»  National Review Online

June 12th, 2001

  Fog Over Channel


Like the rest of you, I watched last week's U.K. election results with deep gloom. This was not entirely native interest. The U.S. and the U.K. tend to move in sync politically, though with a year or two's lag now and then. In 1964 you got Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society; we got Harold Wilson's socialists with their promise to "seize the commanding heights" of the British economy. Your pendulum then swung to the half-hearted managerial conservatism of Dick Nixon; ours to the bossy corporatism of Ted Heath. In 1979 we elected a fearless conservative, Margaret Thatcher; twenty months later, Ronald Reagan assumed the U.S. presidency. Our conservative revolution then passed into the hands of those with lesser conviction (or none, some unkind people might say); so did yours. You ended up at last with "triangulating" Bill Clinton sneering at "right-wing conspiracies"; we got Tony Blair preaching his "third way" ("triangulating" … "third way" … see?) and railing against "the forces of conservatism" (though admittedly the lag there was 4 years).

So what happened on June 7th? In a nutshell: 35 per cent of the British electorate voted for either Blair's center-left Labour Party or else for the Liberals, who are extreme left (no kidding: the Liberal platform included a pledge to raise taxes). About half that number, 18 per cent, voted for the Conservative Party. 6 per cent voted for others, 41 per cent did not vote at all. Ideologically speaking, it was a landslide: nearly three-fifths of those who bothered to vote went for the center-left or far left. And in fact, since most of those "other" parties (Welsh, Scottish and Irish nationalists) have socialist programs, and line up with Labour in Parliamentary votes much more often than not, that three-fifths is probably more like two-thirds.

The main consequence of Blair's re-election will be on his country's policy towards the European Union, most immediately on whether the pound sterling will be abandoned in favor of the euro — that is, the common European currency. The pro-euro forces have some psychological advantage, since the losing Conservative Party made "saving the pound" a key theme of their election campaign. The rejection of the Conservatives seems to indicate that British people do not care very much about "saving the pound." However, Blair has promised a separate referendum on the euro, and while Britons may have had other things on their minds in the general election, opinion polls that isolate the euro issue show steady large majorities against dropping the pound. In the 15-member EU, only three countries have not adopted the euro: Britain, Sweden and Denmark (whose voters rejected it in a referendum last September). Euro coins and notes go into circulation in January next year in the other 12.

In a way, the current of opinion against the euro is contrary to the general sentiment of the British towards European integration, which has from the beginning favored the "economic" side of the thing — Europe as a free trade area — while remaining deeply suspicious of the "political" side — Europe as a mega-state under federal government. The adoption of a single currency is an obvious next step towards economic integration. In a second-hand bookstore in Provincetown, Mass. once, I saw an arithmetic textbook from the colonial period, full of exercises in converting from Massachusetts currency to Rhode Island currency, and so on. The introduction of a single currency in these United States made sound economic sense, and the same would be true in Europe.

Nor can those anti-euro majorities be depended on. The British are far less aloof from European affairs than they were thirty years ago (when there is said to have been a newspaper headline reading: "Fog Over Channel: Continent Isolated"). Outside some tiny cliques of conservative intellectuals and somewhat larger numbers of illiterate soccer hooligans, deep national feeling is mainly confined to the over-60s, who can remember WW2. The nation has bred swarms of buff, breezy young technocrats — financial analysts, database modelers, marketing consultants and the like — who are as comfortable working in Milan or Frankfurt as in Manchester or Bristol. Even less well-educated people have been acclimatized. My brother-in-law is a truck driver in the English Midlands, who for years has been making weekly trips into Belgium, Holland and north Germany. Europe is not a strange place to him. When, after next January, these people have become accustomed to handling euro-bills and coins, their resistance will weaken. Blair, relying on this, will time his referendum accordingly.

The debate about the euro is, of course, not really about what it is "about." With the single currency, the EU has gone pretty much as far as it can go in purely economic integration. Further advances must be political, involving the surrender of national decision-making in fiscal and social matters to Euro-bureaucrats. That is a much harder sell to Anglo-Saxons, to whom self-government means something more than a cycle of street rioting followed by a shiny new Constitution every generation or two. (Britain in fact still has no written Constitution.) Our French and German neighbors have always been great system-builders, with an annoying habit of taking everything to no-exceptions! conceptual extremes that eventually blow up in their faces. We are by temperament more practical. If something works, and obviously makes life easier, we'll adopt it, but we won't use it as a basis for deducing large general principles, or for abandoning other, conceptually inconsistent, methods whose worth has been proved by centuries of practice. Clearly the present state of comity among the nations of Europe is a great and happy advance over the previous 1,500 years of recurrent warfare. Clearly economic co-operation has worked. It is not clear to British people, however, why it follows that, for example (this one from a recent speech by the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin), Europe needs a common welfare system. If a little of something is good, it does not follow that twice as much is twice as good. The Europeans, who are supposed to be much better cooks than the British (erroneously, in my opinion — they are merely better restaurateurs), surely know that you don't salt your stew on this principle.

The Celts, too, seem to be having second thoughts about Europe. Until recently, Ireland was the most enthusiastic EU member. Last week, however, the Irish rejected the Treaty of Nice in a referendum. This pact (whose name contains the potential to baffle as many generations of schoolchildren as the Diet of Worms) does not, as you might think, oblige the European countries to be pleasant to each other. Its purposes are to adjust EU voting procedures in favor of the bigger countries, to start work on a European defense force, and to lay some necessary groundwork for the eventual admission of 12 new members into the Union. The Irish rejection is in part a natural reaction to Ireland's much improved economic status. The EU has always been a good deal for poor countries, since they receive "transfer payments" — subsidies — from richer ones. The booming Irish economy has, however, now brought Ireland into the ranks of the richer member states. All but two of the 12 new candidate members are recovering communist countries in eastern and south-eastern Europe and the Baltic, still very poor. Further, the European Commission recently reprimanded the Irish for the pro-growth, low-tax fiscal policies that have brought the country her new prosperity, on the grounds that those policies were unfair to other member states trying to maintain higher rates of taxation. This annoyed the Irish; and the defense proposals go against the grain of their traditional neutralism.

Lurking behind all this are larger issues, some of which, in the prevailing structure of taboos, are like the things Tam O'Shanter saw: "Which even to name would be unlawful." Europe is the homeland of the white non-Moslem peoples, which are hated over large parts of the world, from the Cincinnati ghetto to the mosques of Teheran, from the shanties of Zimbabwe to the college campuses of Delhi and Beijing. The Europeans are, further, declining in numbers and, even more obviously, and notwithstanding those muddled and contentious proposals for unified armies, in self-confidence and the willingness to defend themselves. They may have brought a happy end to their own wars, but other regions still have a lot of very old-fashioned history to be worked out, and much of that working-out will involve ethnic conflict and the settling of ancient scores. In Arabic, Europeans are still referred to by a word that means "Crusader." The Chinese, at the merest provocation, will start shrieking at you about the Anglo-French burning of the Summer Palace in 1860.

Shall Europe, with her feeble birth rates and vitality-sapping welfare systems, ever be able to present a determined, united front towards those who wish her ill for reasons of racial or historical grievance? Stronger political union and a common defense would seem to be necessary, but will they also be sufficient? Single nations, when faced with these kinds of challenges, have survived — when they have survived — by making appeals to patriotism. Is there enough of a European patriotism to be of service when history takes a wrong turn, as sooner or later it surely will? If there is not such a thing, can it be created? If it can be, will the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic corner of the continent subscribe to it? Probably the answers to these questions will not become pressing until our children's or grandchildren's time; but they are beginning to be shaped today.