So I read Tim “Not the Doctor” Shipman’s All Out War instabook on the referendum campaign and after. Shipman argues strongly for the continued importance of the old 90s Tory Eurosceptics in the whole thing – this is partly a consequence of his method, writing down stuff MPs tell him, but I think also a useful insight. Whatever happened in the country, in Westminster, David Cameron only called the damn referendum to please them and therefore you have to accept their agency.
More importantly, though, beginning the history in 1991-ish explains something very important. Stephen Bush says the talks are stalling because the government doesn’t know what it wants. This is a consequence of the broader problem, which is that the Eurosceptics don’t know what it is about the European Union they’re actually against.
Tory Euroscepticism was launched or relaunched as a project in order to oppose British membership of the Euro. When they got angry about “the veto”, the veto they were angry about was the one on economic and monetary union. When they quibbled about the details of qualified-majority voting, the issue that QMV was going to apply to was the economic and monetary union. When they argued that having one’s own currency was a defining attribute of sovereignty, that’s what they were arguing. I remember them remaining convinced we were secretly joining the Euro deep into the Blair years. The Euro was the issue. You cannot overstate the importance of opposing the Euro in creating the style, institutions, and personal networks involved.
The problem, however, was that John Major had already shot their fox way back in 1992. The UK wasn’t joining the Euro, didn’t join the Euro, will not do so in the future.
But you can’t unring a bell. A while ago I happened to discover a friend of mine was wearing fluorescent yellow underpants. Ever since, I can’t see him or think of him without wondering: has he got the hi-viz undercrackers on? Are they just for special occasions, or does he have half a dozen identical pairs? It’s impossible not to speculate. He could burn them, but it still wouldn’t change anything. He is indelibly associated with the possibility of day-glo drawers. Making an enemy of the prime minister is a bit like that. As Winston Churchill said, precisely about betraying your political party, you can rat but you can’t re-rat.
And so they had to keep going. There was no way to undo the offence caused or to rebuild the trust destroyed. That’s why so many people in All Out War seem to be on a personal mission to get their own back on Major; because they were. Having made an enemy of the prime minister and the Conservative Party both, the only option was to stay hypermobilised forever if they wanted to keep their political careers. There is a hugely important political lesson here – stump-dumb stubbornness and North Korean Mass Games loyalty often work, especially in intra-party politics.
With the Euro fox shot, they had to find something else to be furious about. The something else varied, as you’d expect from a belief that existed solely because it was useful. The enduring core, the tao, of the movement could be summed up as hating the prime minister and wanting a referendum. Prime ministers are by definition electable, the products of the electoral system. The Eurosceptics knew they couldn’t win through the normal electoral system (Nigel Farage’s seven failed candidacies are a case in point), so they sought something they could win, hence the obsession with a referendum on something, anything, even the Amsterdam Treaty.
This explains the odd vague quality of the whole business. Are they against the single market? Not really. Are they against freedom of movement? Yes, but not if that means any change. Do they want a libertarian race to the bottom? Not really, they want to have mutually recognised (i.e. the same) regulations.
It also explains a lot about David Cameron. It was often said about him that he was “really a Eurosceptic” or some such. More precisely, he adopted some of the style tropes but didn’t commit himself to any particular content. But how could he have done so? There was none. That was what was so attractive. So he repeatedly pulled on his Eurosceptic jacket when he wanted more power or more money, taking advantage of the fact it didn’t commit him to any specific course of action. Once he got what he wanted, he stripped it off and went back to his purple webcam modern dad self-presentation. This worked very well for him until it didn’t.
And one important feature of being against the EU in general but not in particular is that it allows the imagination a great deal of free play. This works well from a campaigning point of view – you can pretend the 35 hour week is in force, or that the EU is secretly trying to replace the army – but it’s problematic when the rubber meets the road, because the other side of the table can’t make concessions on things you only pretend exist.
Precisely because he – and they – couldn’t specify what they were actually against, they had a lot of difficulty forming a strategy to “renegotiate”. To begin with, all they could think of was weak-sauce stuff from the late 90s like opting out of the working time directive. This must surely have been something they remembered being in the papers back in the day. It was only later in the process that they hit on immigration, not least because Theresa May’s own version of sucking up to the far right and then doing what you want anyway now began to get in the way.
But Cameron was now committed to renegotiate a relationship he didn’t meaningfully want to change, and then hold a referendum on the results. How could that ever work?