David Cameron’s Bloomberg address  was one of the most vacuous speeches ever heralded as a major policy statement. In between the sub-Churchillian rhetoric about our “island story”, it made three points. We already knew that the Prime Minister wants to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the European Union and that he intends to follow the renegotiation with a national referendum. He promised that the long-anticipated test of public opinion would ask the question: “In or out?” Tory Europhobes – who resent J S Mill’s description of the Conservatives “as by the law of their existence the stupidest party” – might suggest what other question a referendum on the EU could possibly ask.
They should also consider why the Prime Minister’s aims were described in windy generalities. The audience at which the speech was aimed knows exactly what it wants. So does Cameron. Douglas Carswell, Bill Cash and Mark Reckless tell him with tireless regularity. They share his view that the “rules restricting our labour markets are not some naturally recurring phenomenon”. But they go on to give the platitude meaning by demanding the repeal, or emasculation, of the Working Time Directive that, in Britain’s case, allows a working week of more than 48 hours only if the employee freely agrees.
Nor did Cameron have anything to say about “benefit tourism”, a topic that induces near hysteria at Conservative conferences, even though its opponents base their case on a misinterpretation of reciprocal welfare rights that is as grotesque as their claims about net migration from the EU. The Prime Minister knows that the Europhobes want repeal, and yet he did not promise to demand even a revision of the treaty article that established the free movement of labour. Cameron was strong on generalities but weak on particulars.
The reason for his reticence is clear. He knows that the Europhobes’ demands are unattainable but he lacks the courage to say so. As a result, he has encouraged the belief that he proposes to embark on a renegotiation that he knows would be doomed before it began. It is the price he pays for security of tenure. Flexible Tory moderates such as Malcolm Rifkind (my Scottish organiser whenI was director of the Campaign for a European Political Community) have congratulated the Prime Minister on uniting his party. That unity will not survive the realisation that the Bloomberg address was less a policy statement than advertising copy, intended to deceive without actually lying.
Yet there are changes – budget reform, democratic accountability and energy policy – that need to be made within the Union. Cameron’s political posturing has reduced his prospects of playing a meaningful part in bringing them about. No doubt he would claim, if asked, that he will be far more successful in changing Europe’s direction than we were in 1974, when – in Jim Callaghan’s words – he (the foreign secretary) made the big speeches and I (his minister of state) stayed up all night to argue about them. Yet there are valuable lessons to be learned from the experience of almost 40 years ago.
Then, as now, the rest of what we once called the European Economic Community (EEC) wanted the UK to remain a member. Had Britain left in 1974, Denmark and Ireland would have gone, too, leaving only the original six signatories to the Treaty of Rome struggling to establish a collective identity. Despite the troubles of the eurozone, Europe is more self-confident than it was then. There is now a higher price to be paid for exhibiting insular superiority. Callaghan’s objection to Gaston Thorn, the prime minister of Luxembourg and president of the Council of Ministers, representing oil-rich Britain at an international energy conference set the renegotiation back by weeks. Cameron’s arrogant assumption that he can change the Union guarantees a bumpy ride.
The decidedly limited achievements of the Callaghan renegotiation were in areas where one of three rules applied: consistency with the idea on which the EEC was built, the avoidance of material damage to other member nations and postponement of extra cost until some long-distant date. There was also the occasional willingness to indulge a harmless British foible. The principle of a budget rebate – implemented at Margaret Thatcher’s insistence in 1984, but negotiated by Callaghan – was accepted under the “long-distance rule”. The importing of New Zealand butter was agreed as a concession to Britain’s imperial nostalgia.
Unfortunately for Cameron and his Europhobic backbenchers, none of the changes that have been bruited about can be justified under any of the definitions of acceptability that will be criteria for change in Europe in 2015, as they were in 1974. The notion that they could is as much the result of ignorance as arrogance. The Working Time Directive, like so much of the despised “regulation”, is essential to the single market that Thatcher agreed with Jacques Delors in 1992, and that most Tories still want to preserve. If the employers in one country could undercut the costs of employers in another by sweating their workers, competition would become no more than a race to the bottom of the social responsibility league.
Cameron cannot – however craven his instincts – negotiate the new European deal that he has encouraged the Europhobes to expect. So, in 2015, given the chance, he is bound to fail the men and women whose support he hoped the Bloomberg address would buy. Happily, the British voters are going to deny him the opportunity. All the more pity that, in order to gain a brief political respite, he should prejudice inward investment to Britain and reduce our influence in the world.
Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92