we really do believe that hovering ambiguities about our destiny ought be “thrashed out” and resolved, then it is odd that we English should place Queen Elizabeth I at the top of any list of our greatest national leaders. No ruler was ever more adept at keeping irreconcilables in play, and keeping allies guessing. “Britain’s place in Europe” was never more uncertain than in her glorious reign.

On Europe today, we British want to have our cake and eat it; and, to a gratifying extent, we do. Whisper it softly to The Daily Telegraph, but there is little we are being forced by “Europe” to do very differently from how we would have done it anyway. The EU’s most idiotic policy, the Common Agricultural Policy, only replaces the idiotic domestic featherbedding we organised before.

We have managed to steer clear of the pesky European single currency, though a few years ago Euro-enthusiasts and Europhobes alike assured us that this was the issue, this was the watershed on which we really must make up our minds whether we wanted to be in or out of the European project.

So let us keep them guessing. This, I suspect, will be the unarticulated conclusion lurking beneath the conscious mind of most British voters. We don’t really like the EU because they are continentals and do not speak English, and to any pollster who cares to inquire about our attitude to the whole rascally enterprise we will speak our minds colourfully.

But in our hearts we also know that one way or the other we have got to carry on rubbing along with them; and the thought lurks that the Americans do seem to be getting a bit big for their boots, so we had better not fall out too badly with the rest of our own continent.

“There’s an incredible urge not to debate what's actually in this Constitution,” wailed the Prime Minister at his Thursday press conference. Too true, Tony, and I have troubling news for you. Few care. As the great debate proceeds we will dutifully complain that we remain woefully ignorant of the contents and meaning of this constitution — and then, when the Government sends us a leaflet setting it all out, we won’t read it.

We’ll just vote “no”. We’ll do so because:
(a) it’s two fingers up to Tony;
(b) it’s two fingers up to Brussels;
(c) we doubt the world will cease to turn in its orbit.

So away with your false dichotomies, Mr Blair. When it comes to the really big question about Europe, it isn’t “yes” or “no”, it’s “yes”, “no” — or “whatever”. Britain will vote “no” and mean whatever. Thank you, Prime Minister for the wake-up call, but we had noticed that the European question was unresolved, and we intend to keep it that way.