For the next period, debate over the UK’s relations with Europe, and UK politics generally, will be dominated by Ukip. Because of but also despite Nigel Farage’s persona – about one part Jeremy Clarkson to two parts Mr Toad – the purple people won big in last week’s local elections, and can now enjoy watching the Tories rip out each other’s gizzards in a political version of the Eton wall game. As the general election’s witching hour draws near, the Tory undead have started to rise, stakes uprooted from their hollow chests. Jacob Rees-Mogg has called for an electoral pact with Ukip. From his Telegraph column Lord Tebbit tacks as close to endorsing Ukip as any Tory can who wants not to be blown out of the party. Now Nigel Lawson, dad of the more famous Nigella, has become the first major Conservative to announce that if David Cameron manages to hold his promised referendum on EU membership around 2017, he’ll vote for the trapdoor.
In his Times op-ed Lawson says, in so many words, that the EU now looks like a wrecked blancmange. But, to mangle Hegel, it’s a blancmange that has failed to take wing only with the falling of the dusk – it wasn’t obvious to those in power at, say, the time of the Single European Act, the then chancellor among them, that calamity loomed. Lawson is right that ratchet movement towards political union has long preoccupied mainstream continental politicians, as with Jürgen Habermas’s address to Hermann van Rompuy and other Europolitans the week before last in Leuven. By contrast, for politicians in the UK apart from some Lib Dems, the end-game was meant to be a free trade area with cultural exchange: neoliberalism tempered by tapas bars.
Lawson is also right that attempting currency union without fiscal or in fact full political union was quixotic. He should know, having sought under Thatcher to join the old Exchange Rate Mechanism, the Euro Mark I, and having, when bilked, shadowed the Deutschmark, with what are now generally seen as catastrophic results. These included a strapping current account deficit when Lawson left office in 1989, rising inflation and unemployment, and high interest rates, all of which set up the early 1990s recession. Britain is a net contributor to EU budgets, but the sums are smaller than Farage likes to imply. Half of British trade is with the EU and negotiations over tariffs would have to be carried out either bilaterally as with the Swiss, or via the European Economic Area; a new tariff regime would encourage divestment from firms in the UK. In general, those on either side of the argument who claim they know what the economic effects of a UK exit from the EU would be need Lawsonian levels of self-belief.
In his Times piece Lawson doesn’t mention his fellow Nigel. But Farage lurks in the background like a chuckling batrachian, not because the 2015 electoral map is going to turn from blue to purple but because he’s thought to have the power to stop it turning red. It would be rash to assume that Lawson’s emergence as a Eurouter is entirely unwelcome to Number Ten: though it’s high risk, Tory governments with an exposed right flank can find it handy to have half-in, half-out mavericks who can dog-whistle to fellow oddballs, while giving the leadership deniability if opponents charge them with lunacy. In dread that, having saddled up the referendum horse, it may bolt for the cliff, Cameron has to pretend that by 2017 (if he gets that far) he’ll have squeezed major concessions from Europe, as Harold Wilson claimed quite falsely to have done before the 1975 referendum.
Apparently Lawson doesn’t need to know what deal Cameron may have struck by then, nor the wording of the referendum question, but then he was always wise in his own conceit. A bottle brunette who’s lately diversified into climate change denial and diet books, Lawson’s certainly cut out to play licensed jester. Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, po-faced apparatchiks, stare into the camera, brows furrowed; they seem to have notched up the double jackpot of incompetence and boringness. As the economy flatlines, governments make cuts to pay off the debt created by the bank bailouts, and real power lies far from Westminster – though not much in Brussels. How the Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond must envy his fellow independence-seeker Farage, unburdened by the slough of office, and so able to pander to the prevalent mood of pre-apocalyptic frivolity.