How rational is left-wing politics in Britain?
In truth, there never was a British left-wing economic rationale against the EU, and in time the British left abandoned the argument
In the heat of political debate and disagreement, it is easy to lose sight of any evidence for or against hotly contested issues; or indeed to know whether a political belief has any evidence to support it.
But outside the immediacy of hot debate—after forty years, for example—the rationality of politics can be seen in some perspective.
Consider the Labour Party’s position forty years ago on membership of the EU, or the EEC as it was then called.
The majority of Labour MPs, but particularly those on the left such as Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Eric Heffer, opposed the EU because they believed or claimed it was a capitalist plot against the workers. Forty years ago, the British left were united in their opposition to what they saw as a European “capitalist conspiracy.”
But why did the British left believe this? Was there any evidence that the EU was more capitalist than Britain was at that time? After all, it was well known that France and Germany, for example, had generous pension and welfare provisions and that the EU was strongly centralised. So in what sense was the EU particularly capitalist?
Back in the seventies, I often discussed this issue with left-wing colleagues. In what way, I would ask, is the EU particularly capitalist or a “businessman’s club”? Where is the evidence for a “capitalist conspiracy”?
The usual answer was always along the lines of, “Are you blind? Obviously the Common Market favours the capitalists. It’s obviously against the workers,” or some such sloganised Dave Spart cliché.
But no, this EU “businessman’s club” image wasn’t obvious. After all, even back in the seventies the European Union was a vast bureaucracy, with gold-plated final salary pensions and generous allowances for its employees, the sort of arrangement the British left supported.
In fact the EU had exactly the sort of political culture Tony Benn and Eric Heffer were trying to establish in Britain – a centralised state, generous with taxpayers’ money to public sector employees and favoured boondoggle projects.
In fact, I had some experience of the EU’s prodigal use of taxpayers’ money. In the mid seventies I applied for a job (advertised throughout the EU) as a junior translator. Interviews by a panel of eight were held in every capital city in the EU. Eight bureaucrats travelled around all the capitals of Europe for three months, put up at smart hotels, simply to interview for a few junior posts, all at taxpayers’ expense. This was classic Tony Benn state socialism.
So just where was the evidence of the EU as a “capitalist conspiracy”? Where did the British left, back in the seventies, get the notion of the EU being particularly capitalist?
There is one peculiarity of British socialism that has always distinguished it from the European Marxist schools. In some ways a distinction very much to its credit. British socialism has always looked backwards, haunted by ancestral voices to the seventeenth century Levellers.
The seventies British left of Tony Benn and Michael Foot saw itself very much in the Levellers tradition, fighting a moral crusade for the supremacy of the British people’s Parliament. In fact, Harold Wilson said “The Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.”
Wilson was right. But this belief in a historic “British parliament for the British people” was essentially a form of British nationalism, and British nationalism was something the left couldn’t admit to. So, in a self-deluding way it cloaked its opposition to the EU in bogus leftist terms of “capitalist exploitation”. It was always a reality-denying exercise.
The British left has always been insular and self-deluding on Europe – a fact that exposed it to easy ridicule. I remember Michael Foot on television debating with Edward Heath about the EU. Heath called Foot a “little Englander” for opposing the “internationalist” Common Market. And of course Heath had a point. The left-wing Foot was furious, but actually had no answer to Heath’s taunt.
In truth, there never was a British left-wing economic rationale against the EU, and in time the British left abandoned the argument. The capitalist conspiracy theory of the EU died a natural death in the Labour Party and nobody, not even Benn, would now attempt to revive it.
That is why, in Miliband’s party today, there is an almost complete absence of any fundamental criticism of the EU. Economically, the European Union is exactly what the Labour Party has been busy creating at home – a vast bureaucratic state, spending taxpayers’ money on dodgy overseas aid, boondoggles, gold-plated pensions for state employees, and turning European tax-payer funded national health services into world health services, open to everyone on the planet.
Why would anyone in the Labour Party object to that?
Vincent Cooper is a freelance writer
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