by Henry Mangold
Britain, once a great world power, is now in most respects ruled from Brussels, as part of the European Union. This transfer of power was carried out, essentially, by a conspiracy. To understand how this conspiracy was possible, it’s necessary to understand the present British constitution.
In the eighteenth century, Britain had a hereditary king, who was responsible for defence and foreign affairs. Taxation and legislation were the responsibility of two houses of parliament, one of them elected (The House of Commons), the other hereditary (the House of Lords). The king could veto new laws. Equally the two Houses of Parliament had a degree of control over royal policy, through the power of the purse. Armies and navies cost money, which must come from taxation.
When the US constitution was planned, the British constitution served as a model. The US wished to replace the hereditary principle by election, but attached great importance to maintaining the balance of powers. The role of the king would be performed by a president; the functions of the House of Lords would be performed by a senate, elected by the constituent states of the Union. The elected House of Commons became the House of Representatives. The result has been durable and remains comparatively unchanged to this day.
In Britain too, the hereditary principle was abandoned, but the change happened gradually, without any consideration being given to the need to avoid concentrating too much power in any single institution. The power of the hereditary parts of the constitution gradually declined, until almost all power came into the hands of the only body which was elected – the House of Commons. In 1780, the monarch was already less powerful than he had been a century earlier. Over the next hundred years, he/she lost all real power and become a figurehead. The hereditary House of Lords continued but also lost most of its powers and new Lords were increasingly appointed by the Government, for life only.
The decline of the power of the monarchy and of the hereditary House of Lords placed all real power in Britain in the hands of the elected House of Commons. There were no constitutional restraints. Britain had no written constitution, there was no constitutional court to permit or prohibit far-reaching legislation and no legal requirement for a referendum to be held before any major constitutional change.
In practice all political power was concentrated in the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. Elections occurred every few years but they were fought between two disciplined political parties and the leaders of the winning party were then in a position of uncontrolled near-absolute power. The leader of the majority party became Prime Minister. The Prime Minister chose his cabinet from among supporters in his own party. The Prime Minister and his cabinet determined all policies, initiated almost all legislation and saw it successfully through Parliament, by the power they held over their party’s MPs in the Commons. There were occasional revolts, but MPs knew that rebels very seldom become ministers and might lose the endorsement of their party at the next election, meaning almost certainly the end of a political career.
This brings us to the 1970’s. From being a world power, Britain had declined to the role of “sick man of Europe”. Britain was the only country in Western Europe which didn’t seem to have recovered economically from the War. Inflation was at levels previously unheard of. Internationally, Britain’s reputation was lower than at any previous time. Governments cast around for a solution and (with American encouragement) resolved to jump on to the European bandwagon. This involved giving up much of Britain’s national sovereignty.
When Britain joined the European Economic Community (later to be rebranded as the European Union) in 1973, laws were passed which transferred much political power into the hands of an unelected European Commission and made British law subordinate to European law. This profound constitutional change was carried through solely by Acts of Parliament, essentially on the basis of “whipped” votes in the House of Commons. Perhaps even more significantly, this cession of power to a foreign institution took place without the Government or the media honestly informing the electorate of what was happening. Had they done so, the change could never have happened.
The practical impact of the EEC on most ordinary people in Britain was initially minimal and when a referendum on membership was held two years after joining, it was possible to present the new arrangement as a success. The question of the sacrifice of sovereignty was hushed up, the “Yes” campaign had the support of the BBC and almost all the media and was heavily subsidised by Brussels. The referendum result of course confirmed our membership.
The pretence that there has been no reduction in British sovereignty has been kept up, unbelievably, for more than forty years. In 2016, most of the electorate is still not aware that the country is governed in most respects from Brussels rather than London, and the British Government still claims credit or is blamed for decisions which have actually been taken at the European level. It is also still quite normal for both the leading parties to make promises as part of their election campaigns which they should know perfectly well they can have no power, under European law, to implement. The mistake (or more likely deception) goes unnoticed because most people don’t expect politicians to fulfil their pre-election promises anyway.
British people are still only dimly aware that anything has changed. The British still vote for MPs to go to Westminster. The Prime Minister who emerges from this traditional procedure still talks to the electorate as if he has a free hand to make decisions to please them. Civil servants have to constantly remind him of the extent to which the EU circumscribes his power to change things. Because the British see no swastikas around, most people still believe that Britain is an independent country. This is ridiculous, but perhaps it shows where British loyalties still lie. If the British still think Britain is an independent country, then in the last resort, it is.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, General Robert E Lee was offered a senior command in the Federal Army. He replied “Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?.” He was faced with a conflict of loyalties. All his military life had been spent fighting for the United States, and he had greatly distinguished himself. But was he, in the last resort, an American or a Virginian? Lee decided that in the last resort, he was a Virginian. And once his decision was made, he led the forces of the Confederacy against those of the Union, and he almost defeated it. This happened because, at that stage in its development, the United States had not yet established itself as the primary focus of loyalty for its citizens. At that stage, America was much further along the line of integrated development than the EU is now. No British soldier, faced now with the same conflict of loyalty as that which faced Lee, would hesitate for a moment.
Thus there has so far been no significant popular reaction in Britain against EU membership, because its effects, for most people, have not obviously been very harmful or oppressive. Where they have been harmful or oppressive, they have been hushed up by the media. Where this was not possible, responsibility for its effects has been absorbed by the British government. Most of the damage has been done to agriculture, fisheries and industry rather than to the ordinary citizen.
This is changing now. European policy on the free movement of labour has resulted in the large-scale movement of people from Eastern Europe, where wages are far lower than in Britain. As a result, immigration is now at the top of the political agenda in Britain. And European environmental policy has led to the closure of coal-fired power stations: a cold end to the winter could yet lead to widespread power cuts caused by trying to rely on renewable energy sources. European wildlife preservation policies are preventing rivers from being dredged and there has been widespread flooding in parts of the country which do not normally experience it. And immigration (and perhaps danger) is now starting to come not only from Europe, but from the Middle East.
The European skeleton is falling out of the cupboard.
The Anti-EU Opposition
There has always been opposition to Britain’s EU membership. In particular, the Conservative party has always had a right-wing minority which opposed it, but in the last resort remained loyal to the Party. The left wing of the Labour party also had an anti-EU tradition, but the Labour left wing has almost disappeared. British politics in the era of Tony Blair and David Cameron has been dominated by the centre. The minority Lib-Dems, successors of the old Liberal Party, were until recently the party of protest at the grass-roots level; but at the top, in their anxiety not to be left out of the Establishment, they were more pro-EU than either Conservative or Labour. The British media, particularly the BBC, are pro-EU.
Opposition to EU membership became akin to heresy. The electorate, which was enjoying its holidays in the sun, became persuaded that to be anti-EU was to be anti-Europe, even racist. Until the East European workers came, most people had felt no obvious ill-effects which they could attribute to EU membership.
Opposition was initially academic and came from a small minority. It became clear that no established party would change its policy. To launch and empower a specifically anti-EU party seemed well beyond the means of those who felt the need for it. Nevertheless after a number of false starts, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was founded in 1993. Among its founding members was a 29-year old commodity broker, with no previous experience of politics – Nigel Farage. UKIP has gradually grown and is now, under Farage’s leadership, a very significant force in British politics. A British exit from the EU is now on the political agenda and a second referendum has been at least promised.
Farage first became leader in 2006 and can claim much of the credit. But changing circumstances also have helped. Since Margaret Thatcher’s period in power, the British tax regime has been more favourable to business and some fortunes have been made; and among smaller businessmen, there has been increasing irritation with the straightjacket of European regulations. People are living healthy lives for longer and there is a significant minority of retired people (mainly men) with time on their hands and experience of the world. UKIP has been able to draw on these potential reserves of British patriotism. Those who have the money to contribute, or at least the time and energy, have increasingly been willing to help. The media are losing some of their power, as alternative sources of information have appeared on the net. UKIP has gradually increased its membership. It now has a network of local branches with enthusiastic members throughout England – though not in Scotland.
The EU itself has unwittingly provided an opportunity for UKIP to gain ground. The EU Assembly has very limited powers; but regular EU elections are held throughout the EU on the system of proportional representation. British electors are not very interested in the EU parliament, but some of them value any opportunity to participate in the political process. UKIP first contested the EU elections in 1994 and in 1997 got 6.7% of the UK vote, giving 3 members. After some reluctance, it was realised that some degree of participation in the Assembly would give UKIP a platform. And the very generous pay and allowances of EU Assembly members offered leading members the opportunity to become full-time paid politicians and contributed to party funds.
Farage took full advantage of this opportunity. Restrictions on speaking time kept his contributions short and the EU Assembly paid little attention, but his real audience was in Britain, through the medium of Youtube. He is a brilliant extempore speaker, of a kind almost forgotten in British politics since the days of Lloyd George. Listen to him explaining what UKIP is all about to the Canadians. Youtube had some direct impact on the electorate, but more importantly, it gained the attention of the UK media, who became aware that Farage was good television and gave him publicity.
UKIP’s profile rose and the party – particularly Farage himself – received increasing media attention. As he started to be perceived as a threat, the attention became increasingly negative. It was not difficult to find material on which to base new smears – few politicians are perfect. Every little mistake made by a UKIP candidate was magnified by the media in a way which was not applied to other parties. Inevitably there were also problems arising from candidate selection. The prospect of a lucrative EU seat sometimes aroused the interest of the wrong kind of people. A surprising number of UKIP’s elected MEPs (European Parliament members) defected to other parties or set up parties of their own. Discipline was strengthened and the process of candidate selection became much more thorough.
In the 2014 European election, UKIP got 27.5% of the UK votes for the EU Assembly and they now have 24 out of 73 UK members, more members than any other UK party. This confirmed its importance and still further raised its national profile. But In the 2015 UK General Election, UKIP got only 12.6% of the national vote. Because of the British first-past-the-post electoral system, only one UKIP candidate was elected and he was a former Conservative member who had managed to retain the personal loyalty of his constituency. This very disappointing result has been followed by a difficult period for the party, with some leading members (led by the only UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell) challenging Farage’s leadership. But he retains the almost unanimous support of the membership, fortified by a nationwide programme of public meetings.
Farage has put EU membership back on to the British political agenda. David Cameron, concerned at the leakage of votes to UKIP, has promised a new referendum no later than 2017. Most public discussion assumes that Cameron will keep his promise, but experience suggests that there will only be a referendum if and when Cameron is sure he is going to win it. At present, he probably would. A recent survey by Survation suggests that British attitudes towards the EU are predominantly negative but that many people would vote against leaving the EU, even though they are opposed to membership of the EU in principle, because they are “afraid of the potentially disruptive risks of ending our membership”. In other words, they are reluctant to take a leap into the dark. And it seems possible, even likely, that these fearful votes would currently be enough to prevent the No side from winning the referendum. But Cameron (and his EU friends) cannot be sure of the result they want. They hope that times will change; and they probably will change, but not necessarily in the way they hope for.
Levels of immigration from Africa and Asia look likely to rise to a level where the EU will have difficulty in surviving in its current form. The EU pretends to be a state. Like real states, the EU now permits free movement of labour within its borders, and the old frontier controls between its members have increasingly been dismantled. But in its external relations, the EU is not a state at all. Unlike a state, it has no system of unified external defence. It has been forgotten, that if the frontiers of the member countries are to come down, a correspondingly strong external frontier has to be asserted and adequately defended by the resources of the whole EU. So the EU has two possible ways forward. Either the full military resources of Europe have to be deployed to defend the frontiers of the EU, wherever a threat may exist to them (and the EU, in its present form, has no military resources). Or the frontier barriers within the EU must go up again. And in fact the frontier barriers are already going up again everywhere.
The immigration crisis comes on top of the economic crisis which is already embittering relations between Germany and Greece and has the potential to embitter relations between Germany and Italy also. Both crises have arisen because of doctrinaire obstinacy on the part of the EU. The EU is now discovering what happens if you arbitrarily impose a single currency and free movement of labour on a geographical area containing many different peoples with differing traditions and no proper external frontiers.
It’s always hard to predict the future, but it is very hard to imagine Britain still belonging to the EU in five years time, even if the EU continues (in some form) to exist. The future of the continental EU looks very much like trouble; and it sounds, after recent events, as if the trouble is starting, not for the first time, in Germany.
The Left Wing
The Left Wing, which may be defined in Britain as the alliance between the labour movement, represented by the trade unions, and the socialist intelligentsia, has gone through a period of political unimportance ever since Margaret Thatcher. Trade union membership and power is much lower than it was and the Labour Party itself has been converted to economic liberalism. Tony Blair’s government paid some regard to the old socialist ideals and the interests of the working class, but in most respects followed the liberal agenda. After a brief period under his colleague Gordon Brown, the Labour government lost power. It has lost touch with its working class roots. Labour party membership has declined. Only a few older Labour members of the Commons come from working class or trade union backgrounds . The others are graduates, sometimes ex-public sector workers, more often former researchers with little experience outside politics at all. In the mean time, wage levels have failed to keep pace with prices, unemployment levels have remained high and in many parts of Britain, young people have found it very difficult to get started in work at all.
Meanwhile, after Labour’s disappointing performance in the 2015 election, the Labour leader resigned and there was a leadership contest. New rules opened up the contest to all members of the party and made it possible (like an open primary) for join and vote easily. Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran Labour MP on the left wing, a voice in the wilderness until now, has been elected.
Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign re-ignited an old flame that had almost expired. All over the old Labour heartlands , everywhere he went, he delivered eloquent and powerful speeches to packed audiences. Standing ovations in the big halls were followed by calm and convincing informal interviews which impressed by their honesty and apparent reasonableness. Bright-eyed young followers proclaimed that he was giving them hope at last. Old Labour veterans claimed to feel rejuvenated. It was an extraordinary performance for a man of 66, who had been an isolated left-wing figure in the Labour Party for most of his life.
Corbyn is the Leader of the Labour Party, but he got there against the strongly expressed wishes of most Labour MPs. So far he is still leader and most of the Commons Labour leadership have made their peace with him. Much still depends on his tact and political skill. A few Labour members may continue to oppose him on grounds of principle; others because they believe that he will make Labour unelectable in 2020. But 2020 is a long way off and their seats are probably safe until then. They may well wonder whether Corbyn will survive as leader anyway until 2020.
Actually Corbyn is personally electable. Recent Survation research showed a sample of all electors one-minute clips of each of the candidates being interviewed by Andrew Marr to help them to make up their minds. They judged that Corbyn would make the best leader of the Labour Party, with Andy Burnham second. The best of a bad bunch, you may say – and certainly none of the other three is very inspiring. But this leaves out of account the extraordinary enthusiasm which Corbyn seems able to generate at his meetings, particularly among the young.
What about the media and the powers that be? Journalists love him because he makes news. But the big guns feel very differently, because he has for many years been a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause and a bitter opponent of the Iraq War, the other Wars on Terror and NATO provocation of Russia. There will be some very serious attempts to unseat him in one way or another well before 2020. From across the Atlantic, he looks a completely unacceptable Prime Minister of Britain, and the pressure for Labour Party regime change will build up if Cameron starts to sink in the polls and perhaps lose some by-elections.
Corbyn initially refused to commit himself on the EU. He has inherited a very divided party and his first priority after his election is to achieve unity under his leadership – a united front in Opposition. But the truth is that many of his policies make very little sense and cannot be enacted anyway within the straightjacket of the EU. If he gets stronger, he may come out clearly against it. .
England and Scotland became a single state in 1707. The Union was freely entered into by both countries and has undoubtedly been of great benefit to both. It was never a complete fusion, because Scotland and England have each always retained a strong sense of national identity, with their own legal systems and (which was important in the 18th century) their own versions of Protestantism. To this day, asked their nationality, many if not most inhabitants of both countries, will reply “I am English” or “I am Scots”; the concept of Britishness has never entirely caught on. The Scots, although closely allied to the English, have a distinct national character. Politically they are definitely on the left.
Scotland was one of birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution and suffered much economic damage as the old heavy industries – coal, steel, shipbuilding – contracted. Inevitably, perhaps, they blamed the English; and particularly the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. When she recently died, there were few regrets in Scotland. The Scottish Daily Record epitomised the Scottish mood:
She swept like a wrecking ball through the mines, the steel industry, the car factories, shipbuilding and engineering and oversaw the demise of the communities which had built their livelihoods around them.
If this was really true, good enough reason for bitter memories. But in Scotland and elsewhere, Margaret Thatcher has become a symbol for changes for which she was not responsible. She is blamed for the death of the old industrial Britain. Before Thatcher, it is believed, there were busy coal mines and humming factories in Britain, and the close communities which had grown up around them. During her reign, those industries were closed down and those communities broken up.
The truth is different. Margaret Thatcher did not kill off the old industries of Britain. She recognised that mines cannot continue to produce coal and factories to hum when markets change and the old opportunities have gone. She saw the striking miners as Luddites, doing their desperate best to preserve the past in the face of irresistible historical change – and that, unfortunately, is what they were. Just as around 1800 the Industrial Revolution destroyed the old cottage industries of Britain and substituted new industries and new urban communities, so the industries and perhaps even the communities of the nineteenth century were destined, in their turn, to go.
As the mood in the South turned decisively against socialism and as London achieved a new prosperity which the more distant parts of Britain did not share, there was much bitterness of this kind in the North of England too. But in Scotland, old reserves of nationalism gave it additional strength and respectability. For a time, North Sea Oil gave Scotland a new opportunity. But Scots accused the Government of taking too much of the profits and the oil started to run out.
Scotland has always had a degree of political devolution with its distinctive legal system, but of course no separate parliament since the Union. But the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and Tony Blair perceived a political opportunity. Both Scotland and Wales were Labour strongholds. Let them have their own assemblies with some devolved powers and these two parts of Britain could have the benefits of Labour rule all the time. And so it proved until the Scottish Labour Party, corrupted by the temptations of Blairism, lost power in Scotland and the Scottish Nationalists, with a far more left-wing agenda, took over. Nationalism became increasingly fashionable in Scotland and finally led to the referendum on independence.
The Scottish referendum aroused worldwide interest – and some astonishment. What other national government in the world would allow – almost encourage – a major part of its territory to hold a referendum on independence, and given a positive result, to secede? And Britain, whose whole strength has been based, historically, on the unity of the British island and the width of the Channel – to throw those incomparable advantages away!
A separate Scottish state would not be viable and is almost certainly not going to happen. It makes no sense and everybody really knows it makes no sense. Alex Salmond, who led the Scottish National Party into the referendum, is a canny Scot and a truly independent Scotland was probably his slogan rather than his real objective. He wanted the Scottish referendum to include a maximum devolution option. If this compromise option had been allowed on to the ballot paper, that’s probably the way things would have gone. He would then have been saved the terrifying responsibility of coping with a flight of capital southwards and actually setting Scotland on its feet as an independent country, complete with a financial deal with the UK, a good slice of our Army, its own Navy and Air Force, its own currency, its own relationship (or non-relationship) with the EU, and everything else that goes with being a modern state.
There are many other countries – democratic or not – which combine or have combined central government with devolved government in provinces or states. They can be divided into two categories. The first category – where disparate states with differing political cultures come together in permanent alliance – is called federation. It often works very well. The second category – where a previously unified country is divided into partially separated units – is quite different. It is a progressive tendency which, if not arrested in time, leads to disintegration. It happened to the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages. It happened to the Soviet Union in the 20th century. At times it appears that it is happening to the United Kingdom now. But even lunacy often has its intervals of sanity and the Scots are usually more sane than most. The referendum campaign was taken very seriously in Scotland and the participation rate was high. But the result was sensibly negative.
The Scottish National Party now threaten that if a referendum is held in which England votes to leave the EU and Scotland to stay in, they will raise the question of independence again. Perhaps they will. But their electorate is unlikely to support them.
We are now in 2016 and events are increasingly overtaking political decisions. Thousands of young men, including an unknown number of Isis members, are pouring almost unchecked into Europe from the Middle East. Penetration has been greatest in Germany, the richest and most powerful, but also the most politically immature country in Europe. The enemy have come unarmed, but even without arms they appear to have commenced organised terrorism in German cities. Arms and explosives must of course be on the way. In Paris, Europe has already learned what that means.
At Calais, most of the invading flood has been halted. Britain is entering one of those periods (frequent in the past) when she has been very grateful for the insulating presence of the English Channel. Britain has a consistent history of sleepy political drift, interrupted by the appearance of determined and usually successful leaders (Cromwell, Lloyd George, Churchill) when action has become essential. She may have drifted for too long this time. There is no one in British politics, with the possible exception of Farage, who could conceivably offer the vision and leadership that is needed. Farage has already proved his mettle under extremely adverse circumstances: he has great courage and he believes in his country; he has proved his organisational abilities too. Could Jeremy Corbyn be the man? There is no evidence that he could. He responded brilliantly to his opportunity when it came. But he did nothing to make it come. Could they bring their forces together? They agree on their opposition to American warmongering; but in every other respect they are poles apart. Farage would have to lead the way; and it is hard to imagine Corbyn following his lead. If Farage cannot rescue Britain, BritaIn is in the hands of God. The future is unpredictable. But Europe and the world need Britain to speak (as she has done in the past) with an independent and powerful voice for sanity and civilisation.
Henry Mangold is a retired commercial researcher and businessman with a lifelong interest in English history. He learned Russian in the Army and studied English at Cambridge.