Just Another Episode
In Britain recently politics has entered a rare interesting phase, the Labour Party is turning on its biggest asset and Tony Blair seems to be in real trouble with yet another record rebellion last night on his war against Iraq. Now most of us who appreciate Tony Blairs political skills, and know New Labours obvious enjoyment of power, dont think anything bad will come to Tony. However, there is a certain nip in the air that we have never felt before. Why is Tony in trouble over a few Arabs half way round the world when he has not been in trouble over his treatment of firemen or freeloading refugees?
The Rock Around Which Everything Shifts
The key to understanding the present ructions within Britain is in our relationship beyond the pond. A certain breed of professional politicians are obsessed with foreign policy, and the higher up they are the more they seem to care about it. The biggest foreign policy issue that Britain has to deal with is how it treats America. Seemingly massive moves such as decolonisation and entering Europe have been made largely round this central issue. Suez made it clear that America would not back its main Cold War allies in maintaining their overseas empires, and so Britain talked of winds of change and pulled down the Union Jack in countries around the world.
The Mickey Mouse Club
Europe was also an American cause. Forget the pious platitudes about never again having wars in the European continent; the European Union was useful to America as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. The French and Italians were kept on side although this needed strengthening. With the gradual rise of the Communists in Italy and the anti-Americanism of De Gaulle in the 1960s a pro-American bulwark was needed in Europe as well as the understandably understated West Germans. And so Britain was encouraged to go into Europe by the Americans, a role which the Americans have kept urging on to her ally.
The Conservative Party in Britain was the first to respond to these urgings. The Conservative party is a nationalist party with a small n, so it may not be obvious why it was the keenest of the big two parties to give away such large slabs of sovereignty. The Cold War and the consequent need to be close to America were a major reason. Of course a Tory attachment to free trade, a belief that the more free market orientation of Europe would serve as an example to Britain (yes really) and a genuine commitment to Europe by a tiny group including the ex-Mosleyite Kenneth Clarke all played their part. However it was the wish of America for Britain to be involved in Europe that turned that most pro-American Tory Harold Macmillan from a Euro-Sceptic to a Euro-enthusiast and he took his (then far more respectful) party with him.
Return to Sanity
Euro-scepticism should not then be seen as a lapse from the historic Tory tradition, simply as a return to this tradition. It was no coincidence that the great conservative nationalist Enoch Powell saw Russia as less of an ideological threat and more of a great power, while at the same time seeing the surrender of sovereignty implicit within the European Union treaties as unnecessary and therefore wrong. The Conservative Party has simply come round to his point of view. When Russia became a normal state then the reason for British involvement in a deeper Europe disappeared. So it is similarly no great coincidence that the formerly strongly pro-European Margaret Thatcher should make the Bruges speech in the dying days of the Cold War. Of course the pro-European grandees could put up a very effective rear guard action and depose her (and hold her successor hostage) but they could not keep the party. The Conservatives needed a very good reason to depart from their instincts and go further into Europe, and that very good reason left world politics in 1991.
The American connection didnt just do strange things to the Conservatives. The Labour Party has been more affected by the issue. Until the 1980s the Labour Party was a broadly Atlanticist Party like the Tories. Going into the 1979 election there were three main views on foreign policy, a small but growing and dedicated brand of staunch Atlanticists with Shirley Williams as a figurehead who were strongly pro-Europe and pro-nuclear. Then there was a classic anti-communist centre who although definitely pro-NATO were sceptical of American adventures and Europe, and some of whom were even worried about nuclear adventures. It was this school of Labour Party thought that kept Britain out of Vietnam, although firmly within NATO. Finally there was the left, which was neutralist; opposed to Europe, nuclear weapons and American bases they were the hard cases.
A Party Is Born
The 1979 election led to a loss to what many saw as a phenomenally unattractive opponent. Not only had Margaret Thatcher campaigned from the right but also she was shrill and dressed like a super market manageress. The Labour Party looked at itself and asked, "Where did we go wrong"? Of course to some the answer was obvious, the Conservatives won on radicalism (in fact they didnt, but it would have rather spoiled the fun) so the Labour Party is also going to be radical. In the 1980 Blackpool conference the Labour Party voted for nuclear disarmament and European withdrawal the two great neutralist totems. There then was a leadership election where the centrist Dennis Healey was beaten by the neutralist Michael Foot. This scared the wits out of the Atlanticists and councils of war were held with the newly unelected Shirley Williams, the now former foreign secretary David Owen (later of the Vance-Owen plan) and the former European commissioner Roy Jenkins. The SDP was born. This was a party who on the face of it was about "breaking the mould of British politics" with a raft of centrist policies, including of course full support for America and engagement within Europe. The real aim to some was more modest, quite simply divide Labours vote until Labour came to her senses.
Taking Back the Party
Three elections later the SDP got what it wanted, Labour out of power for a generation. Even after the neutralist leader, Neil Kinnock, tore up his unilateralist pledges and called for more engagement in Europe the party could still not get back into power in the last case mainly as a result of the Shadow Chancellor promising higher taxes. So Labour did the inexplicable, it voted in the same shadow chancellor that had lost them the election. This man was John Smith, who was one of the Atlanticists who had stayed within the party. Quite quickly Labours defence and European policies, already substantially moderated by Kinnock, were Atlanticised. Two of his greatest apostles the axis around which the present government turns; Gordon Brown and (although a less reliable Atlanticist) Tony Blair. Labour is back in the fold.
This is what last nights revolt was about. The great Labour debate on foreign policy has come back to the fore. Do not think that for all but a naïve handful this was a debate about the morality of Iraq, Israel or chemical weapons. It is not. The issue is Britains relationship with America, the rock around which all British politics eventually turns. Whether this has the power to rent apart the party in the same way that Europe tore apart the Tories remains to be seen.