By Nicky Dempsey
David Cameron’s long-delayed speech on Europe does not mark a decisive turning-point for Britain’s economic relations with the EU. But it may signal a breach by the Tory Party with the vital interests of the British ruling class. If so, this will severely damage its electoral prospects and will mark a new stage in the long-term decline of the Tory Party and the recomposition of British politics.
There is no prospect of the British bourgeoisie as a whole swinging behind a party which puts in jeopardy Britain’s membership of the European Union. The EU is a customs union which places barriers and duties in the way of trade with non-members.
Despite extremely slow growth in both Britain and the rest of the EU during the current crisis it remains the case that more than half of all Britain’s trade in goods is with other EU members. The current level of trade in services, crucially financial services, would be difficult to retain under regulatory pressure outside the EU.
To forestall precisely this argument, 56 Tory-supporting business leaders wrote to The Times in support of Cameron. But the signatures underlined Tory distance from mainstream business interests on this vital issue. There were very few leaders of large exporting companies and those who are represent a fraction of a minority within British capital; exporters whose largest markets are outside the EU, such as Diageo, Rolls Royce and Burberry.
British membership of the EU and its predecessors has always been reluctant and conditional. This represents the difficulties of adjusting to new trade patterns with the loss of Empire as well as the outsized financial sector.
These material factors have long fostered popular hostility to the EU in Britain.
But British capitalism cannot afford an EU departure, which Cameron’s promise of a referendum threatens. Talk of repatriating powers in the areas of social policy, environmental protection and workers’ rights would all lower living standards in Britain and are designed to appeal to business. But while capital always prefers lower wages and lower regulation, these are only useful if it has a market to sell into.
The ‘in/out referendum’ was previously ruled out by Cameron as threatening to British interests. Those fundamental interests of British capital have not changed. What has changed is the arithmetic of the next election and the assessment of the recomposition of British politics.
After the Coalition was formed in 2010 serious political Tory commentators were suggesting that the anti-Tory majority in Britain has been ‘abolished at a stroke’. The hope was that the Lib Dem vote would hold up and that it would remain in coalition with the Tories beyond 2015. There may even have been fond hopes that the ever-flexible Tory Party would be able to incorporate it, just as it had done with the ‘Liberal Imperialists’ a century earlier.
None of this has happened. The Lib Dem vote has slumped, with Labour the big gainer. Belatedly Tory support too has fallen under the impact of the economic crisis. But this has largely gone to the openly racist xenophobes of UKIP.
According to one recent poll before the Cameron speech the percentage vote for the major parties is a follows (change since the 2010 election in brackets): Tories 33 (-3) Labour 42 (+13) Lib Dems 11 (-12) UKIP 7 (+4).
The general pattern is clear. The bulk of the Lib Dem vote has defected to Labour. The Tory vote has been eroded, and is turning rightwards to UKIP. It is to staunch this flow, and appease forces within his own party that Cameron is now prepared to talk about leaving the EU.
As many as one in ten Tory voters in 2010 may have switched to UKIP . UKIP also came second in two by-elections, in Rotherham and Middlesbrough.
The popular vote for the Tory party has been in long-term decline, mirroring the relative decline of British imperialism.
Clearly the tactic behind calling for a referendum is to politically marginalise the largest reactionary force in British politics by adopting its policies.
This is not the first time the Tory party has allied with the most reactionary political forces in the state solely or primarily to bolster its own position. In the Home Rule crisis in Ireland, the Tory hierarchy formed an alliance with the most intransigent forces of Unionism in order to block any form of Irish self-government.
It is undoubtedly the case that other European bourgeoisies would like to curb London’s pre-eminent role in financial services, in order the capture some of the profit for themselves. This explains the drive towards greater EU regulation of financial services, which the City of London objects to violently and Cameron faithfully expresses. But objecting to greater regulation is not the same as a willingness to leave.
The US Administration was unusually open about its warnings to Cameron before he made his speech. Atlanticism was a complicating factor. De Gaulle’s opposition to British membership was based on the fear that they would serve US interests within Europe and put a brake on all developments which might threaten US global dominance. This fear was essentially correct. Britain would serve no useful function in European politics for the US following an exit. For Britain outside the EU, the famous ‘special relationship’ becomes a just memory of a figment.
The electoral advantage that the Tories hope to gain from an anti-EU stance is not a foregone conclusion. One poll taken shortly after the speech showed the Tories gaining five per cent, while another showed no gain at all. However the majority tended to show just a two per cent gain for the Tories and similar loss for UKIP. This is wholly inadequate to alter Tory electoral prospects. Projections based on recent polls are that Labour would still have nearly a 100 seat majority.
A key difficulty in this Tory tactic is that the bulk of the UKIP vote is not animated by the issue of Europe at all. Instead, as extensive analysis from Tory peer Michael Ashcroft shows, the UKIP vote is overwhelmingly racist and xenophobic, primarily concerned about the issue of immigration. Europe is a factor only as it reinforces a general xenophobia.
Labour has come under intense media pressure to follow the Tory lead. The Tory press and the BBC continually pose the question why Labour refuses to follow suit . UKIP leader Farage has spoken of ‘going after Labour’ having just lost support to the Tories!
The Labour leadership is on strong ground in refusing to emulate Cameron’s desperate gambit. It is essentially the same position as the majority of the British ruling class. Cameron has tried to entice the latter with all sorts of promises, lower worker protection, wages, environmental standards and financial regulation.
The risk of losing the vote is too great. Also the prospect is that the current EU leadership will accommodate many of these policies anyway as can be seen from Angela Merkel’s keynote speech in Davos, where she said it was vital to maintain austerity, to ‘keep driving down labour costs to make Europe more competitive’.
The danger in the situation is not that Britain will sleepwalk into an EU exit. The British ruling class will not permit its vital interests to be jeopardised.
The greater risk is that Cameron will increasingly adopt the racist policies that do animate UKIP voters on immigration and against multiculturalism. Aside from the inconvenience of reactionary immigration caps, these policies do not interfere with the interests of the bourgeoisie.
Then the Labour leadership will confront a Tory party with an altogether more dangerous set of policies, with the real threat of accommodating to them.