BREXIT: How Britain Will Leave Europe. By Denis MacShane.
“We have to be worried about the future of the UK,’ says Denis MacShane.
by GERALD ISAAMAN
GREAT Britain, which once painted much of the world in possession pink and profited from it, now faces a nightmare future as a nation that has lost the confidence of Europe and America as a global power.
And if a successful European referendum goes ahead as a result of the general election on May 7, then we are doomed to become a backwater, stripped of influence in a devastating new world order.
The message is both definitive and demanding and comes with a passionate punch from Denis MacShane, Labour’s former Minister for Europe, who has used the shorthand BREXIT – British Exit from the EU – in the title of his new book.
“We have to be worried about the future of the UK because we are becoming totally obsessive and more introverted,” he tells me. “We are becoming a state obsessed with welfare rather than a state obsessed with economic growth and productivity.
“We have reduced our status as a player outside our borders. David Cameron has lost the confidence of the rest of Europe and of the United States. Our military strength has been slowly whittled away. So on present projections [ the UK would have] an army of 50,000, which means that we shall have twice as many people in prison than we have soldiers.
“The rest of Europe is reported to be giving up on Britain. We are seen more and more like Spain was seen 20 to 30 years ago, a country with a great past, great culture, wonderful literature and art – nice people, but just not an important player any more.
“That’s very dangerous because once a country loses its global aura of being a power player then people look elsewhere to open up banks, financial centres, businesses and so forth. We will be lost.”
He reminds me of Daniel Defoe’s description of the British as a mongrel nation and recalls: “When I was a boy we didn’t ask: How many Irish have we got living in Britain? How many Jews? How many Poles stayed here after the war? We just got on with our life.
“Then Enoch Powell came along and started ranting about Pickaninnies and in a sense it’s been sad ever since with our obsession with foreigners.
“Now different manifestations of it have been given full clinical expression by UKIP, who, in a sense, have taken the question of immigration and fused it with being in the European Union. And they have legitimised anti-immigrant passions by saying we have lost control of our frontiers, which isn’t true any more than we lost control of our frontiers when every second Irish male emigrated to work in England.”
BREXIT is both an eye-opener and a dire warning which sets out the arguments for 27 nations being bound together, just as Winston Churchill demanded, to prevent annihilation through war within or without their borders. At the same time, he accepts the current contradiction of regions and cities seeking control over their own destiny, as was the case in Italy before Garibaldi created a nation state.
“The argument for bringing political decisions closer to people has grown in strength,” he says. “But if a nation doesn’t have a centre, one place where laws are decided and then enforced – ie parliaments and a system of courts – then the nation doesn’t exist. Europe is in a dis-integrative mood right now with regional, sub-national assertions of populist identity, which are growing everywhere, in Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and in the UK we’re becoming a dis-united kingdom.”
One fault is that our electoral system is not longer fit for purpose, exposed now to a volatile situation where austerity has promoted new parties, the more so when distrust in politicians has reached an unprecedented peak and the civil service no longer copes with the complexities of coalition government.
“It was always the boast of Britain that the Mother of Parliaments and first past the post delivered clear and decisive governments with a working majority – and when the civil service could respond to it,” he says. “But not any more.”
Yet, as he tells us the fraught history of Britain’s relationship with Europe – and the way our media forever mocks and scorns the EU – he fears the worst outcome. The political direction of the Tory Party has been against Europe for the past 20 years, he insists. The reforms David Cameron seeks are not attainable. And, apart from a few brave souls, the Labour Party’s lack of positive commitment adds to his foreboding.
On the penultimate page he writes: “The assumption that BREXIT will not or cannot happen is wrong. The rest of Europe and the rest of the world had better get used to the idea that while a team from Manchester and Chelsea will still play in the European Champions League and British singers will still come last in the Eurovision Song Contest, the moment is fast approaching for the British to say bye-bye Europe.
And then the decisions that both Britain and its fellow European nations will have to take in order to survive in a new world order will become acute.”
• BREXIT: How Britain Will Leave Europe. By Denis MacShane. IB Tauris, £12.99.
MacShane: Still fighting the cause
DENIS MacShane doesn’t hide his downfall as one of 389 MPs initially found to have fiddled their expenses – David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Gordon Brown and Keith Vaz were all ordered to make repayments – and was one of a handful who ended up in prison.
“I’ve got a slight grudge because I was cleared by the police but then done over by politicians with their own agenda,” he says. “I had to leave the Commons after 18 years. I was humiliated, disgraced, I’ve got no income and I’m in despair.”
Yet, at 66, he has a remarkable resilience, as you might expect from being born in Glasgow as Josef Denis Matyjaszek, the son of an immigrant Pole, taking his mother’s surname to make life easier as a journalist and politician.
And he spent more than 20 years based in Kentish Town as his career developed, becoming chairman of St John’s Wood Labour Party and even standing – unsuccessfully – as a Camden Council candidate in Swiss Cottage ward.
He moved to Pimlico to be able to walk to work – and come home for tea with the family – when he became MP for Rotherham and was appointed Europe Minister by Tony Blair in 2002 on the resignation of Estelle Morris.
He still plays a role as an informed adviser networking in Europe and gives his support to Labour leader Ed Miliband.
“The personalisation against Ed is a disgrace,” he declares. “He is a thoughtful, decent, intelligent, reflective, incredibly polite person. And there’s no arrogance in him at all.”