Published in El Punt Avui newspaper in March 10, 2016
Martin Kettle (1949) is an associate editor of the Guardian and writes on British, European and American politics, as well as the media, law and music
M.K. - Historically, I would say that Britain has always been engaged with Europe. After all, Britain fought land wars in Europe from the era of Louis XIV to the era of Hitler — and England did the same for centuries before Britain was created. But there was always an isolationist undertow, especially in the era of empire. That's hardly surprising on an island that conquered large parts of the globe. Even so, when Britons had a referendum on Europe in 1975, we voted 67% to 33% for Europe, so the detachment has to be seen in context. I think the modern detachment from the EU is underpinned by the myth of 1940 — that Britain stood alone against fascism and defeated Hitler — a myth in which Margaret Thatcher passionately believed, especially towards the end of her career. It also has much to do with Britain's newspapers, which are often owned by anti-Europeans who do not pay taxes here and which have been fanatically anti-Europe. But the detachment of 2016 has more to do with the eurozone failure and the migration issue than with any deep-seated belief among British voters that all our problems can be laid at Europe's door.
Having said that, I think there is an English dimension to British detachment. England (I exclude London from this) is just as fed up as other countries in Europe with the sacrifices that ordinary people have had to make in the aftermath of the financial crisis and just as anxious about migration and low wages too. This manifests itself in different ways in different countries, as Spain knows. In England it has manifested itself as anti-European feeling, mainly through votes for Ukip. In 1975 England was the most pro-European part of Britain, much more pro-European than Scotland, for instance. Today the positions are reversed.
M.K. - One should never underestimate the will of the Conservative party for power. They have an astonishing historical record of recovery and adaptability. Most Tories think they can withstand the splits and tensions over Europe and resume their domination of UK politics after the referendum. I think that could be correct, but the splits are deep and serious all the same. The anti-Europeans are obsessives. Many on the right cannot quite believe that a Conservative prime minister wants to stay in Europe. They hate Cameron, and they do not want him to stay as prime minister after the referendum, even if he wins it. The opposition parties are all pro-Europe, but Labour remains more divided than you may think. A lot of Labour voters have no great love for the EU, for a mixture of chauvinistic and class reasons, and because they have been on the receiving end of a mass of anti-EU propaganda for generations/
A.B. - Who's the biggest loser in a Brexit scenario, the UK or the European Union?
M.K. - Britain in the short term, but the EU in the long term. Britain may be a bad European partner but the loss of Britain would damage the credibility of the EU project more than the optimists imagine.
A.B. - Compared with other major European countries, English economy is performing relatively well even though distance between rich and poor has increased over the last years. Do you think that the new global recession can exacerbate social inequality in the UK?
M.K. - I think that it can exacerbate that inequality and it is already doing so. That is why so many middle class voters are very sceptical about Europe here in Britain, because they see their security being eroded and they think it might be better outside the EU. I think they are wrong, but voters feel that politicians have let them down in many countries, including Britain, so the anti-EU mood can be seen in this light.
A.B. - After Ed Milliband's defeat in the 2015 elections and the unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn, has the Labour Party a clear project for the coming years? Given the internal divisions in the party, dou you foresee a lasting leadership for Corbyn?
M.K. - Corbyn and his supporters have a fairly clear democratic socialist project, but it is the same very doctrinaire project they had in the 1970s. Much has changed since then, and Corbyn gioves little impression that he understands these changes. He has tapped into two important demographics: young people who are disenchanted with traditional politics, and older middle-class left-wingers who like the idea of Labour as a traditional socialist party — Corbyn himself embodies this second group. Their opponents remain in disarray, so I think that Corbyn will remain leader as long as he does not he lose important elections and there is no credible alternative. Both these are certainly the case at the moment.
A.B. - Scots voted no in the 2014 independence referendum under the promise to get more powers if they stayed in the Union. Is british government delivering its promises of more self-government? Can we expect a second independence referendum in the short term?
M.K. - The Scottish nationalists remain in command of Scottish politics. They will win another big victory in the Scottish elections in May. But they will only try to call a second independence referendum when they are confident of winning it. That is not true at the moment. Remember that the 2014 referendum was a clear defeat for separatism by 55% to 45% in conditions that were more favourable to independence than they seem now. How much has changed since then? The nationalist mood remains strong, but the oil price has fallen steeply and the economic case against independence feels stronger now than in 2014. Many nationalists hope that if Britain votes to leave the EU, and Scotland votes to stay, this will trigger a second referendum. Nicola Sturgeon will come under a lot of pressure in that event, but I think she will be cautious because the SNP cannot afford to lose two out of two. A second defeat would set the cause back a long way, as happened in Quebec after the second defeat of independence. In any case, I still think the UK will vote to remain in the EU, so I don't myself think a second independence vote is very likely very soon.