It was one of the most impressive cross-party gatherings of British politicians in some time: a prime minister at the height of his power and popularity, from the opposition a former chancellor and deputy prime minister – two of the country’s most recognisable political figures – and just for good measure the charismatic leader of the country’s third party. The reason for the unusual coalition was Europe, and Britain’s place in it. It was 1999, two years into a Labour government that had taken a far more pro-European position than its Conservative predecessor. In Tony Blair Britain had a prime minister that saw his country at the heart of Europe and who enthusiastically backed the euro.
“Once in each generation,” said Blair, “the case for Britain in Europe needs to be remade, from first principles. The time for this generation is now.” Except it wasn’t. Over the following 11 years of Labour government, Britain failed to take the European leadership role Blair had envisaged and, more importantly, did little to persuade the British people that Europe was a good thing.
The European debate in Britain has shifted dramatically since 1999. The euro dream has died a death and the biggest question on Europe is now whether the country should remain in the European Union at all. Later this month, prime minister David Cameron is expected to give a speech in the Netherlands that could lead to a referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
Part of the reason it has come to this is that the pro-European forces in Britain have failed to make their case. The majority of senior politicians, even those in the Conservative party, believe Britain’s membership in the European Union is overwhelmingly positive. So too do most business leaders and trades unions. But they rarely say so. Blair often claimed he was prepared to fight but it was a scrap he was always strangely reluctant to actually start. Neither of his successors, nor indeed any major political figure on the left or in the centre, have shown any willingness to do any more.
In this vacuum the tabloid press and the Atlanticist, Eurosceptic right has continued to bash the very idea of Europe. It is costly, they argue, bureaucratic, and what’s more – who do these people in Brussels think they are telling us what to do? The idea that Britain would be better off on its own – a Switzerland with nuclear weapons – may be ignorant, may be foolish, may be dangerous, but it is increasingly popular and will remain so until a similar coalition to that brought together in 1999 is created once again.
Yet here’s the problem. Were a comparable group of pro-Europeans to be brought together today there would be few new names, few big beasts. In fact, it would probably include the same faces from 1999. The biggest fear is not that Britain’s pro-Europeans are merely quiet; it’s that not enough of them still exist.
Steve Bloomfield is foreign editor for Monocle.