Britain’s profound antipathy to the European Union has boiled to the surface over the past twenty-four hours. It is not a pretty sight, this bubbling cauldron of resentment.
Before the results of those now notorious all-night, euro-saving negotiations in Brussels were known, David Cameron was a much reviled prime minister, blamed for the faltering British economy and, worse, for kowtowing to Merkel and Sarkozy. Suspecting a sell-out, leading writers of the rightist press prepared editorials comparing Cameron after Brussels with Chamberlain after Munich.
Now, Cameron, having vetoed the euro rescue package – apparently leaving Britain in a minority of one among twenty-eight EU members – is being hailed as a reincarnation of Winston Churchill. “Very well, alone,” ran one headline, invoking David Low’s famous wartime cartoon of a sturdy British soldier shaking his fist at the Germans across the English Channel.
If Cameron called a general election today, the Tories would probably win by a hundred seats. Some conservative commentators are actually urging him to do so, the sooner to rid the government of its coalition partners, the despised pro-Europe and otherwise distinctly wet Liberal Democrats, many of whose most prominent members could be expected to lose their parliamentary seats.
But is Britain very well alone?
Can this hubristic, once world-conquering powerhouse survive for long excluded from the conference chambers of Brussels – or for that matter, of Berlin and Paris? Not for more than a few years, I suspect. Sooner or later, events will drag Britain back to the negotiating table, with cap in hand and a letter from the doctor explaining our absence.
The euro may yet go under, of course, in which case we can anticipate going back to the table with a jaunty walk and a smug grin to reclaim the leadership role of which we think we have been stripped. But in those circumstances, God knows where a shocked world economy, rising unemployment and falling markets might have taken us – meaning all of us.
Cameron may have done the right tactical thing under the circumstances – and Merkel and Sarkozy may well have contributed by badly misjudging his resolve – but let us not forget that the circumstances were largely of Britain’s own making. Britain has been a renegade in Europe for so long, and stirred up so much trouble in the process, that sooner or later chickens were bound to come home to roost. It is galling that the chickens have taken the form of a crowing Gallic cockerel, but Britons can hardly complain, though no doubt they will.
I am no economist, but I have this nagging feeling that one of these days, regardless of the state or even the existence of the euro, Britain will be seeking to rejoin the club.
The odds of Britain being right and its fellow-members wrong are currently 27-1 against. That seems to me a very risky bet.