"Some sort of referendum now appears inevitable, whether triggered by treaty change or because of manifesto commitments". Photograph: Getty Images.
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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 the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.