Readers will be wearily familiar with Hannan’s First Law: no party is ever Eurosceptic while in office. The First Law rests on a broader political truth: that few governments want to challenge the vested interests that have grown up around whatever the established dispensation happens to be. Milton Friedman called it “the tyranny of the status quo”.
Let me put it like this. If Britain were already outside the EU – if we had had the sense to negotiate a Swiss-style free trade deal – it is hard to imagine many mainstream politicians campaigning to join it. But four decades of membership have created a large corpus of individuals with a stake in the current policy. Most local authorities, for example, maintain European officers, who may not be directly on the Brussels payroll, but whose livelihoods depend wholly on EU membership. Almost every company over a certain size does the same thing. So does virtually every large charity and NGO (more on how much some of these charities receive from the EU in a forthcoming post). Most of the civil service, and almost the whole of the FCO, is dedicated to membership.
For a government to take on all these interests at the same time would, as Anthony Brown argues at ConservativeHome, consume its energies for at least a year. Anthony says he voted Conservative because he wanted tax cuts, deregulation and welfare reform: he could do without the distraction.
The flaw in his argument, of course, is that EU membership stands in the way of domestic reform. The reason that a number of Cabinet ministers are reported to have changed their minds on secession is not that they are obsessed by Europe, but that they have noticed that much of what they do at home is constrained by EU regulation. This is not a new situation – twenty years ago, Václav Klaus, then prime minister of the Czech Republic, complained “every time I try to repeal some Soviet-era directive, I’m told that whatever I am trying to scrap is a requirement of the European Commission” – but it has come as a revelation to many Conservatives after their long spell in opposition.
The essence of Euroscepticism has always been a belief that we should be able to hire and fire the people who pass our laws. Euro-integrationists affected to misunderstand this concern, and tried to present the issue as a conflict between internationalism and bigotry (see here). Some Tories fell for their conceit – or at least felt that they had to go along with it – and decreed that “banging on about Europe” was a distraction from “real issues”.
Only now, perhaps, are they starting to understand that they won’t be able to fulfil their manifesto as long as 80 per cent of our social and employment legislation comes from Brussels; nor to cut our deficit when every penny they save at home is being swallowed up by higher EU budget contributions and bailout liabilities.
It’s not Europe we sceptics are obsessed with; it’s British democracy.
Daniel Hannan is a writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the European Union is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free.