Charting continental drift

Britain for and Against Europe

June 4, 1999

Why do Britain and Europe so often seem like natural opposites? This collection sets out to provide a research-based analysis of British elite attitudes towards Europe, including those of trades unions, business, the civil service and the media. These analyses are wrapped around the core of the book, an analysis of parliamentary party political attitudes. This consists in large part of the written-up results of two attitudinal surveys of British parliamentarians and European issues (both sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council). Both are somewhat outdated. The joint Sheffield University/Nottingham Trent University survey, "Conservative parliamentarians and European integration" (Steve Ludlam), was carried out during the 1994 European election campaign, while "Labour parliamentarians and European integration" (David Baker and David Seawright) was conducted via four mail-administered questionnaires between November 1995 and February 1996.

The surveys nevertheless provide important snapshots of Conservative and Labour parliamentarians' attitudes during the dying days of the Conservative administration, coinciding with the rise of new Labour. In this context, Baker and Seawright identify a "cohort effect" at work within the parliamentary Labour Party and the European parliamentary Labour Party, whereby parliamentarians elected after 1983 far more strongly favour membership of the European Union and, fascinatingly, strongly favour giving the European Parliament the right to initiate legislation - something even the European Parliament no longer calls for. This is quietly heartening news for Tony Blair.

The analyses of Labour and Conservative parliamentarians are complemented by perceptive, if more historical pieces on the Liberal Democrats, and on the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Scott Clarke and John Curtice ascribe the Liberal elite's faith in Europe (despite, given grass-roots Liberal supporters' consistently negative opinions, the absence of any potential electoral advantage) to a specialised form of self-interest, a mixture of the need for party product-differentiation and the enjoyment of influence in Europe lacking at Westminster. Clarke and Curtice's potentially ominous conclusion is that "should the Liberal Democrats ever secure a real slice of power at Westminster, Britain's relations with Europe might not change as much as is often supposed".

James Mitchell similarly questions whether the Euro-enthusiasm of the SNP and Plaid would remain were they ever to face the immediate prospect of forming a government. In the meantime, he documents how the shifts in the attitudes of both parties have effectively "Europeanised" political debate in Scotland and Wales.

A general shortcoming of the collection - one which the editors themselves recognise in their concluding chapter - is that all of the analyses stop short of the 1997 general election and consequent developments (including the Conservative leadership succession and the devolution referendums). The contributors were therefore obliged to give a number of hostages to fortune. Ludlam, for example, could only make an educated guess as to which way the post-electoral wind would blow in the Conservative Party, and most of the other contributors could only impart a vague sense of impending change. There is a strong whiff of political scientists salivating, as they always have done, over the possibility of a major party realignment. But, if I may offer my own hostage to fortune, perhaps that realignment has already occurred.

Complementary chapters on the changing attitudes of Britain's "other" elites provide a great deal of thought-provoking material. Ben Rosamund develops a theoretical framework to analyse British unions' shift towards a pro-European integration stance and describes how this "Europeanisation" has, again, had knock-on effects for the political debate on the left. Justin Greenwood and Lara Stancich analyse British business's complex attitudes towards integration, providing some fascinating insights and observations.

To pluck out two examples, in 1988 the CBI recorded twice as many meetings with EC commissioners as with British ministers, while the Rover car firm (as it then was) once found that a British minister had "traded away a cherished standard on lean-burn technology as part of a deal on fisheries".

George Wilkes and Dominic Wring provide a historical account of the British press and European integration. Here again, Blair might take heart from the underlying theme of their analysis. It is competition, not ideology, that primarily motivates press barons.

Jim Buller and Martin J. Smith have penned a pioneering piece on civil service attitudes towards the EU, based on interviews conducted with a number of senior officials, which show how attitudes differ significantly across departments. While EU integration might help the Foreign and Commonwealth Office maintain its status as a lead department, the DSS (under the Major government, at least) had "a team of lawyers continually examining and contesting EU regulations".

Last but by no means least, Peter Brown Pappamikail gives a fascinating, interview-based account of Britain as viewed from Europe. A general technique of all of the contributors has been to leaven their material with elite interviews, considerably enriching their analyses. In Brown Pappamikail's case, the interviewees range from a number of former presidents of the European Parliament, to leaders of political groups and EC commissioners. The sorry tale is familiar but loses nothing in this re-telling. He perceptively points out that devolved states find the idea of a European level of governance easier to accept, and it will therefore be interesting to see how the political consequences of constitutional reform in the UK pan out.

These analyses will remain useful reference material but also provide much food for thought for those contemplating political developments over the next few years.

Martin Westlake is associate member, Centre for Legislative Studies, University of Hull, and head of unit for interinstitutional relations, European Commission, Brussels.

Britain for and Against Europe: British Politics and the Question of European Integration

Editor - David Baker and David Seawright
ISBN - 0 19 828078 5
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00
Pages - 252

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