More in sorrow than anger

Observations on Europe

It started with such promise, but "Britain in Europe" has definitely ended with more of a whimper than a bang. When I was persuaded to give up a career in journalism with the Financial Times to set up the campaign group in 1999 I knew it would be difficult to shift public opinion, what with the years of complacent neglect by pro-Europeans, an emergent well-funded anti-Europe campaign, and the drip-drip of hostility and outright myth-making in certain sections of the press. What I had not banked on was being in effect deserted by a government that had only recently been elected on a promise to win popular support for Britain taking a leading role in Europe.

Some say the government should have called a snap referendum on the euro straight after winning the election in 1997. Tony Blair's extraordinary appeal at that time might well have been decisive. Yet that would have been to cheat the electorate, because we need to take such an important decision only after full exposure to the arguments. Nor would there have been a lasting settlement, because people would soon feel they had been bounced. In any case, after 18 years of opposition, Labour had more urgent priorities.

When I took responsibility for building a pro-European campaign, I fully understood this context. I saw that the decision would have to wait until a second term; it was made clear to me that our purpose was to prepare for the future. So those pro-Europeans eager to reverse a decade of damage to our national interest done by Margaret Thatcher's belligerence and John Major's empty-chair policy were encouraged to hold fire, to stockpile ammunition until battle was finally joined.

Indeed, those in the historic coalition we put together were remarkably patient. Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke were prepared to damage their Tory credibility by sitting either side of the Prime Minister at the launch of BiE in the knowledge that we were creating a paper tiger, at least for the moment. Business leaders, trade unionists, Liberal Democrats and ordinary people across the UK flocked to join an army that could not yet march.

The first signs that we might never fight at all came in the early days of the second term. We had assumed that then was the moment, but we were publicly told to "cool it" until ministers were ready. The problem was, they never were ready.

Herein lies the problem that "Britain in Europe" suffered. No other pro-European voice could be heard until the government decided the time was right. It was government ministers who would assess the five tests on the euro that might trigger a euro vote, they who would - wrongly - shift the debate from the euro to the constitution, and therefore they who could inhibit the efforts of others to make the case.

There were several chances to initiate momentum, yet the government never missed an opportunity to miss the opportunity to start a campaign.

Now, about to assume the presidency of the EU, and at a moment when Europe needs strong leadership, the government finds that it has little room for manoeuvre. Its ability to lead is limited by the need to keep looking over its shoulder at what the anti-European press is saying. Until another campaign is launched in another context, the anti-Europeans will keep holding Britain back.

Simon Buckby was director of Britain in Europe (1999-2003)

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Smokescreen