The Disunited Kingdom: Will British politics change our role in the world?

Margaret Jay addresses the Opening Ceremony

Keynote Speech at the Opening Ceremony

32nd Annual Plenary Meeting

3 June 2015

Newport, Wales

by Margaret Jay, Associate Member

It is a great pleasure for me as an Associate Member of the Council from the United Kingdom to add my welcome to your Excellencies, and all the distinguished visitors from across the world who are here today. Of course, formally, I too am a visitor to Wales. Compared with the long distances many of you have travelled my brief passage across the Severn River from England was short in miles – but today it marks a real, a significant transition between two different countries and this is something I want to return to later in my remarks.

Nevertheless as an English woman I feel a very strong personal affinity with Wales. This is partly because as a child in the Second World War my family was evacuated from London to safety on the Northern Welsh coast – but more specifically, because my father, the former Prime Minister James Callaghan, represented Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, in the Westminster Parliament for over 40 years. As many of your Excellencies will remember, Jim Callaghan was one of the Founders of the Inter-Action Council. He very greatly valued his association with the Council, and the international influence the Council achieved through the collective authority of its members. In his latter years my father, as a Member of the House of Lords, became Lord Callaghan of Cardiff and I am delighted that tomorrow your Excellencies will be dining at Cardiff Castle; not quite an ancestral home. Although I’m afraid on this occasion you won’t have time to visit Callaghan Square in the city – altogether and in a very real sense I feel Jim Callaghan’s spirit is with us all today at this Welsh gathering - and I am, therefore, particularly honoured to speak at this opening session of the conference.

I was frankly extremely surprised when I heard that, in its 30-year history, this is the first IAC Plenary meeting to be held in any of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom, and I hope sincerely it won’t be the last. I say that not because I am afraid that you won’t be invited again and welcome again, but because of my very real fears that the U.K. is fragmenting – is becoming, in the current phrase – “The Disunited Kingdom.”

Less than a month ago the voters of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland together elected a new U.K. Parliament, and the resulting formation of a majority Conservative government created an apparent familiar stability after five years of an unusual Westminster coalition. However stability may be short lived. The fundamental problems facing the new government concern both the basic constitutional structure of the country they lead, and its international partnerships and policies. At the end of this parliament both may be completely changed. It’s not, for example, simply a journalistic joke to ask “Is David Cameron the last prime minister of the United Kingdom?”

The two major questions the new government has to deal with are, of course, will the United Kingdom break up? Particularly will Scotland become an independent country? And second, will the U.K. – with or without Scotland – leave the European Union after a referendum vote?

These potential changes to the U.K. are of such magnitude that they must have an impact on the issues Your Excellencies are debating here. The British positions on strategic diplomacy, on trade, on the use of armed force, on global development and health problems, indeed on the overall state of the world, may be enormously affected.

I hope therefore that you will think it useful and appropriate if I spend a little time this morning on some thoughts about the present difficult state of the U.K. and express some concerns about our uncertain future. Let me look first at what I am calling “fragmentation.” I spoke earlier of crossing the western border of England at the Severn River to enter Wales, another country. Although passports and visas aren’t needed, today separation is a reality. Of course there have always been several different cultural identities in this small island state, based in the ancient history of different communities and regions, but now there are separate governments. Britain has truly become a multinational state.

We’ve heard this morning from Minister Jane Hutt representing the Welsh Labour Government under First Minister Carwyn Jones, which is obviously different from the UK-wide Conservative Government. It’s not surprising that for Welsh families living in say Swansea, Aberystwyth or Rhyl, the administration in Cardiff that today run their local schools and hospitals, and other important parts of everyday life, means more than the one in power in London. Again perhaps not surprising that the Welsh National Party Plaid Cymru, which wants total separation, has gained greater prominence in this last General Election campaign. In the end Plaid Cymru won only three seats at Westminster, but their serious presence in debates and in the media, was certainly felt across the whole nation. And today there are new promises of giving further powers to the Government of Wales.

None of this compares in any scale to the revolution over the Northern Border in Scotland. There a trickle of change has become a tsunami. It’s worth reminding ourselves this morning that Scottish voters elected 56 Nationalist SNP MPs out of a total of 59 to represent them at Westminster. The other parties – those who want to preserve the U.K. – be they Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat were left, pathetically, with one seat each. It’s true that just eight months ago, in September 2014, the same electorate in Scotland comfortably rejected independence in a referendum but, as was forcibly proclaimed after the poll last month, “the Scots Lion has roared again.” The charismatic First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has recently tried to sound collaborative talking simply about making “a strong Scottish voice heard at Westminster,” but it would be very naïve to see the present situation as stable. Ms. Sturgeon has, for example, said that the incoming Westminster Government’s proposals for further devolution to Edinburgh do not go far enough. In my view, there must be calls for another independence vote before long. Then yesterday in Brussels, Ms. Sturgeon spoke again on “unstoppable clamour” if Scotland is taken out of the EU against its will. Why have we reached this perilous position? The commentators and analysts have spent the last few weeks trying to explain the SNP phenomenon, so far with few agreed answers.

I find it persuasive that the leaders of Scottish nationalism have brilliantly exploited the openings created by earlier decisions on devolution and combined these with deep, and widespread, contemporary disillusion and distrust of conventional politics.

In the General Election there were many stories of English voters asking, “How can I vote for Nicola Sturgeon? She seems so attractive!” To quote the judgement of a distinguished Edinburgh academic, “in the context of a United Kingdom in flux, a troubled Europe and an ever turbulent world the SNP were, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the best story tellers.”

In the immediate future “troubled Europe” is the story the Scots’ Government can perhaps most strongly influence. Following the Queen’s Speech opening the new parliament last week David Cameron has already introduced a Bill to hold an in/out vote on the U.K.’s membership of the European Union; the Labour Party supports the Bill, and there are now pressures to hold this defining referendum as early as next year. North of the border the SNP Government is insisting that if Scotland votes to stay in the EU, while England votes to leave, Scotland’s membership of the EU must be upheld. It’s also perfectly possible that Wales, too, might vote differently from England. These possibilities may produce a constitutional and international nightmare. Scottish independence would come back on the agenda with a vengeance and I remind you that the vote on Europe will be held in 2017 at the latest. As I said, stability is likely to be short term.

The most constructive way forward may be to create a constitutional convention to look at all these questions.

I’m sure this country’s international friends find it extraordinary that we continue to be so conflicted about our place in Europe, which of course, in turn affects our place in the wider world.

I think we have to look briefly at history as well as today’s politics to understand why the EU remains such a salient and controversial issue for these islands. After all people of my generation thought that at least the formal question of Britain in Europe had been settled exactly forty years ago when in 1975, in a previous referendum, we agreed to membership of what was then the European Common Market.

Even with hindsight it would be foolish to pretend that there was ever huge or popular enthusiasm for this move. As we voted in 1975 we understood the economic realities and we applauded hopes for European peace and reconciliation after two devastating world wars, but the British were always ambivalent. Our ties to the Commonwealth – and – most importantly to the Atlantic Alliance, to the so-called special relationship with the United States – were often the most resonant, significant links. My father, James Callaghan, was Britain’s Foreign Secretary at the time of the ‘75 Referendum and he negotiated the deal with the European governments on which the vote was based, but he always described himself as primarily an Atlanticist. His official biographer, the respected Welsh Historian Professor Kenneth Morgan, has put it well, and I quote him, “Callaghan was representative of a nation that viewed a merger with alien and unfamiliar continental regimes as unattractive in itself – but as a necessity forced upon it by change in the modern world.”

Of course in the intervening decades since the 70s, two new generations have grown up and in that time Continental Europeans and even we Brits have changed. If I think about it in personal terms neither of my grandmothers ever went abroad; neither crossed the 26 mile wide English Channel to visit Europe, and neither felt they had missed out on anything. Today more than two million Britons live permanently in continental Europe and many millions more take their annual vacations there. We even have the Channel Tunnel, which makes catching a train to Paris or Brussels at least as easy as to Cardiff or Swansea. In sport, our national obsession – Premier League Football – is dominated by foreign players. The two top London club teams – my husband’s favourite Arsenal (who won the FA Cup) and their rivals Chelsea, are led respectively by French and Portuguese managers. Both are very successful and much appreciated.

In 2015, of course, the Small Common Market originally of 6 nations has become the European Union of 28 members with a population of 500 million. It is the richest trade area in the world. About half of Britain’s trade is with the EU countries and three million of our jobs are dependent on that open trading relationship. It would appear all the trends – cultural, economic, and political – are positive, but it is the very size and power of what Europe has become that provokes opposition and has re-awakened old British prejudices.

An ambition of the original founding fathers of the limited post war alliance was “ever closer union.” An ever closer union which would now bring together everyone from the Atlantic west coast of Ireland to the east of Poland, from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, in a form of united federalism. The broad trade agreements may have created superficial unity, but real political and economic union has become even more difficult as the club has more than quadrupled in membership. Most Britain’s, who after all were lukewarm signatories even to the limited union have never shared the far-reaching federalist goals and have always been determined to maintain a separate sovereign independence.

In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher wielded her handbag to great effect in reducing Britain’s contribution to the European Budget and, under Tony Blair, we refused to join the single currency – the euro. How wise that decision continues to be. There have been many other instances where we have “opted out” or negotiated special so-called “derogations” from our formal obligations to the EU.

Nonetheless we have accepted our long-standing commitments to the fundamental treaty principal of the free market in labour. This means anyone of the 500 million citizens of the Union has the right to live and work in any country of the Union. It is this commitment more than anything else that is driving current British hostility.

Once again attitudes are ambivalent. British consumers welcome the individual Polish plumbers and Italian coffee makers who arrived on our shores. It’s when they look at the numbers of new immigrants that they feel fearful and threatened, wanting to turn their backs on Europe.

Undoubtedly the numbers are very high. The latest figures for the last year show that net migration into the UK was 318,000 people added to the population. Well over a quarter of a million in twelve months is clearly an enormous number to be absorbed into an economy that is only now recovering from a major recession. And there are many British communities where the presence of new immigrants has changed everyday life in ways that make the resident population uncomfortable. “I don’t recognise the town I was brought up in,” is a critical observation often heard. The Spanish bar in the shopping centre may be alright, but you want your next door neighbour to speak English.

This kind of general unfamiliarity has translated into specific political action when voters perceive that newcomers benefit unfairly from the U.K.’s generous social welfare programmes. It’s easy to caricature (as the media often do) continental/European enthusiasm for relocating to Britain as enthusiasm for our employment and family benefits, as well as so called “health tourism” to use the National Health Service.

On the other hand, very interestingly, a recent survey showed that unemployed Britons living in Europe are drawing much more in benefits and allowances in the wealthier EU countries than their nations are claiming in the U.K. At least 30,000 British nationals are claiming unemployment benefits in countries around the EU. For example, the latest research shows that more than four times as many Britons obtain unemployment benefits in Germany as Germans do in the U.K.

Prime Minister David Cameron has now embarked on an accelerated whistle stop programme of diplomacy to try and renegotiate our overall relationship with the EU. He will no doubt emphasise the problem of migration and try to restrict the numbers coming here. But, realists know that the free movement of labour is fundamental to European Treaty obligations. The Prime Minister must walk a political tightrope between those who say no substantial reform is possible and those who want to set the bar of renegotiation so high that it is effectively code for exit before even trying to achieve sensible reform.

Let’s be clear, the hard truth is that EU migrants have been a huge economic benefit to Britain. They bring much needed skills and contribute tax revenues that outweigh their demands on social benefits. Not surprisingly whenever businessmen are polled about their attitudes to Europe they are overwhelmingly in favour of continued membership in the Union. Business may complain about bureaucrats in Brussels swamping them with red tape and regulations, but a recent survey showed almost half of British businesses employ migrant labour and I’m afraid that this is often due to a shortage of skills among home grown workers.

But still the political reality is that “euro-scepticism” (the polite euphemism for being anti the EU) has continued to grow. In recent years these attitudes have been fuelled by the success of the U.K. Independence Party, which won nearly four million votes at last month’s poll. Under our first past the post electoral system this large number of votes has produced only one Member of Parliament, but they came second in 120 constituencies, and, if we operated under PR (proportional representation) as many of your countries do, they’d have had 83 seats in the House of Commons. UKIP – and particularly their forceful leader Nigel Farage – can’t be ignored. Not so long ago David Cameron described members of UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet ‘racists’.” Whatever their private views no one on the political establishment would today dare to refer to several million voters in that way.

It is true that many pro Europeans, and I count myself among them, who disagree strongly with UKIP’s aims nevertheless do agree that there is much about the administration of the EU which could be improved and reformed. In shorthand it should do less and do it better. But as we all know, to achieve changes in a Club’s rules and behaviour you need to be an active member, to play your part and build alliances with other members.

At the moment by threatening a unilateral withdrawal and setting what may be unachievable targets for the renegotiation, we are placing ourselves on a lonely sideline. To quote a top European official, “You don’t persuade the people in a room that you want to go on working with them if you stand with your hand on the door knob.”

So what happens if we do turn the door handle, open the door and just walk away? My view is that if we do turn the door handle open, open the door, and just walk away, it would be a disaster.

Nonetheless some commentators have talked airily about Britain becoming the Singapore or Hong Kong of Europe – a kind of offshore city state, or they said that we could follow Norway and Switzerland, who have favourable trading deals with the EU, but are not members of the Club and therefore have no say in the policies or rules of the Union.

 I think this would be a shameful position for us to choose. For a nation with our history, our contemporary international interests and our aspirations for strategic influence. The European question goes way beyond the hard facts of our balance payment. We need to be strong Europeans, because in a globalised world the only positive solutions to today’s problems are through connectivity and alliance. British history has shown us to be adventurous and outward looking we can’t now retreat from the world we must go on engaging with it.

Of course it’s obvious that in the 21st century the position of any European nation is very different from that of the last 400 years of dominant imperial power. Today the point is that even the largest, proudest country in Europe can’t hope to retain even marginal influence by itself. The only way we can wield any authority in the new world order is by acting together.

We are already in danger of being marginalised by our ambivalent attitude. It was humiliating last summer when Mr. Cameron was excluded from the EU discussions on Ukraine with President Putin and Europe was represented by President Francoise Hollande and Chancellor Merkel.

As Your Excellencies will be aware in spite of being left out of the Ukraine talks the UK has had a good record in dealing with some of the major international problems facing us all today, in a collaborative way. To take some examples: climate change, coping with disease pandemics, combatting world poverty and, perhaps above all, international terrorism and the threat to our collective security.

But as a nation we must accept that the best contemporary way to achieve our own policy aims is not to be a single voice, but through the cooperative framework of the European Union.

There are optimistic signs that the fight back against general Euro-Scepticism and UKIP’s political challenge is gaining momentum. There is now a strong cross party alliance of people determined to win a campaign advocating a continued and enhanced role for Britain in the EU.

The Ex-Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair put it well recently, “Europe as an entity and as an ideal is needed more than ever,” he said, “the individual countries of Europe need the collective power of Europe to assert their interests, their influence, and their values”.

I am delighted that later this morning we will be hearing from the students in the Future Forum, specifically I am interested to know their views on sixteen year olds voting on Europe as they did in the Scotland referendum. I hope these “Young Leaders of Tomorrow” who are with us today may recognise that although I am sure they are proudly Welsh, the United Kingdom remains a significant – if perhaps semi-federal – multi-national nation. I hope too that they will be citizens of a nation that, in the future, still plays an important international role. If the UK stays in the EU – and takes a leading role – we can, with our neighbours, be a powerful partnership and use our influence, even in a globalised world.

For my own part, I am optimistic that this will happen and I hope that both the UK’s internal cohesion and its international influence will flourish.