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15 March 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 1:25pm

This referendum isn’t just David Cameron’s legacy. It’s Tony Blair’s, too

The New Labour governments' quiet pro-Europeanism left the battlefield vacated for two decades. 

By Paul Taggart and Kai Oppermann

After two weeks of campaigning, you could be forgiven for thinking that the EU referendum is an exclusively Conservative Party concern. The contest can seem to be less about the pros and cons of Brexit and more about the competition between David Cameron and Boris Johnson. This may make sense, as the debate over Europe within the Conservative Party since 1992 has been perennial, intense and internecine. For a party combining unionist nationalism and economic liberalism, there can be little surprise that a project like European integration is so difficult as it pits that political nationalism against economic internationalism. But we would be wrong to see the referendum as exclusively a Conservative affair. The roots of the referendum and the way that the United Kingdom debates Europe is as much a consequence of New Labour as the Conservatives.

The nature and very fact of the current referendum puts the UK in a unique situation. In a club of 28 we are the only member actively contemplating departure. At the other extreme, five states are candidates for membership, lining up to join. For all the expressions of Euroscepticism in other European states, we have to accept that nowhere else has the ‘hard Euroscepticism’ of membership withdrawal become part of the mainstream of politics. Why is the UK in this situation? For many Eurosceptics the argument is that UK is politically and economically special.

The reason that the UK has mainstreamed hard Euroscepticism has as much to do with its politics as its economics. It is the exceptionalism of the UK’s politics and how they have dealt with Europe that has led to the referendum and the Brexit debate.

The Conservative Party is unlike the right in many other parts of Europe. The key difference is the lack of a Christian democratic tradition in the UK.  In particular the internationalism of Christian democracy from its roots in Catholicism has meant that it is far more at ease with European integration. This is indeed the reason why many of the architects of the EU were Christian democrats.

The lack of a populist party of the right in Westminster has been another unusual feature of UK politics. In many other European states, populist radical right parties have become features of the party systems and have advocated forms of Euroscepticism. This has often reinforced a pro-European line on the part of centre right parties as a way of differentiating and distancing them from the ‘distasteful’ politics of populism. Only recently has Ukip become a significant force in UK (or more properly English) politics. But the politics of Westminster has meant that the 13 per cent vote share for  in 2015 has translated into the one seat for the party in parliament.

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The roots of the present referendum and the Brexit campaign however do not lie only with the Conservatives. The nature of New Labour and the way that it shaped (and did not shape) the European issue is also crucial. Of course Labour has had historically a divided history over Europe. It was a Labour government that initiated the last referendum over European integration in 1975. It was Labour that in 1983 campaigned on a policy of Brexit. But under New Labour we can see a shift in the party towards being more in line with its social democratic sister parties on the centre-left on the European issue. Blair came to office in 1997 a committed European and has recently berated the pro-remain campaign for lacking in passion and for failing to stand up for Europe. But it was Blair’s government that serially neglected any attempt to build a pro-European position.

The reasons for New Labour’s silence on Europe in government are not hard to discern. The short-term benefits were not obvious and the immediate advantages of leaving the Tories to vitriolic and damaging in-fighting on the issue were clear to see.  But the long-term costs were to the European debate. In effect, New Labour’s non-decisions on Europe led to the issue being framed, peopled and contested within one party. It was as if Europe was a tennis match but one that was played only on one side of the net.

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From the first day in office it seems that New Labour decided not to spend political capital on Europe. When it came to the euro, Brown’s five economic tests were an attempt to make membership a technical issue. The negative results of the tests also ruled out the need for a referendum that Labour had committed to prior to the 1997 elections as a way of matching Major’s position. Blair also did not need to challenge his chancellor and the Brownites on this issue.

The high-point of New Labour’s non-European-ness came in Tony Blair’s 2004 commitment to a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty. This was a tactical masterstroke in putting the issue out of the agenda for the subsequent election and from inoculating the party from any fall-out from it. The key to this policy was not in holding a referendum but in the fact that a referendum never had to be held.  After the Constitutional Treaty was rejected in the French and Dutch referendums, Brown was then able to distance Lisbon from the Constitutional Treaty and Blair’s referendum pledge. And in so doing avoided ever having to make the argument for Europe but also further fuelled public cynicism with the way that Europe was dealt with by Westminster parties.

What makes the UK peculiar in Europe is not the economy or its democracy. What makes it exceptional is the way its political system has contested (and not contested) one of the key issues in contemporary politics. The nature and the choices made by both major parties in Westminster have played a crucial role in that.

Paul Taggart is professor of politics at the University of Sussex. Kai Oppermann is reader in politics at the University of Sussex.