SOCRATES observed that a man’s silences can say as much about him as those topics upon which he is loud.
David Cameron says nothing about the European Commission (EC). His shadow cabinet is silent too. Oliver Letwin, his genial and clever lieutenant, explains this baffling elusiveness as “concentrating on mainline issues”.
The whips warn backbenchers that to discuss the topic is “unhelpful”. But the imperious ambitions of the European Union (EU) could not be more “mainline”. Cameron is making a mistake. He is missing a huge opportunity.
Apart from dismissing UKIP as “a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” Cameron fails to address EU themes at all. He seems to turn a blind eye to them. UKIP wants to renounce the UK’s subordination to the Commission. It wants powers shunted to Brussels restored to the Commons. It should be argued about, not dismissed as Cameron does as merely “loony”.
The Tory Party could tear itself apart over these matters. Does it favour Parliamentary democracy or faceless bureaucracy? Does it favour free trade or rigged markets? I see direct parallels with the Conservative collapse over defending the Corn Laws. What is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) but the Corn Laws with knobs on?
Superficially, Cameron may be wise. Europe is a bore as a topic. It is marinated in its alien juice of jargon. Nobody understands it fully. Cameron’s focus groups tell him schools and health themes are what the public thinks it wants talked about.
In the Yes, Minister episode that has Jim Hacker emerging as prime minister he leaps over his rivals because of his valiant defiance of the new Euro directive banning the British banger, the sausage being redefined as “the emulsified offal tube”. I think Anthony Jay’s comedy will prove prescient. I predict that some essentially small but provocative EU innovation will prove a future “tipping point”. Our patience with EU nonsense will finally snap at some point. Cameron is not exploiting this.
The Conservative Party purports to be an anti-federalist Party. Yet it does and says nothing. Today the UK has no trade policies of its own. We are entirely directed on trade matters by the Commission. The fact that Peter Mandelson is the Commissioner may give the impression that Britain gives a lead, but Mandelson simply jumps when EU technocrats issue orders – hence this month’s new barrier to cheaper Vietnamese shoes.
Just keeping quiet about the the EC is understandable stylistically. If riding bicycles, not wearing ties, promoting women and ethnic minorities and youth is what excites most people, then talk of the CAP must seem both wearisome and so very unfashionable.
But UKIP may be well ahead of Cameron. Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, says he wants free trade with all of the planet, not just with our Continental neighbours. UKIP can be mocked for wearing blazers or nylon ties but they seem to have a more enlightened policy towards trade and the EU than Cameron’s chic but silent Notting Hill Tories.
There is not a business in the country that is untouched by the EU’s propensity to impose ever more regulation. Nobody will get exemptions from the Commission’s desire to impose a uniform VAT rate of 20%.
I see a public critique of the EU as an excellent vote-seeking practice. The settled and preponderant view of the opinion polls is hostile to the EU and Cameron’s political antennae should tell him this. The problem is our political elites will not discuss it. The gravy train metaphor has also become reality. The cascades of cash buy silence. This subtle corruption cannot endure.
Many topics derived from Brussels seem British. For example, the Conservatives’ intuitive view is opposed to compulsory identity cards yet these are a Euro obligation. We are citizens of the EU, not the UK.
We should remember that a formative experience for the young Cameron was when working with Chancellor Norman Lamont in 1992 when the fiasco of fixing the exchange rate exploded. It’s perhaps this that explains why Cameron’s silence on European matters is tempting.
The European Constitution has not gone away. Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and even Turkey may soon join the EU. Do the Tories have a view on all this? If so, why are we not told of it?
To make progress, the Conservative Party has to be true to itself. Silence will only get Cameron so far. A collective shrug is not good enough.
Socrates also said: “Public men should not be silent when they see evil.” Is David Cameron blind as well as mute?
Read other articles by John Blundell on Europe:
See also IEA publications on Europe:
Europe After the 'No' Votes by Prof Patrick Messerlin;
Should Britain Leave the EU? by Prof Patrick Minford, Vidya Mahambare and Eric Nowell;
The ECB and the Euro: The First Five Years by Prof Otmar Issing;
The Euro as Politics by Pedro Schwartz or
The 2006 Essential Guide to the European Union by Ruth Lea.
John Blundell is Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs.