Lies, Damned Lies & the European Union

By Frost, Gerald | New Criterion, October 2018 | Go to article overview

Lies, Damned Lies & the European Union


Frost, Gerald, New Criterion


Writing more than twenty-five years ago in Hubris: The Tempting of Modern Conservatives, a book I co-edited, the late political theorist Kenneth Minogue asserted that the worst thing about Britain's membership in the European Union was that it had induced a rhetoric of deception that went far beyond the usual prevarications and half-truths of politics. Minogue, who often appeared in these pages, was not unaware of the other costs of membership, among which he rightly listed the lunacies of the Common Agricultural Policy, limits on trade with countries outside the Union, excessive regulation, and acquiescence to the dangerous folly of seeking to build a European superpower. "These things," he wrote, "are serious, but not, I think, as serious as the corruption of the political process."

As Britain heads uncertainly for the exit, it is timely to consider the impact that forty-five years of membership in the European Union have had on British political culture and upon the conduct of politicians. For Minogue was surely correct in supposing that in significant ways British politicians began to behave differently after entry, applying different standards of conduct and acquiring a new political vocabulary that distanced them from the electorate. The most obvious change was the readiness of ministers to cede powers to Brussels as the European project, based on the goal of "ever closer union," took shape. Political life in Britain during the early part of the twentieth century, as in many other countries, had been characterized by the increasing power of the national government in regulating the lives of its citizens. Now ministers seemed ready, even eager, to transfer powers to others. The Daily Mail journalist Andrew Alexander, an acute observer of the Westminster scene, wrote that, having observed British politics for half a century, he remained baffled by the willingness of the British political class to submit to this act of castration.

No less remarkably, it became clear that ministers behaved differently when things went wrong. In most places, and at most times, it can be taken for granted that ministers will not be eager to take responsibility when blunders occur and that many will display considerable ingenuity in distancing themselves from the scene of the crash. Not so in the case of failed policies and legislation introduced in Britain as a result of E.U. membership. On such occasions British ministers routinely failed to identify Brussels as the source of the problem, either because they did not wish to feed anti-E.U. sentiment, or because they could not bring themselves to say, or perhaps even to acknowledge to themselves, that a political project into which huge political capital had been invested was at best deeply flawed, at worst an error of historic magnitude. This applied to sins of omission as well as of commission. As the former Conservative minister Peter Lilley pointed out, members of the government were now constantly being told by their civil service advisors that what they sought to do in the national interest could not be done because it breached E.U. law. On most occasions, how ever, this could not be acknowledged because to do so would inevitably call into question the policies of every government since Britain's accession to the European Communities in 1973, as well as the deeply held prejudices of metropolitan elites. Members of Parliament, men and women mostly of good character, most of whom had entered politics with a desire to serve the public, routinely dissembled; not to do so would have meant acknowledging unpalatable truths and would have made career advancement more difficult.

In situations where, quite obviously, the root of the problem originated in Brussels--as in the case of the growing mountain of absurd or unnecessary regulation--ministers reacted by promising reforms to the way in which the European Union would do business in the future. These claims were often bolstered by the pretense that Britain was now "winning the argument" in favor of E. …

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