Off-Screen Drama

Richard Mayne

  • European Elections and British Politics by David Butler
    Longman, 208 pp, £9.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 582 29528 9
  • Political Change in Europe: The Left and the Future of the Atlantic Alliance edited by Douglas Eden
    Blackwell, 163 pp, £8.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 631 12525 6

You’d think it would be prime-time viewing. A Frenchwoman, a survivor of Hitler’s death camps, helps an ingenious young Dutch Socialist to outwit the Scrooge-like Establishment. Hundreds of millions of pounds are at stake. The rank-and-file defy the mighty. Law confronts power. Three Governments risk being taken to court.

All this is part of the story unfolded by Davids Butler and Marquand in their masterly and absorbing analysis. In 1979, preparing the European Community’s budget for the following year, the Brussels Commission tried to curb the outlay on farm support and earmark more money for new industries and jobs. The Governments snubbed the plan: but they soon faced angry opposition. The European Parliament, once merely nominated, had now been elected by 111 million voters; and it fought back. Egged on by its adroit budget expert, Pieter Dankert, it drew up its own alternative plan, restoring what the Governments had cut, demanding control over Community borrowing and lending, and refusing to squander taxpayers’ money on surplus dairy products.

Hopeless? No. The Parliament’s alternative budget could have become law. Italy and the Netherlands backed it, and they needed support from only one other ‘big’ member State. Here was the British Government’s opportunity. By siding with the Parliament, alongside the Dutch and the Italians, it could have slashed farm spending, reduced the milk and butter mountains, created more jobs, and rejigged the Community budget so that Britain paid less and got more back. What happened? Under pressure from Germany, Britain caved in, and the Governments were able to veto the Parliament’s proposal. The Parliament retaliated by throwing out the spending plans put forward by the Governments; and the result was deadlock. Without a 1980 budget, the Community lived for about a year from hand to mouth. Then, as Butler and Marquand record in a rueful footnote, the Parliament at last accepted a budget not very different from what the Governments had wanted all along.

But wait. Since Butler and Marquand wrote, the plot’s thickened. In December 1980, the European Parliament returned to the attack. By a shrewd procedural device, it voted only small changes in the 1981 budget – but a huge supplementary budget for 1980, enabling the Community to spend on regional and employment aid in 1981 most of what the Governments had previously refused. Taken aback, the Governments couldn’t muster a big enough majority to quash the extra spending, and Mme Simone Veil, the Parliament’s President, smartly declared both budgets approved. Belgium, France and Germany then threatened not to pay; and the Commission started legal proceedings against them. They may end up in the dock at the European Court. Future historians of Europe may see the whole story as a constitutional struggle, like royal feuds with the House of Commons in Britain, or federal versus states’ rights in the USA.

In the process, strange things have been happening. The British Government has found itself opposing its own policy. Conservative Members of the European Parliament have found themselves attacking their own government, and even voting on the same side as the Italian Communists. And Labour Members of the Parliament like Mrs Barbara Castle, pledged to oppose any extension of its power, have found themselves extending its influence. Europe’s constitutional battles can make nonsense of national party lines.

So it’s an engrossing story, with possible portents for Europe’s future, as well as paradox and suspense. It seems a natural for the small screen. Unlike Westminster, the European Parliament welcomes television cameras – and provides simultaneous interpretation; it’s also hospitable to non-specialist reporters. Yet, with few exceptions, Britain’s newspapers and mass media have almost ignored the budget drama. As Butler and Marquand point out, ‘in the entire British press, only the Economist enabled its readers to follow the Budget story in anything approaching a full way. The Times gave it modest coverage, both through the columns of David Wood and through its reports of debates in the plenary sessions. For all practical purposes, the rest was silence.’

Something resembling silence also greeted the European Elections of 1979. These not only produced the present combative European Parliament: they were also a landmark in the history of Europe – the first time that the citizens of nine countries had joined together in a single constitutional act. Admittedly, the European Elections faced handicaps in Britain. They came on the heels of the devolution referenda and the national General Election. The Labour Party was divided in its approach to them: some saw them as a way of ‘democratising’ the Community; some sought election in order to ‘free’ the Parliament’s existing powers; others wanted to boycott the whole affair. Some Conservatives, several of them in high places, were afraid of seeming ‘too European’; and the Liberals, however enthusiastic, were defrauded by Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which denied them any real hope of a seat. Unlike a national election, the vote was not to choose a government or a majority in a largely two-party legislature, but to reflect the spectrum of public opinion by appointing Members to a semi-circular, multiparty Assembly whose real and potential powers were unfamiliar and underplayed.

Above all, in constituencies of some 500,000 people each – about ten times the Westminster norm – conventional methods of canvassing and electioneering were of little use. In the United States, with a similar problem, the mass media fill the gap: but after the European Elections in Britain, 51 per cent of those asked told an IBA poll that there had not been enough media coverage, while only 15 per cent thought there had been too much. Media spokesmen acknowledged the dilemma. As broadcasters, they felt bound to explain the Elections’ significance: as newsmen, they saw little hot news to report. Alastair Burnet commented: ‘It may very well be that by playing it low-key we helped to make the election not only dull but incomprehensible.’

Incomprehensible? The attempt to unite Europe is hardly that: but it does present a challenge. Like the rest of the modern world, the European Community is complex and full of specialists, some of whom find it hard to speak plainly. Its policies tend to seem technical; their effects are seldom obvious; and their adoption involves change. Unlike established nation-states, the Community lacks mystique. Too new to look permanent, it has no flag, no anthem, no spectacular ceremonial, very few heroes and seven mother-tongues. It makes history prosaically and often by squabbling, in offices and conference rooms. It can seldom take a simple, united stance on the great issues of the day.

It does its best to explain itself. The European Commission has information centres in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Every telephone directory in Britain gives the number of its London Office, whose library welcomes visitors and whose publications are free of charge. Yet, whenever the British public has a chance to vote on the subject – in the European Elections or the 1975 Referendum – the same complaint is repeated: ‘We haven’t enough information.’

It looks like a vicious circle. With scant mass-media coverage, most British people know little of the Community; and polls, including a recent Which? survey, consistently show that ignorance of it correlates closely with dislike. The less people like the Community – or rather, their own idea of it – the less they’re likely to welcome a World in Action or Panorama programme which might help change their minds. Meanwhile, aware of the public’s indifference or hostility, the media continue their hardly benign neglect.

Not that the mass media are wholly or alone to blame. From across the Channel, Britain sometimes seems almost wilfully out of touch. Why are the British such reluctant Europeans? It’s a question Continental friends are always asking; and at any given moment the Community’s critics here can cite some plausible reasons. Look at the farm policy, with its costly surpluses and sales of cheap butter to Russia; look at the budget, with its heavy burden on Britain; look at the Brussels bureaucrats, with their daft draft directives on matters like lawn-mower noise. Look at food prices, trade and the state of the economy since Britain joined.

Most of these reproaches are mistaken. The farm policy, despite its cost, guarantees food supplies in a world increasingly hungry. There were surpluses before it existed. The most persistent glut is in dairy products: but, for the moment, even the butter mountain is only three days’ supply. If Britain had only backed the European Parliament in the budget dispute, the reform of farm policy would already be under way. So would reform of the budget – and even that is only 2 per cent of public expenditure, or 1 per cent of the Community’s GNP. The Brussels bureaucracy? Smaller than Barnet Council, and mainly a think-tank, putting ideas to Governments. Its idea on lawn-mower noise was to forestall legislation in Germany which could have halted sales of British mowers. The rest of the Community, in fact, is now Britain’s biggest market, taking 42 per cent of her exports. She had a trade deficit with it before joining, but since mid-1975 matters have been improving. In 1980, there was even a small surplus, only partly owing to North Sea oil. As for food prices, 90 per cent of the rise since 1973 is due to Western inflation and soaring energy prices. What’s hit the British economy is not Community membership, but world slump. It would be worse outside.

So, patiently, the Community’s defenders answer its critics: but I don’t personally believe that arguments on either side cut much ice. The real discontent in Britain is less articulate, although it finds expression in misconceptions and myths. I’ve even been told, by a country grocer, that I couldn’t buy eggs in a brown paper-bag any more ‘because of the Common Maaarket’. Perhaps it’s natural for a latecomer to the Community to feel uncomfortable, struggling to get alterations in a ready-made suit of policies which feels rather a tight fit. Moral: be a founder-member of any new club, whether for monetary union, foreign policy or conventional defence. But behind the myths and grumbles about the Community lie deeper and far more general misgivings, of at least two kinds.

One is a matter of geography and history: living on an island, free from invasion for nine centuries; having ruled an English-speaking overseas empire; surviving alone in 1940; always distrusting Continental entanglements; sharing films and TV series with America rather than the rest of Europe; learning languages badly; feeling deeply different from the French, the Germans and other foreign-language-speaking neighbours. Different, and superior – until recently: there’s the rub. The second reason, I think, for Britain’s uneasiness in the European Community is that many British people don’t feel at all at home in today’s world.

Slumpflation is its salient feature, stealing jobs and savings, closing firms and theatre companies, aggravating social conflicts, devaluing politicians, deflating hopes. But even before the current economic crisis, people faced disconcerting changes. Many, but not all, were trivial. The ‘pee’ replaced the penny; plastics replaced wood; supermarkets replaced shops. Three-piece suits and three course meals gave way to jeans, sweatshirts and junk food. Property-developers bulldozed city centres and erected tower blocks; motorways ate up the countryside; agri-businessmen ripped out hedges and demolished woods. Living became expensive but cheapjack, regimented but violent: there seemed to be more people, but fewer standards. And in a bleaker world, an altered Britain seemed to count for less. Post-war visions of global unity faded; the Commonwealth was no power base. Dwarfed by the super-powers, impoverished, deeply afraid of the bomb, the country seemed less and less capable of taking care of itself.

No wonder that some people sought refuge – in tradition and pageantry, period decor, real or fake antiques; in astrology, drugs, rock music; in political fancy dress, do-it-yourself domesticity, war movies and comics, nostalgia serials on TV. Others looked for simple answers. Who was to blame? Communism? Capitalism? The decay of religion? The schools? The planners? The bureaucrats? The Arabs? The Blacks? And who was to be the saviour? Enoch Powell? Keith Joseph? The Maharishi? Tony Benn?

One man’s saviour, of course, is another man’s scapegoat; and the European Community, with its rhetoric of ‘growth’ and ‘progress’, filled the double bill. Associating it with faceless international airport modernity, gigantism, greed and officialdom, people forgot its underlying aims: to reconcile former enemies – to transcend nationalism – to strengthen Western Europe and stabilise relations with the East – to give Europeans greater weight in world affairs – to curb the law of the jungle by persuading nation-states to merge their sovereignty under democratic institutions and just laws.

Who could quarrel with such a noble enterprise? Nationalists of the far Right and Left: that’s who. Trading on ordinary people’s vague resentments, they peddle their quack remedies: send back the Pakkis – protect Britannia from ‘import penetration’ – clobber the unions – clobber the class enemy – no American missiles – more British missiles – get out of Nato – stop all overseas aid.

Extremists thrive in times of crisis; and as so often in politics, the extremes converge. Of the two, the far Left is better organised and cleverer: so it’s from here that the Community faces systematic onslaught, calling for Britain to withdraw from the common farm policy, repudiate the Community Treaties, impose selective import controls, and inaugurate in effect a siege economy, turning isolationist and perhaps neutral between East and West.

As Douglas Eden and F.E. Short make clear in their patchy symposium on Political Change in Europe, these views are rare on the Continent. But objectives not unlike them were spelled out in Britain by ‘Labour’s Programme 1976’, the first comprehensive position paper produced by the party’s National Executive Committee under left-wing control. In the words of Stephen Haseler, ‘these policies... represent a total break with Labour’s tradition both in tone and substance.’ Haseler, of course, like Douglas Eden, is a Social Democrat. In the Labour Party, he may be thought a hostile witness. So, undoubtedly, will Hugh Thomas, who contributes a rather slapdash opening chapter, and Paul Johnson, who writes far more cogently on ‘The British Left, Trade Unions and Democracy’. But their findings, like those of Butler and Marquand, have been overtaken and confirmed by subsequent events. The Labour Party’s Black-pool and Wembley conferences have revealed – and shown to television viewers – how far the extreme Left would like to go. Since then, the cameras have zoomed in unrelentingly on Shirley Williams and the Council for Social Democracy. When the mass media wake up to an issue, they seldom give it a rest. Is it too late for them to wake up to Europe, and dispel the public ignorance which all demagogues exploit?