David Cameron has just had to deal with, arguably, the biggest problem of his premiership: a rebellion of some 87 of his backbench MPs on the issue of a referendum on membership of the EU. This accounts for over a quarter of his parliamentary party and was even in the face of a three line whip (which is a sign he was aware it would be contentious and was doing everything he could to minimise the fall out from the vote) and his own aversion to tabling the issue with the public.
Membership of the EU probably looks like a bad idea right now: we’re propping up failing economies all over the continent and we will never see some of that money back. We are getting economic immigrants and people who, legally, we have to allow the opportunity to work, access to healthcare and education, and benefits. Personally I am a Europhile, but even I would be in favour of a smaller, core, EU that features such luminaries as Ireland (oops), Spain (oh dear), Portugal (they might come good), Ireland (they’ve been in trouble for at least 12 years that I knew to) and Italy (well, maybe when they change government) but keeps out a lot of the former Eastern Europe (seemingly we now call it Central Europe) and places like Greece on the basis that their economies and populace seem to have nothing to offer the existing European partners.
So, I can see where the rebels are coming from: Europe may be a good idea but something, somewhere, has gone drastically wrong. The problem is that we can only help shape and reform Europe by being at its centre. The other odd thing, to my mind, is the relative strength of the Euro throughout the turmoil. This appears to show that there is enough benefit in being linked to some of these economies (and I am guessing this is mainly Germany’s) and this is possibly what is keeping Greece from a Great Depression style slump. Well, that and billions of pounds/euros/dollars.
However, the Conservative party has always had a problem with Europe throughout my lifetime: the Ed Heath, Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke wing of the party whom believe in the free market and primarily city based entrepreneur-ism are all in favour of the greater access to markets that Europe brings. Landowners, traditionalists and the more agrarian (which always strikes me as odd, because I am sure European farming subsidies keep a great many of them in business) orientated are staunchly opposed. The Conservative party historically represents money, but money doesn’t always have the same aim.
Throughout Thatcher we had a Eurosceptic leader who knew of the economic benefits that Europe could bring even as token resistance to it kept her constituency intact at home. This was probably underlined by a series of more enthusiastic chancellors, especially Lawson. Major’s premiership was more friendly to Europe, although he himself had to engage in some interesting manoeuvring with regards to Maastricht. And every subsequent leader has been largely irrelevant due to their complete inability to attain power.
Which all leads back to Cameron, and his current problems are exacerbated by being in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The Liberals are the most pro-Europe of any of the major parties and the obvious home for disenfranchised pro-European Tories. They also hold the key to Cameron remaining in power. So he has to keep them appeased even as he is reliant on them. Which keeps us locked into Europe for the duration of this parliament, even if the majority of the parliamentary Conservative party (and, I assume, their grass-roots support) don’t wish it.