Two books, one by David Owen, the other about David Steel, come as timely warnings to Labour that we need to be thinking much harder than we are about two big questions: the future of Europe in the light of the euro crisis and the alignment of centre-left politics as we enter the second half of this coalition government.
Owen takes us on a journey through his ‘50 years of personal involvement with Europe’s development’ to make the case for a referendum on Britain’s future relationship with the rest of Europe. This journey cannot avoid the changes and contortions in Owen’s own position: from the star who left Labour because we were anti-Europe, who then rejected the merger between his Social Democratic party and the Liberals because the latter were ‘Euro-federalist’ to his current position, which sees Britain in an outer non-eurozone grouping looser than the Community we joined in 1973.
The eurozone crisis has made fiscal and political union among those countries that stay in the euro inevitable, Owen argues. Britain can never be part of that inner eurozone core because it would require a loss of political and economic sovereignty that we could never accept. This is another change in Owen’s position: he previously considered it sensible not to rule out ever joining the euro. The former foreign secretary wants a referendum and thinks Labour should commit to one because he believes it is unavoidable anyway – sometime between next year and 2016 – and he wants to avoid a simple ‘in or out’ question which could propel Britain out of Europe completely, something he does not favour.
So he advocates two questions: one on membership of a ‘euro EU’ around Germany and one on membership of a ‘European Community’ comprising Britain, non-EU countries like Norway and Turkey, and augmented by other EU countries which, like us, are not willing to relinquish the sovereignty required for membership of the integrated eurozone. These might include Sweden, Denmark, some of central and southern Europe, and Ireland.
It is difficult to dispute that the post-euro crisis world will present Britain and other EU states with the decision as to whether to join the inner euro group or not. But, as there is no major politician or party in Britain currently arguing that we should, the question is academic. To start planning now and holding plebiscites on a wholesale restructuring of Europe into two blocs before the outcome of the euro crisis is clear seems a little hasty. Owen does not, moreover, provide evidence of enthusiasm for his European Community from the countries he hopes would be part of it. And hostility is inevitable from the inner core as he envisages the ‘Community countries’ leaving the European parliament and recovering powers over a whole range of policies, like fishing and agriculture, while retaining all the benefits of the single market.
But Owen has always been a man in a hurry and the speed of change coming may well require nifty footwork. Labour’s best strategist, Peter Mandelson, has also talked about a referendum. If Owen’s book starts a debate on the centre-left about where we want Britain to be when the dust of the euro crisis settles he will have done us a service.
Europe, as David Torrance’s sympathetic new biography of Steel reminds us, has been the constant theme in the shifting alignment of British politics over the last 50 years. Torrance reinforces the probably widely settled view of Steel as a thoroughly decent man who did much to rebuild the Liberals in the postwar era and to realign them closer to Labour – culminating in the Lib-Lab pact which sustained the Callaghan government from 1977. It took courage for Steel – in his first term in a marginal seat – to steer the Abortion Act through the Commons. Strongly affected by childhood years in Africa, where his father was a Church of Scotland minister, he was early to the causes of anti-apartheid and racial equality, as he was to devolution and support for Palestine. He also patiently pursued collaboration and then merger with the SDP, managing his own fractious and ill-disciplined party and Owen along the way.
Torrance is not uncritical. Steel was more interested in mechanics and strategy than policy or ideas and could have done more as the first speaker of the new Scottish parliament to rein in the project’s huge overspend. But he consistently enjoyed approval ratings Nick Clegg can only dream of and did more than any other postwar Liberal leader to make his party serious about power. When they got it, it was not the realignment – at Westminster at least – he had hoped for. It is also one with which many Liberal Democrats are finding it increasingly difficult to disguise their discomfort. Labour people should read this book. Understanding past ebbs and flows on the centre-left will help maximise our opportunities between now and the next election. It will also help us prepare for another possible realignment after it, or even before.
Ben Bradshaw MP is the former secretary of state for culture, media and sport
Europe Restructured: The Eurozone Crisis and Its Aftermath
Methuen | 400pp | £10.99
David Steel: Rising Hope
to Elder Statesman
Biteback Publishing | 352pp | £25