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Debate

Do critics of Conservative euro-sceptics have anything to apologise for?

In September 2011, the Centre for Policy Studies published the book ‘Guilty Men’ by journalist and author Peter Oborne.

The book claimed to hold to account the politicians, institutions and commentators who had sought to tie the fortunes of Britain to the Euro. Oborne and co-author Frances Weaver highlighted what they felt were unscrupulous and vicious personal attacks on opponents of the Euro and called for a radical reappraisal of recent British political history.

The book caused much political reaction, both for and against the conclusions, and fervent debate over the issues raised. The Centre for Policy Studies is proud to present the first in our re-launched ‘Debate’ series – ‘DO THE CRITICS OF CONSERVATIVE EURO-SCEPTICS HAVE ANYTHING TO APOLOGISE FOR? – featuring Telegraph journalist and Guilty Men author Peter Oborne arguing that they do and author, broadcaster and Times journalist David Aaronovitch arguing against. To give the debate added spice, Oborne named Aaronovitch as one of the ‘guilty men’ in his work. 

Read the debate and then get involved in the comments section below. We will highlight the best responses on our Twitter feed

No

David Aaronovitch

David Aaronovitch is a British author, broadcaster, and Orwell prize-winning political journalist. He is a regular columnist for The Times, and author of Paddling to Jerusalem: An Aquatic Tour of Our Small Country and Voodoo Histories: the role of Conspiracy Theory in Modern History.

On the family shelves, when I was a child, was a slim book with yellowing pages and austerity binding, called Guilty Men by – as it stated on the cover - “Cato”. It sits in front of me now. Written just after France fell and the fiasco of Dunkirk, it was a denunciation of the politicians who the pseudonymous authors considered to be responsible for the policy of appeasement and for an under-prepared and under-equipped British armed forces eventually facing the superior might of Hitler’s Blitzkriegers.

Those indicted included former Prime Ministers Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. They had, in effect, argued Cato, handed Europe to Hitler and connived in the deaths of British servicemen. 

So when I discovered via Twitter and email that the CPS had published a new pamphlet entitled Guilty Men, and that I was one of the villains, I wondered what I’d done that was even metaphorically equivalent to weakening the nation in the face of fascist tyranny.

Nothing, of course. The new Guilty Men is an obviously hyperbolic conceit, but it is also ironic in that it does the very thing it complains of, but a hundredfold. As I understand its argument, it is that in the 90s the British Eurosceptics (the new Churchillians) were the victims of a quasi-establishment attempt to close down debate on Europe through ridicule and vilification. But history – as it did with Churchill – proved the Eurosceptics right and the vilifiers wrong, and they should now be held to account.

This argument is hyperbolic because no such thing happened. At least not in that way. Back in those days (the days when joining the Euro was in any way moot) I was a columnist on the smallest circulation newspaper in Britain. From my vantage point I was encountering a media landscape absolutely dominated by much bigger publications – most of which Peter Oborne has written for – that were editorially opposed to the European Union. These outlets would confuse editorial with news, run stories featuring myths about the EU, and employ a nationalist and populist invective that classified pro-Europeans as quislings and European unity as an attempt to impose a Fourth Reich.

I am not an emotional pro-European like, say, Polly Toynbee- in fact I voted No in the 1975 referendum - but I had become anti-populist (all that stuff about the “metric martyrs”!) and felt offended and alarmed by the tone of the argument. I also couldn’t help noting that many of the same people who were so strident now had been quiet while Mrs Thatcher had ushered an unreferended Britain into the Single Europe Act.

In fact what seemed to have happened was that a strand of Tory thinking previously limited to Enoch Powell and his allies, and which led Powell to oppose the Conservative Party in the elections of 1974, had increasingly come to dominate not just the party, but the national debate.

That is even truer now than it was then. Politicians have taken fright and almost dare not suggest their true views about the importance of the EU succeeding in the 21st century. And the irony is that publications like Guilty Men are helping shut that discussion down. 

Yes

Peter Oborne

Peter Oborne is the Chief Political Commentator for the Daily Telegraph and author of the Centre for Policy Studies publication 'Guilty Men'. Here he argues that critics of Conservative euro-sceptics should apologise for their treatment of those vindicated by events. 

Many of the leading advocates of the euro have fallen silent. So all credit to David Aaronovitch for making such a sturdy defence of his position. He has done so with honesty and courtesy, and has provided a fair summary of the central argument of Guilty Men.

I do hope he is wrong, however, to suggest that the effect of the pamphlet is to close down discussion of the euro. 

Certainly something like that was the case with the original Guilty Men – indeed the authors’ explicit intention was to expose the Munich appeasers and drive them out of public life.

Frances Weaver and I are more generous. Indeed we are careful to acknowledge that there is an honourable tradition of pro-Europeanism, and that it remains important that it be heard. But we did maintain that single currency enthusiasts need to provide an account of their position if they are to maintain their credibility in what has become an urgent public debate.

Here is one example: yesterday Tony Blair made a dramatic intervention in the debate about the euro, asserting that it would be a ‘catastrophe’ if it broke up. Yet why should we listen to Tony Blair at all, given that ten years ago he was one of the leading evangelists for the single currency?

So the former prime minister needs to explain himself- all the more so because of his loaded party conference speech in 1999 when he sought to isolate eurosceptics from mainstream public discourse by associating them with racists.

Or let’s take the case of Will Hutton, another fierce supporter of the euro. Hutton is highly principled man, who refuses to abandon his affection for the single currency. In many way this steadiness of purpose is admirable. But it has forced him into two contradictory positions.

On the one hand Will Hutton’s thunderous Observer columns take the popular Keynesian line that the government should spend far more in order to avert recession. On the other hand his beloved eurozone is imposing a degree of austerity which would never be contemplated by the most sadistic monetarist. Like Tony Blair, if Will Hutton wishes to be taken seriously on the euro he needs to explain himself.

I cannot accept David Aaronovitch’s analysis of the recent past. When the debate on the euro was raging fiercest the majority of mainstream Fleet Street papers, including tabloids (and with the essential backing of the BBC), supported the single currency. As Frances Weaver and I have proved, these papers lied, fabricated and cheated in order to make their case. Aaronovitch was not, as he seems to suggest, a relatively isolated figure in a media landscape ‘absolutely dominated by much bigger publications.’

Finally, let us turn to Enoch Powell. I am no expert on Powell but I think that his case against the European Union turned on the issue of sovereignty. Powellites never captured the Conservative Party, as David Aaronovitch says. The Tory leadership under William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith was careful to stress the economic objections to the euro – and have been proved horrifyingly right.

However Powell’s warnings have also been proved all too prescient. Sovereignty is now at the heart of the matter. Greece and Italy are now economic protectorates of Brussels. Over the weekend two elected leaders (Papandreou and Berlusconi) have been removed in what looks very like coup d’etats, engineered, in an echo of the destruction of the Labour government in 1931, by international bankers. I believe this would have been Britain’s fate too if we had joined the single currency.

Our world is being reshaped around us. This should give rise to urgent public debate, and so I am very grateful that David Aaronovitch has had the courage and integrity to respond to our pamphlet.

Rebuttal

David Aaronovitch

If nothing else this exchange, conducted entirely I think in good faith, shows how two different commentators can have opposed memories of the same period. I don’t know whether Peter has had to endure abuse from dozens of Francophiles and the odd Kohlite, but I have to tell him that the most vitriolic comments I have received in my career have been from anti-EU campaigners.

In fact I would say that an excess of passion on the one side, and a lack of it on the other, has distorted the British discussion about Europe for over 20 years. Retreating behind an easy technocratic justification for European convergence, the pro-European politicians have mostly shown complacency and cowardice in the face of the storm. They have also had a huge problem explaining how national democratic institutions can operate within a supra-national context.

The problem is that this context exists anyway and enormously limits action whether we are in the EU or not. The idea of Swiss-style association, where you do what you want, and not what you don’t, isn’t even true for Switzerland, let alone for a magically detached UK. This is exactly what the crisis in the Euro zone is teaching Messrs Cameron and Osborne. You can either be in the tent being pissed on, or outside being pissed on even more. 

What’s dangerous about the current lack of debate is that a false truism is being created – that the crisis has its origins in the Euro. It doesn’t. I would be far more impressed by the told-you-so’s if any of them didn’t tend to be the very same people who championed ever reduced banking regulation and failed to anticipate the mother-crisis of 2008. And if, by way of shifting the blame, they weren’t championing solutions that I think will be catastrophic. 

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Comments

Ryan Bourne - About 2079 days ago

Lessons can certainly be learned on both sides as to how to conduct public debate. The key issue here though is that the eurosceptics such as William Hague, John Redwood et al, who argued against the euro on economic grounds, have been proved right - and not just right, but as Peter says in the book, right for the right reasons.

Whether there were vitriolic attacks on both sides is largely irrelevant. The fact is, quite often debate was shut down by associating those arguing on economic grounds with xenophobes, who do (unfortunately) exist. What's worse, the keenest supporters of the euro, including Peter Mandelson and Will Hutton, still seem to be in complete denial of the economics.

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Chad Noble - About 2079 days ago

David,

Is this not a prime example of the vicious ridicule and vilification the eurosceptics faced, for which Peter believes they are owed an apology?

A reality, not hyperbolic conceit at all, unless you are referring to the author of the below attack http://goo.gl/W74PE

"The spectacle is both nauseating and pathetic: nauseating because this heterogeneous rump of Thatcherites, little Englanders, xenophobes and eccentric constitutionalists appears to have no concept of loyalty; pathetic because they have no alternative agenda. In their conceit they are convinced they know better than the Government (and the Opposition) where this country's true interests lie. But what vision do they substitute? Not, to be sure, of a perfidious Albion notorious for going back on treaties that it has signed; nor of a country whose outdated notions of sovereignty led either to Britain being marginalised in Europe, or to a historic undermining of the EC's role as a bulwark against resurgent nationalism. Yet those are both likely outcomes. The Europhobes' idea of the EC reverting to a mere Common Market is a naive anachronism."

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Matthew Palmer - About 2079 days ago

Tony Blair is never prepared to go under close scrutiny and answer tough questions on any matter that relates to europe. He may make his views known but they never have any substance behind them. He is happiest being interviewed by freinds in a fireside chat manner - The man runs from Paxman, the Today programme and any other serious journalist. Other events he has benn involved in and his whole time as the PM has led me to say "Lying bag of S***" every time I see him in the media

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Geyza Dogzzz - About 2079 days ago

"The idea of Swiss-style association, where you do what you want, and not what you don’t, isn’t even true for Switzerland

"What a disingenuous and misleading argument. Are you suggesting that Switzerland has to abide by ALL the rules, regulations, dictats of EU membership to trade with the EU? Are you suggesting that China does or the USA or India?

We could be wholly independent and trade freely with the whole world according to mutually beneficial agreements with each nation, or trading block, we trade with. We do not need to be in the EU to do that.

Tying ourselves ever tighter to a sinking wreck of the EU is economic and political suicide. We no longer have a voice at the top table of the EU and the only way to get one is to go in fully and integrate fully with the EU, losing the last of our national sovereignty in the process. Doing, essentially what WE sceptical Euro-realists stated would be necessary all along for the EU to succeed as a single entity. One nation, one treasury, one flag, one foreign policy, one domestic policy across the whole of the EU. The Europhiles were either ignorant, or wilfully deceitful to deny that this was (A) necessary or (B) the plan all along.

Now with the Euro currency in trouble and Eurozone in a long-planned sudden panic, we see in reply to the public "reaction", that the "solution" to the "problem" is EXACTLY the sovereignty destroying full and total integration into a single country that WE had been warning of all along!

The ONLY honest and democratic and realistic and positive way forward on the EU is to hold a national binding referendum on EU membership with all the way in, or all the way out as the only options.

If we vote ALL the way in, it means just that. We give all control of our nation to the EU and our EU appointed representatives go to Brussels full time to fight to make the EU a massive success, honestly admitting that the UK is to be broken up into EU regions with no self determination, no democracy and no sovereignty.

If we vote no, then we have a two year transition to extricate ourselves from EU treaties, laws, agreements and to amend our laws accordingly via a grand reform bill encompassing such laws. We become fully independent and self reliant again (as we have been for centuries before) and trade freely with the entire world, setting our own laws again.

Either way, we will STOP being a brake on the EU and upon ourselves and this divisive and vile argument will be ended conclusively and finally, for once and for all.

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James Hargrave - About 2079 days ago

"You can either be in the tent being pissed on, or outside being pissed on even more."A pretty shoddy deal whichever way you cut it I think.

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Dogzzz Geyza - About 2079 days ago

"that the crisis has its origins in the Euro. It doesn’t. I would be far more impressed by the told-you-so’s if any of them didn’t tend to be the very same people who championed ever reduced banking regulation and failed to anticipate the mother-crisis of 2008"

This current economic crisis does not have it's origins in the Euro. On the contrary The Euro is in peril (As we Euro realists predicted it would be rocked by any fiscal shock) because of the crisis which has it's roots decades ago embedded firmly in the ever closer relationship between state and corporation, where both left and right wing governments facilitated the shift of responsibility between risk-taker in the financial markets and those who pay the price for failure.

This slow, on-going change in relationship accelerated through the late 1990s and 2000s as more and more risk was piled onto people who were not actually making the trades. The benefit of risky trading being that there was no risk to the trader, but they still got their bonuses for taking the risks. When this collapsed we saw the instant and massive transfer of responsibility from the private sector to the state via the tax-payer as banks were (wrongly in my view) bailed out in an unsustainable way, which would inevitably lead to ever bigger bail outs as the increases in borrowings needed to be repaid with interest. When we reached the situation under Brown that banks became the tool for privatising profit and socialising losses, we reached a major target of the classical definition of Fascism.

As for predicting the collapse, well, I did predict it and was writing on any forum or blog I could find from 2003 onwards that the increase in bank lending was utterly unsustainable, that Brown was taking credit for growth, which in reality was simply and simplistically borrowing economic growth from the banks, which would have to be repaid - with interest - some day and when that day of reckoning ever came, it would be brutal and the longer it was delayed, by borrowing today to pay off tomorrow's instalment, it would be all the bigger and more catastrophic for it. Time ultimately proved me right and Brown wrong! However by stating that you will not believe the people who have been proven right on the Euro, because they may not have been on the 08 collapse, you are now dishonestly twisting the argument by saying that you will not listen to, or acknowledge factual accuracy and correctness of the people who are now being painfully proven right on the Euro, because they failed on some other issue. That is simply childish and the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting "LA LA LA I CANNOT HEAR YOU!" It would be like you telling me it is raining, my sticking my hand out, it getting wet, and my saying, "I do not believe you that it is raining, because you were wrong on the Euro." By falling back and retreating to such an immature and childish form of argument, you are tacitly conceding defeat.

I accept your admission of defeat.

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Scary Biscuits - About 2079 days ago

'The people who championed ever reduced banking regulation and failed to anticipate the mother-crisis of 2008' are NOT generally the same people as Eurosceptics. Blair, Mandelsson, Miliband, Cameron, Osborne. They all believe our place is in Europe and none of them saw the credit crunch coming. It was Brown, not traditional Conservatives, who boasted about the absence of banking regulations and who despite spending millions on the FSA prevented it from doing anything. By contrast, Eurosceptics had been warning for years about a credit crunch (e.g. Redwood and Fallon) but were derided as lunatic outsiders.

I agree with Aaronovitch that it's not just about the Euro. Socialists repeatedly misunderstand the Conservative position on regulation. We are not in favour of less regulation; we believe that fewer, simpler regulations better enforced result in more effective regulation. It is the same as our argument with tax: lower rates mean more growth which generate higher tax takes. This counter-intuitive Conservative principle is the opposite of the EU one and it is for this reason rather than the Euro per se that we believe would be much richer outside the EU. The Euro is simply a Doomsday machine of unintended consquences. It was supposed to smoother nationality but instead is fanning the flames.

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Adam Pembrey - About 2079 days ago

I enjoyed reading both parts of the debate and doing so backs up my 'gut feeling' which was to sit on the fence. Were people wrong about pushing for us to join the Euro? Yes, however they were merely doing what they thought was best. Shall we make everyone who voted labour apologise?

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Edwin Gibb - About 2079 days ago

'Guilty Men'? 'Yesterday's Men' would be more like it.Nonetheless, I don't think Peter Oborne dignifies his case by gloating, on and on and on, like a boorish football fan, taunting the defeated away team's supporters, as they head for the buses. Not his finest moment.

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Anonymous - About 2078 days ago

Surely the whole premise of the debate is moot - we didn't join the Euro, so nobody in Britain has anything to be guilty about? And you don't see Peter Oborne praising those politicians who kept us out of it, because positivity's not his style.David Aaranovitch hints at the real debate of interest - who are the guilty men of the financial crisis?

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