Britain’s Biggest Problem Is Not the EU

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Britain’s Biggest Problem Is Not the EU

There’s a new mood among Britain’s euroskeptics. As one of the Trumpet’s correspondents stationed in the United Kingdom, I periodically attend the meetings of some of the groups that want out of the European Union. Over the past few months, these meetings have subtly changed.

The meetings once revolved around holding a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU. The assumption was that if only someone would hold a referendum, then of course Britain would vote to get out.

Now that a referendum seems likely, if not inevitable, these meetings revolve around a slightly different question: How do we win a referendum?

For years, many, including myself, have taken for granted that a referendum would be a walk in the park. Pro-EU politicians are overwhelmingly against having a referendum, therefore, the logic went, a referendum must result in their defeat.

In fact, the poll numbers have jumped all over the place—making the results of a referendum, from a purely statistic point of view, hard to call. In May 2012, 51 percent of those surveyed said they wanted out of the EU, compared to 28 percent who wanted to stay in. But the most resent stats, published by YouGov on February 25, show that 45 percent want to remain in the EU, while only 35 percent want out.

Why is the EU so popular? Why would euroskeptics struggle to win a vote? At the heart of this question is a deep, long-standing problem in Britain that is hurting the nation far more than EU membership ever could.

At the core of Britain’s EU membership and all the problems it brings, is a failure of Britain’s leadership.

For 40 years or so, the British public has reluctantly gone along with EU membership, only because it has been persuaded to do so by those at the top.

Consider Britain’s current situation. The Conservative Party, the largest party in Britain’s governing coalition, is pro-EU. It has a significant minority of euroskeptics and is less pro-EU than other parties, but its official position is for EU membership. The Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives’ coalition partners, are also pro-EU. The Labor Party—Britain’s official opposition and largest left-wing party—is pro-EU. The Scottish National Party, on target to win an overwhelming majority in Scotland, is pro-EU. Plaid Cymru—the Welsh nationalist party—is pro-EU. The overwhelming majority of Britain’s politicians and political parties are pro-EU.

Then consider journalism. The bbc, by far Britain’s most influential news source, is pro-EU, airing only the other night an EU-funded documentary that warned of poverty, war and general mayhem if the process of EU integration was to come to a halt. The vast majority of Britain’s newspapers—the Sun, the Times, the Guardian, the Independent and the Mirror—are all pro-EU. Only the Telegraph and Daily Express are against it.

In business, the opinions are far more mixed. However the loudest voices, like the Confederation of British Industry, tend to be pro-EU. And on the left, trade unions are also very keen on Britain’s EU membership.

Even Britain’s religious leaders are EU supporters. The Church of England produced a guide for British Christians to use in the upcoming election. While the church is forced to obfuscate its language somewhat, its support for the EU is clear.

“[T]he illusion that a nation can flourish without strong international alliances distorts the bigger picture of our shared humanity,” Church of England bishops warn in their letter.

“English churchmen worked tirelessly to promote understanding and cooperation between the European churches and to encourage the political institutions of the European nations to work for the common good and focus on what they shared, not what divided them,” they write regarding the foundation of the EU.

This support goes back decades. In 1972, as Britain prepared to join what became the EU, the church published “Britain in Europe: the Social Responsibility of the Church,” a document gushing with praise for the “brilliant and innovating creators” of the EU.

From abroad, we get the same message. Obviously EU leaders encourage Britain to remain in the Union. But the most powerful man in the world, in theory at least, United States President Barack Obama, also encourages Britain to remain in the EU.

Given the overwhelming support for the EU from all aspects of British leadership, it is amazing that opposition to the EU is as strong as it is. The people who make our laws are pro-EU. So are the people we watch on tv in the evening, those we turn to for news, and even those who preach on Sunday.

Many today talk about how Britain signed up for a free-trade union only to find itself a member of an aspiring superstate. That may be true of Britain’s voters—who were promised that this was about free trade and nothing more—but it is not true of Britain’s leaders. They knew exactly what they were signing up for.

In 1971, the Foreign Office wrote a memo advising the government that EU membership would mean the “transfer of major executive responsibilities to the bureaucratic commission in Brussels.” This, it said, “will exacerbate popular feelings of alienation from government.” The Foreign Office concluded that “there would be a major responsibility on HMG and on all political parties not to exacerbate public concern by attributing unpopular measures or unfavorable economic developments to the remote and unmanageable workings of the [European] Community.”

Britain’s EU membership, then, is something foisted on the nation by the consensus of its leaders. It was made possible only by those at the top—the political leaders—hiding the true nature of membership from voters.

In other words, Britain’s EU membership is Britain’s fault. The EU did not dupe our leaders into membership—they entered wide-eyed and willingly. The EU did not force Britain in. We cannot blame foreign interference.

That fact is not talked about enough. Even if British voters dragged their leadership out of the Union in a referendum, the same people would still be in charge at home. The core problem would remain, and many more poor decisions would follow.

I’d not thought about this point enough myself, until I heard a recent speech by Douglas Carswell.

“I don’t think there’s any mileage … in blaming Brussels,” he cautioned at a recent Bruges Group meeting. “It’s a homegrown problem. It’s entirely the result of sclerotic thinking in Westminster. It is entirely a failure of our own political leadership in this country to think up some fresh alternatives.”

He continued:

This country’s political system once produced some pretty extraordinary and remarkable people: Winston Churchill, who saved this country from fascism; Clement Attlee, the founder of the welfare state—an impressive man in a very quiet way …; Margret Thatcher, who I think saved this country from socialism.

He went on to mourn the lack of “vision and verve and imagination and character” in today’s politicians.

While Attlee probably wouldn’t make my list of top three British prime ministers, Carswell’s point is a good one. Britain once produced great leaders—now it does not.

“O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err,” God warns in the book of Isaiah. That’s exactly what we see in Britain. And that’s a far bigger problem than EU membership.