Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 March 1999

The campaign for the referendum on British membership of the European single currency has at long last begun in earnest.

Last week, Tony Blair gave his clearest signal yet that he was preparing to take a leading role in the “yes” campaign. This week saw the launch of Lord Owen’s New Europe group, which promises to campaign from a “pro-European” perspective against Britain becoming part of the euro-zone.

Until Blair’s announcement of the government’s plans for preparing for the euro – carefully orchestrated with the support of Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine to maximise embarrassment to William Hague – it was by no means obvious that the Prime Minister was ready to risk the wrath of the Tory press barons by coming out explicitly for British participation in the single currency. Of course, he hasn’t officially changed government policy and could still revert to a position of “wait-and-see”. But the chances of that now appear very slim.

Similarly, until Owen went public with his organisation, backed by Lords Healey and Prior, it was not apparent that the antis would have any serious support from the political centre. Owen, Healey and Prior are heavyweights from the past. But their intervention has undoubtedly changed things. The “no” camp now appears significantly more substantial than did the uneasy alliance between, on one hand, Labour opponents of the single currency (mainly on the left) and, on the other, the Tories and the right-wing press on the other.

As Hugo Young warned in the Guardian this week, however, it would be a mistake to assume that the final battle lines have been drawn.

Young’s argument was that the Tories’ divisions over the euro and the differences between the Owen group and the Tory Eurosceptics could easily cause the “no” camp to implode – and it’s difficult to disagree with that. What intrigues me, however, is the likely impact that the euro referendum campaign will have on the left.

From the early sixties to the mid-eighties, it was almost obligatory for anyone on the left, inside or outside the Labour Party, to be opposed to British membership of what was then called the Common Market. With few exceptions, left-wingers believed that it was a capitalist club with rules that made it impossible for member states to introduce socialist economic policies. Many denounced it as an instrument of the cold war – not least because nearly all the Labour people who backed British membership were enthusiastic Atlanticists who supported American foreign policy at every turn.

It was the left, with Tribune in the vanguard, that led the “no” campaign in the 1975 referendum on British membership. The inclusion of the promise of withdrawal in Labour’s 1983 manifesto was one of the left’s greatest triumphs of the early eighties.

Then, however, the left’s anti-Europe consensus evaporated – almost overnight. There were only intermittent squeals of protest when Neil Kinnock abandoned the policy of withdrawal soon after becoming Labour leader, and only the mildest dissent as the party embraced more and more of the European “project” during the late eighties and early nineties. Today, the anti-European left consists largely of sad old men reliving the heroic defeats of their middle age.

The reasons for the collapse of left anti-Europeanism were simple. After the debacle of Francois Mitterrand’s attempt to reflate the French economy in 1981-83, much of the British left became convinced that control of multinational capital demanded Europe-wide co-ordination of economic policy. With the arrival of Jacques Delors as President of the European Commission, talking of common European social standards as a complement to the single European market, the unions were converted to the European cause. And then came Delors’s plan for a pan-European Keynesian plan to conquer unemployment through public works.

That, of course, was a long time ago – and in the meantime Tony Blair became Labour leader. Ever since then, there has been a truce between the party’s few remaining left Eurosceptics and the majority of left Euro-enthusiasts, based on a justified conviction that Blair is a shamelessly populist authoritarian and a sucker for the worst excesses of Big Mac capitalism.

So far, the truce has held, but my hunch is that the EMU referendum will destroy it. Already we can see the first signs of renewed hostilities. On the left Eurosceptic side, Tribune has signed up with the 1950s-style Stalinists of the Morning Star for what appears to be a kamikaze raid. For the left Euro-enthusiasts, Ken Livingstone has declared that he regrets that the Blair government rejected the option of early entry into EMU.

So before too long, I reckon, we’ll all fall out. Which will be sad – but needs must.

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