There are many reasons why the British are so unenthusiastic about their membership of the European Union. But one reason is ignorance about what it involves – and a major reason for this ignorance is a curious accident of party politics. Experience shows that if a party wants to be successful in Britain, it must present a united front. Any sign of serious disagreement within it is a sure vote loser. Now, it so happens that, right from the start of Britain’s entry into the EU 27 years ago, there have been ‘pro-European’ and ‘anti-European’ factions in both of the country’s two biggest parties – factions whose beliefs are so strong there has been no hope of a rapprochement between them. Whenever an election comes round, these two parties have had nothing to gain and everything to lose by bringing up the matter of the EU. So they don’t. As a result, the matter never gets an airing and there is never any sensible public debate.

There are, however, signs that this situation is about to change. For one thing, the recent establishment of Scottish and Welsh parliaments has helped to force the question of national identity to the top rank of the political agenda. For another, the two parties, for once, have clearly different policies on one particular EU question. The governing Labour party wants to join the single European currency as soon as circumstances are deemed to be suitable, while the opposition Conservative party has ruled this out until for at least another five years.

Opinion polls show that the Conservatives’ anti-euro policy is the only one of theirs which is more popular than Labour’s. They may therefore be tempted to take a strong and more general anti-European stance in the election campaign which is expected this year. This will make it impossible for Labour to keep the matter away from the spotlight. Mindful of this, Prime Minister Tony Blair has instructed his ministers to make speeches about ‘standing up for Britain’ (a phrase more commonly associated with the Conservatives). His aim is to ‘steal the Union Jack’ from the Conservatives, traditionally regarded as the party of patriotism. Labour has been heartened by research showing that the institution which British people feel best represents the nation’s values is the National Health Service, which was a Labour creation (and strongly opposed by the Conservatives when it was first set up). It plans to promote a broader and more sophisticated view of patriotism. If these plans are put into action, we may at last witness a proper public discussion about Britain’s relationship with the EU. On the other hand, Labour may use its new patriotic stance to try and deflect attention from anything as ‘narrow’ and specific as the EU.

accident: bijkomstigheid.

to get an airing: behandeld worden.

stance (hier): standpunt, houding.

to stand up for: opkomen voor.

Union Jack: Britse vlag, vlag van het Verenigd Koninkrijk.

Reageren op dit artikel kan u door een e-mail te sturen naar Uw reactie wordt dan mogelijk meegenomen in het volgende nummer.

Partner Content