Whisper: no surrender

The Tories' new "bland" Euroscepticism faces its first challenge

If there is one subject that is guaranteed to clench a Tory buttock more than grammar schools, it is Europe (along, of course, with immigration and inheritance tax). In his successful leadership campaign, David Cameron made one memorable commitment: to remove his Conservative MEPs from the European People's Party group in the European Parliament. Talk has intensified that all this may have been just a tactic to win over the right of the party at a time when a Cameron victory looked a distant dream.

The leadership has already incensed many in the rank and file by announcing a delay in the grand departure from the EPP for two more years. The official excuse is that the Czech Civic Democrats, with whom the Tories have signed a deal, say they will help them build a new alliance only after the European elections in 2009. So, given his propensity to discard uncomfortable policies, and with Tony Blair's last European summit days away, where exactly does Cameron stand on Europe?

The Conservative Research Department has long been a hotbed of Euroscepticism: indeed, there was a time when asking a girl where she stood on Europe was considered to be an acceptable chat-up line in the Tories' Westminster watering hole, the Marquis of Granby. In these surroundings, to accuse someone of being pro-European is worse than accusing someone of beating up blind orphans. Under Cameron, these passions have been abated. Green issues and social responsibility are more in vogue, and among the slightly younger generation of MPs there is a reluctance to say much about it at all.

"We watched William Hague learn to his cost in 2001," says a Cameron aide. "Europe is not a vote winner; you will not catch Dave holding up pound coins for photo ops." The line on Europe will instead be steady, calculated and rather bland, to the chagrin of old-school Eurosceptics, whose threats to defect to the UK Independence Party are not taken lightly.

Frau Frump

One further irritant is the poor relations with Germany's ruling Christian Democrats. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, allegedly warned Cameron that she would freeze rela-tions with him if he did not show up at an EPP summit just before the December 2005 European Council meeting. Cameron did not attend, citing a diary commitment in Northern Ireland. "The fact is that relations between Merkel and Cameron have not been frozen," says a shadow minister, before conceding: "They are, however, disappointed."

One refreshingly candid female Tory press officer with an eye for detail says of Merkel: "No one who dresses like that should be able to insist we turn up at summits." (She could have been referring to any of Frau Merkel's recent G8 ensembles, but it was probably the sludge-green top teamed with an unfortunate trouser which sagged and clung in all the wrong places.)

Brown is already distancing himself from matters EU, preferring to talk about India, China and Africa. Cameron, too, is not going to fall into the trap of dealing with uncomfortable Euro issues when he could be talking about poverty in Calcutta. A Cameron aide says: "France and Germany still do matter terribly, and we believe that France is revived under [the new president, Nicolas] Sarkozy. But it is also a significant fact that because the Dutch have changed their views, new forces are emerging in Europe which have a different take, a take that is closer to ours."

Turn up the heat

Yet events will force Cameron's hand, just as they will Brown's, especially if Blair - for all his demands for opt-outs - agrees in principle to a reworked constitutional treaty. Tory sources say they will "turn up the heat" on Brown every day between now, this month's summit and an intergovernmental conference scheduled for the end of the year, when a constitutional treaty is likely to be finalised. Senior Tories say they will demand a referendum on any constitution that transfers significant powers to Brussels.

The word at Conservative headquarters is that Brown has deliberately kept the Treasury out of the loop on summit preparations and is relieved not to be going. With the Eurosceptic press urging the incoming prime minister not to "surrender", and to reverse Blair's "treachery", Brown is looking for as much wiggle room as he can to get out of anything Blair signs up to.

Whatever the tensions with Merkel, Tories are furious about what they see as a canard being spread by that invet erate Europhile MP, Denis MacShane, that Sarkozy is similarly dismissive of his UK centre-right counterpart. "It's utter rubbish," says one adviser. "Cameron has met Sarkozy twice now and they got on very well."

Cameron's official ardour for Sarko is matched by the numerous party HQ girls who consider Sarko's "strangely simian but Gallic glint" to be quite a heart-stopper.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times