All Brexit Is Local

All Brexit Is Local

Party politics have always driven Britain's troubled relationship with the EU.

By contrast, the Labour Party’s attitude towards Europe has been far less consistent. As noted above, many Labour politicians have historically opposed Europe as a businessman’s club or a neoliberal superstate bent on curbing the party’s ability to implement socialist policies at Westminster. Euroskepticism of this nature has a venerable pedigree within Labour ranks, and has variously been championed by Hugh Gaitskell in the 1960s, Michael Foot and Tony Benn in the 1970s and 1980s, and a slew of “Old Labour” reactionaries in the 1990s and 2000s.

Labour’s traditional distrust of Europe is a part of a wider leftist critique of globalization. For the most part, Britain’s postwar leftists have been believers in the so-called Bretton Woods compromise, what John Gerrard Ruggie famously referred to as “embedded liberalism.” Under these rules, freer trade among the world’s nations was encouraged but with the explicit proviso that national governments would retain the right to intervene in their domestic economies whenever there was a pressing need—or a democratic mandate—to do so. Traditional left-wing solutions to economic problems such as unemployment were thus tolerated even as Western political elites committed themselves to the broad goal of economic liberalization.

The demise of Bretton Woods in the 1970s and 1980s, however, was followed by a new and, in many ways, more intense form of globalization, what economist Dani Rodrik has branded “the golden straitjacket.” Under this new framework, the only role of governments was to open up domestic markets and capital accounts; the economic orthodoxy held that countries should avoid implementing far-reaching fiscal or monetary policies lest they chase away lucrative foreign trade and investment. Globalization and international economic cooperation became synonymous with neoliberal economics.

For neoliberals like Thatcher, membership in the EEC was desirable in part because it provided an institutional mechanism for committing Britain’s central government to obeying the strictures of the golden straitjacket. That is, from Thatcher’s perspective, European integration meant ceding rights of government intervention in the domestic economy that never should have been exercised by responsible national governments in the first place. The EEC would provide a roof under which an unfettered free market could operate and left-wing economic policies would be rendered impracticable. For the Labour left, however, willingly ceding national authority over large chunks of economic policy was anathema for reasons of both political philosophy and intense sectional interest. How would the party deliver for its supporters once European integration had succeeded in neutering the British state?

It was not until the late 1980s, and especially the advent of New Labour in 1994, that the Labour Party became decisively pro-European. During the 1990s, in fact, Labour actually became more pro-European than the Conservatives. But credit for this overhaul in Labour’s European policy does not belong to modernizing leaders like Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair, although such leaders did much to move their copartisans towards acceptance of the probusiness case for Europe. Rather, the real reason for Labour’s volte-face was that Europe itself underwent fundamental changes—particularly by taking on the character of a “social market.”

The idea of the social market economy (soziale Marktwirtschaft) is German in origin, and essentially means that there should be robust political checks against the worst excesses of free-market economics. At the domestic level, this means fairly generous social insurance schemes and government regulations to protect workers’ rights. At the European level, the social market concept found expression as the Agreement on Social Policy. The so-called “Social Chapter” of the Maastricht Treaty on European Union represented a formal aspiration to institute supranational rules on employment, living and working conditions, and other matters of social policy with the goal of making it less likely that economic cooperation would lead to a self-defeating “race to the bottom” among the states of Europe.

For Labour, the prospect of the Social Chapter’s adoption made Europe much more attractive as a political proposition. During the 1980s, Labour had fought bitterly against what they saw as Thatcher’s attempts to destroy workers’ protections—her reforms of the trade unions, for example. What the Social Chapter appeared to offer was a means of (re)instituting legal protections for workers and, ideally, expanding such legislation. “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain,” Thatcher complained in 1988, “only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” But this is exactly what Labour politicians in the early 1990s hoped for; they had finally come to recognize that Europe could be used as a tool to advance their own partisan agenda as much as it was a tool of Europe’s capitalist classes. Labour could go on the offensive instead of always finding itself on the defensive against modernizing Conservative governments.

Indeed, Labour would make life extremely difficult for John Major’s luckless Conservative government by refusing to support ratification of the Maastricht Treaty unless Britain signed up to the Social Chapter. This move caused enormous problems for Major, who was engaged in a fierce battle with backbenchers from his own party who were opposed to the entire notion of greater European integration, let alone the inclusion of the Social Chapter. In the end, Major secured a British opt-out of the Social Chapter and narrowly escaped losing a vote of confidence in his government’s policy. But an important and game-changing blow had been struck: for decades, the Conservatives had been deft at exploiting Labour divisions over Europe; now, the tables had been turned and for the first time in recent history, Europe was working as a wedge issue on Labour’s behalf.

The Conservatives’ internal fissures over Europe would only worsen during the 1990s. The party was torn between a vocal minority of MPs who saw the increasingly social-democratic character of the European Union as reason enough to leave the organization and a broad, if timid, majority who still believed that the economic benefits of integration justified continued British participation. The question for Major and his successors—William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard and now David Cameron—has never really been fully resolved: Is membership in Europe still an electoral asset for the Conservative Party, or would there be more to gain by becoming a clearly anti-European party? All the while, Labour leaders in the 1990s and early 2000s could rejoice; their internal battles over Europe had been put to rest for the time being, and all that was left to do was exact vengeance on the hapless Conservatives.

Of course, the notion that the EU is a protector of workers’ interests—a kind of “social straitjacket” capable of keeping governments on a left-of-center trajectory just as the “golden straitjacket” was supposed to do for neoliberal economics—has come into serious question. Especially in light of Europe’s treatment of Greece during its ongoing economic crises, many on the left are once again questioning the benefits of EU membership, resurrecting the old criticism of European integration as a nail in the coffin of socialism at the level of the nation-state. The success of far-right political parties in elections to the European Parliament has cast additional doubt on whether Europe is a viable forum within which left-wing reforms can be enacted. These recent developments serve as a reminder that Labour’s love affair with Europe is not destined to last forever, but instead is precariously contingent upon Europe proving itself a useful vehicle for left-leaning policy outcomes.


ALL IN all, Britain’s membership in Europe has been relatively secure since the early 1970s because both major political parties—or, to be more specific, the party in power at any given time—always have had compelling partisan incentives to stay the course. For the Tories, Europe has been valuable as a way of entrenching and expanding the market economy. While many in the party have distrusted Europe on a gut level or because of genuine fears about a loss of national sovereignty, the Conservative Party’s broad pro-European center has been held together by a calculated judgment that, on balance, British business gains from the various bargains struck in Brussels. For Labour, meanwhile, Europe has been appreciated since the early 1990s as a way of defending—and even extending—the domestic welfare state. While true socialists have much preferred that Britain take its left-wing policies “in-house” instead of relying on Europe to impose such policies from the outside, pragmatists within the party have accepted Europe as a means of shifting the needle of domestic politics leftward.

This basic political fact of Britain’s relationship with Europe—this Primat der Innenpolitik—was true when Macmillan proposed membership in the European Economic Community in 1961, and it remains true today. Those who value European integration as a symbolic statement of the country’s commitment to internationalism and even those who see Europe as an instrument for amplifying Britain’s voice on the world stage have always been an insignificant minority. Instead, the most successful arguments for integration have always been rooted in facets of Britain’s domestic politics. Pro-European sentiment has succeeded when it has been woven into the fabric of the two major political parties, when it has been shown to deliver concrete electoral gains and political advantage. Rhetoric aside, neither of the two major parties ever has cherished Europe in its own right and neither has seen Europe as something to be rated on its foreign-policy merits. Instead, each has had a self-interested electoral stake in protecting British membership in Europe.