"Some sort of referendum now appears inevitable, whether triggered by treaty change or because of manifesto commitments". Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Only a referendum can solve Britain's European impasse

A public vote offers the best prospect of responding to democratic alienation from the union, and establishing a secure platform for the UK's engagement in its future.

Eurosceptic sentiment has risen sharply in the UK, in common with pan-European trends. The proximate cause has been immigration. Membership of the EU is blamed for the unexpectedly large wave of inward migration that followed the opening up of UK labour markets to citizens of those former communist countries in eastern Europe that have joined the union since 2004.

But the British have always been ambivalent at best about the European project, a tepid attitude that is not satisfactorily explained by recourse to the legacies of the British Empire and the UK's Atlanticism. These traditional accounts of the country’s European exceptionalism ignore more important post-war political and economic factors.

The first of these has to do with sovereign power. For most of the twentieth century, the United Kingdom was an unambiguously unitary state in which executive power was strong and relatively untrammelled. It has never had a written constitution and a constitutional court with codified powers of judicial review. Multi-party government is also rare. Unlike many of its continental partners, therefore, the state has not historically been structured as a series of constraints, checks and balances.

It has prized parliamentary sovereignty over the construction of a Rechtsstaat. Critically, it did not share in the post-war endeavour to promote European cooperation on the basis of what the political theorist Jan-Wener Muller describes as "delegated powers to unelected democratic institutions and to supra-national bodies in order to lock-in liberal democratic arrangements and prevent any backsliding towards authoritarianism."

Where the founder of the European Union consciously sought to tie down the nation state in an interlocking series of internal and external constraints, in the UK, the primacy of parliament and concomitantly powerful executive government remained the lodestar of political identity. In consequence, the pooling of sovereignty in the European Union since the 1970s has been experienced as a process of loss and subjection, particularly amongst sections of the political elite.

Britain’s post-war economic history also does much to explain its Euroscepticism. The decision to join the Common Market in 1973 was a product of declinist sentiment as much as anything else: a view that Britain’s endemic economic weaknesses could only be reversed if it embraced the European social market model. Pro-Europeans in both of the major political parties saw Europe as a means of overcoming Britain’s persistent failure to secure stable class compromise and to coordinate relations between labour and capital in the national economic interest. The collapse of this project in the 1970s amid the turmoil of stagflation and class conflict, and the subsequent neo-liberal reshaping of Britain’s political economy by the Thatcher government, dealt a fatal blow to Europeanism on the right of British politics.

Today, the few remaining pro-Europeans in the Conservative Party are all grandees, slowly shuffling off the stage of history, having long since given way to the Eurosceptics who now dominate their party. Mainstream conservatives are either now dismissive and disdainful of Europe, or actively hostile to it. They are flanked by an increasingly popular, populist and bellicose Ukip, whose name belies the English nationalism at the core of its identity, fed by discontent at the state of England’s two unions, Europe and the United Kingdom.

For its part, the Labour Party followed the reverse trajectory after the 1970s, abandoning its "socialism in one nation" stance to embrace Jacques Delors’s social union in the late 1980s. New Labour then governed in a pragmatic pro-European register after 1997, but maintained a largely liberal market economy and did not need the EU to prosecute its egalitarianism, which rested on the tax and spend apparatus of the national state.

Hence it left Britain after its period of government without deeply embedded structural and political interests in the European project beyond those of the single market, and few anchors for pro-European sentiment.

Consequently, there are limited political and economic resources in contemporary Britain available to those who wish to deepen its European ties. Foreign-owned companies exporting to the single market are a major source of pro-European commitment, as are most large corporates, the trade unions and significant sections of the City. But they are likely to do no more than defend the existing settlement between the UK and Europe, not advance it.

The same is true of the Labour Party, whose space for political manoeuvre is constrained by public opinion and institutionalised Eurosceptisicm in the conservative press. The only way out of this impasse is for Britain to hold a referendum on its membership of the union. That is a matter of regret to many pro-Europeans, as it will bring uncertainty and may deter investment in the UK. But some sort of referendum now appears inevitable, whether triggered by treaty change or because of manifesto commitments entered into by the political parties ahead of the general election in 2015. A referendum will not forever settle Britain’s role in Europe, but it offers the best prospect of responding to democratic alienation from the union, and establishing a secure platform for the UK's engagement in its future.

A full version of this essay appears in Shaping a Different Europe edited by Ernst Hillebrand & Anne Maria Kellner

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

Photo: André Spicer
Show Hide image

“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.