Alphen, Netherlands. 11 May. Friday was David Cameron’s VE Day – Victory over Ed Day. It was therefore fitting that the three main party leaders Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, together with the successful Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon, honoured their commitment to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph in London but a few hours after the British electorate had delivered their crushing verdict. And, it must be said all four demonstrated British politics at its very best acting in a way that for once did credit to their much-derided profession. Equally, honouring Britain’s war dead should at the very least have concentrated David Cameron’s mind. For the past five years he has slipped, slid and spun his way through his premiership, using coalition government to avoid hard decisions beyond the mantra of deficit-reduction. No more! With Scotland still threatening to secede from the United Kingdom and with much of England seeking to secede from the European Union the next five years will demonstrate whether David Cameron is a real Prime Minister or the PR-Meister many take him to be.
Scotland must sooner or later be faced down. The 5 million Scots must be posed a simple question (again) by the 60 million rest of us; are ye wi’ us or agin’ us? “A Scottish lion has roared”, screamed Alex Salmond, the SNP’s bombastic former first minister, as it was announced that the SNP had taken 56 of the 59 Scottish parliamentary seats (out of a UK total of 650). In fact it was the English lion that roared last week, a lion that lives modestly and by and large quietly in Middle England. However, when roused it is a far bigger and more ferocious beast than its Scottish cousin and it is getting increasingly irritated by the Scottish pussy cat telling it what it is it demands. The bottom-line is this; with a £7.5bn black hole in the Scottish budget the SNP’s fantasy leftist, public service addicted economics only make sense if the English, Northern Irish and Welsh continue paying for them. Cameron must not appease the SNP.
However, it is Britain’s place (or otherwise) in the EU that will come to define his premiership. With a 2017 in-out EU referendum now a certainty the first two years (at least) of his new term will be dominated by a possible Brexit…as it will dominate the EU. If Cameron is to successfully generate EU reforms which he could genuinely defend to the British people as real change he will also have to address questions fundamental to the very existence of the EU. Indeed, the only reform that really matters concerns the safeguarding of British parliamentary sovereignty against future incursion by sovereignty-eroding federalists. To do that Cameron must destroy what I call the Delors Assumption.
The Delors Assumption is an elite, Euro-federalist assumption that “ever close union” is inevitable. And that in time national parliaments will be replaced by the European Parliament, national governments will be replaced by the European Commission, whilst the European Council evolves into a Senate in which heads of member-states/provinces sit. In other words, Cameron is about to engage in an existential struggle about the nature and future of the EU.
If he is to succeed he will also have to distinguish between what the EU does and what would have happened anyway in a Europe of relatively rich liberal democracies irrespective of whether Brussels existed or not. It is certainly the case that the attempt by Brussels to by-pass London and deal directly with Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland via a “Europe of the Regions” has weakened the UK, as was the intent of its architects. That must be stopped also.
However, free movement of labour is as much a consequence of victory in the Cold War as the EU and pretty much defined what the Cold War was fought for. Equally, the up to 1 million migrants now trying to get across the Mediterranean to ‘seek a better life’ or escape war and conflict would be happening anyway. Therefore, it is utterly implausible to believe that as a friend and ally of states like Italy Britain would simply leave them to cope with this influx.
There is however another issue that links both the Scottish and EU questions – Britain’s place in the world. Some Dutch colleagues of my wife at Tilburg University said that the whole idea of the Brexit referendum was ridiculous because Britain could not survive without the EU. Apart from demonstrating breath-taking ignorance and a complete lack of understanding of how power and politics works they simply had no idea that Britain is still the world’s fifth largest economy and one of its leading military powers.
There are several reasons for this Little Britain syndrome. The French and Germans never have nor never will allow Britain to play a role commensurate with its weight in Europe. Indeed, both Berlin and Paris have long conspired to reduce a first-rank European power to second-rank status and if Britain leaves the EU they will need to bear some responsibility. The Americans take Britain for granted. Indeed, the Obama administration in particular has treated Britain too often as the 51st state and a state that is more Delaware than California.
However, the ultimate responsibility for the Little Britain syndrome rests with the Westminster political elite. The fixation with fixing the economy is on the face of it sound. However, to believe as Cameron seems to that the only thing that matters is austerity at whatever cost to Britain’s standing in the world has proven to be disastrous for British influence. There is something else at work here. Many Scots want to leave the UK because they no longer feel proud to be British. Many English feel the same way – hence the rise of the much narrower and less noble nationalism all too evident in last week’s general election. In other words, my wife’s Dutch colleagues believe Britain counts for nothing because that is the message London has been sending and it is precisely what many Britons also believe.
Therefore, if Cameron is to succeed with the economy, in Scotland and/or in Europe and the wider world he will need to make the British people as whole feel proud again. To do that he will need to think again about the strategic brand that makes Britain an influential player. For that he need look no further than the Cenotaph and the lines of distinguished British veterans being honoured on VE Day for their famous victory and their sacrifice.
One key component in Britain’s world-wide strategic brand and critical to a Britain that punches above not below its weight is its world-renowned armed forces. Even the most cursory of glances around the world suggests the need to reinvest in them. They also act as identity glue that binds England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales together. Therefore, far from the further defence draining cuts the government is threatening to make in the forthcoming Strategic Pretence and Insecurity Review 2015 Cameron must instead honour his September 2014 NATO pledge and spend 2% of Britain’s GDP on defence.
Little Britain: Cameron’s true test.