As I’m sure my regular readers have noticed, I’m currently a student in the Department of Government at the University of Essex. The University and the Department have recently been honoured with the appointment of the first Regius Professorship of Political Science which has been granted to David Sanders, who has lectured in the department since 1975 and been one of the most important figures in British political science in that time.
Last night, he delivered his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor: “The Reluctant Europeans: Britain and the EU, 1973-2015” I naturally went along to hear it, and there were lots of interesting points made. The University were filming the lecture and the discussion that followed, so I would expect it to be available in full on their site soon. Until that is available, I did get pictures of many of the slides that illustrated and expanded his points, which you can see here.
The main thrust of the lecture was looking at how Britain has always been a more reluctant member of the EU than other countries and trying to explain why that is so. Support for the EU is lower amongst both the general population and the political elite in the UK than it is in the other member states, and Sanders believes that there are seven main reasons for this. He calls these seven stories that we tell ourselves, and they are:
Our historic conception of British foreign policy sees Britain as a world power, not just a European one, and we don’t want to be constrained by Europe.
A perceived economic disadvantage, where the rest of Europe does better out of free trade than we do
A sense of constitutional disempowerment – Europe as the remote and uncontrollable behemoth – coupled with a story of ‘we never signed up for this’
A widespread belief that the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court were imposted on us by the EU, and that the decisions made there go against the authoritarian instincts of many Britons
The issues and perceived problems caused by immigration, and by mainstream politicians ceding discussion of immigration to the extremes for many years
Beliefs about the relative transparency and efficiency of the British state compared to Europe, and beliefs that Britain implements rules more rigorously than other EU states
Inconsistent messages from mainstream parties, reflecting their internal divisions over Europe, have led to no consistent pro-European message to lead public opinion
There’s more information on each of those points, including some YouGov polling on questions relating to them, on the slides Professor Sanders used during the lecture.
I’m not going to go into too much more detail as I’ll likely miss out important points as I wasn’t taking notes, and the whole lecture should be available soon for you to see, I hope. However, he did conclude the lecture with a discussion of points that both those pro- and anti-Europe should take note of in advance of any referendum that may occur. There are issues that both sides haven’t addressed that could be crucial in any campaign – for those in favour, they’re mostly centred around the list above, but for those against, there is strong evidence that the financial benefits of being in the EU are much bigger than the costs, and that the most enthusiastic supporters of Europe are the young, particularly those with friends and family living or working elsewhere in the EU. Support and opposition to EU membership in the UK is affected by external factors which cut across all demographic groups, and the prospect of success in any referendum could be strongly affected by any shocks that might occur in the run up to it.
After the lecture, there was a very interesting panel discussion, chaired by Essex graduate John Bercow MP, and featuring Professor Anthony King, Baroness Shirley Williams, Professor Dame Helen Wallace and David Sanders. Again, a lack of notes prevents me from covering it in detail, but Anthony King made a very interesting point about how the key difference between any future EU referendum and the 1975 one would be that the popular attitude towards the political class has fundamentally changed since then. In 1975, the party leaders’ endorsement of a Yes vote helped to secure the victory, but it’s unlikely it would have the same effect now as it did then, especially having seen what happened in the Scottish referendum. There was also some discussion of what might happen in the effect of strong regional and national differences in a referendum, especially the scenario where Scotland and Wales vote to stay in the EU but are outvoted by England.
All in all, it was a very interesting evening, and definitely worth watching if and when the University make it available. (UPDATE: It is now available to watch online)