If Barack Obama was having the worst week of his presidency last week, so too was his British visitor, David Cameron, who was having the worst week of his premiership.
While Obama and his administration were struggling to get on top of the Benghazi situation, the IRS scandal and the Associated Press disaster, Cameron was losing control of his Conservative party and his carefully laid plans to steer a course through the stormy waters occasioned by Britain’s membership in the European Union.
Cameron’s troubles have a long history. Britons have always been wary of Europe and the various manifestations of what is now the European Union.
Somewhat reluctantly, Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath negotiated Britain’s entry back in 1975.
But there was a deep divide over Europe in both the Conservative and Labor parties. It reflected Britain’s island status and the British sense of separateness and even superiority to the Continent and its ways. The legendary headline in the Times of London, “Fog Shrouds Channel, Continent Isolated,” is quoted with approval.
Although both parties have plenty of what are called Euro skeptics, it is the Conservatives, particularly Conservative backbench members of the House of Commons, who have harbored the most resentment of Britain’s membership in Europe.
This hatred of what they see as a loss of sovereignty has simmered ever since Britain joined. Margaret Thatcher herself was a Euro skeptic, but not so skeptical that she did not vote for Britain’s entry before she became prime minister. Later, Thatcher would rail against Europe while keeping Britain in. She signed one of the building blocks of the new Europe, the Common European Act, and then criticized it roundly.
Thatcher practiced a kind of but-I-held-my-nose-all-the-while politics vis-a-vis Europe that many Tories adopted. They got away with it because the only conservative movement that was more hostile was the British National Party — a fringe group including skinheads — that fanned anti-immigrant feeling to satisfy its members.
A weak outfit called the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) offered nothing — until it elected a new leader, who has dramatically changed things. He is Nigel Farage, a former Tory member of the European Parliament and a self-described libertarian.
Farage is a charmer. He speaks well and has galvanized feelings against Europe and against immigration, including EU countries whose citizens have the right to work in the United Kingdom.
In local elections earlier this month, the UKIP showed strongly with what would have been 23 percent of the vote if it had been a national election. Although they took votes from the Labor Party and the Liberals, it is the local government Conservatives who were really badly hurt.
This has led colleagues on the backbenches of the House of Commons to revolt against Cameron’s slow plan to renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership in Europe before putting the result to a referendum in 2017. Cameron’s plan depends on other EU members accepting a special relationship with Britain and his government winning the next election, probably in 2015.
Because of this carefully nuanced approach, there was nothing about a referendum in the Queen’s Speech from the Throne this year. It is in this speech, delivered by the Queen but written by the prime minister, that the ruling party lays out its legislative agenda.
Tory ministers of Parliament, fearing for their jobs with the UKIP nipping at their heels, want a referendum now. They want everyone to know that they are more anti-Europe than the UKIP. More than 100 have introduced a “backbenchers’ bill,” calling for the referendum to be moved forward. Two cabinet members have joined them but under rules cannot vote against the prime minister, only abstain.
All this blew up while Cameron was here to lobby Obama on behalf of a free-trade agreement between Europe and the United States. Obama, in fact, lobbied Cameron to keep Britain in Europe.
The political fear and nativism in the Conservative ranks is so great that facts and logic have been given a sabbatical. If Britain leaves the European Union, the impact on the British economy could be devastating. The European Union is Britain’s largest trading partner and Britain is its banking capital. Business is very scared and can be counted on to support Cameron and staying in the European Union. At its narrowest, the English Channel is 21 miles wide.