Bad Move for Little Britain

by Daniel Hannan, from The Australian April 03, 2012

YOU don’t know how lucky you are, my friends. There isn’t a politician in Europe who wouldn’t gladly swap his problems for yours. Australia’s unemployment rate is half that in the European Union, your debt-to-gross domestic product ratio a quarter.

Like many British people, I feel wistful when I visit your country. Australia is familiar in so many ways, but we are aware of one critical difference: you still live under your own laws and your own representatives.

You are almost like the control in a scientific experiment, a poignant exemplar of how things might have turned out if we hadn’t made the wretched decision to join the EU 40 years ago. Our political systems are very close: my party regularly exchanges ideas and personnel with your Liberals; our two Labor parties are, if anything, even more intertwined. Your parliament looks and sounds like ours. But your MPs, unlike ours, get to run the country.

When Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973, most people believed that we were trading sovereignty for prosperity. Yes, we’d lose a measure of democratic self-government; but, in exchange, we’d get to be part of a prosperous and growing market.

Almost no one, looking across the English Channel today, still believes that.

For more than a decade, opinion polls have shown a majority for leaving the EU, and small wonder. Brussels has vitiated our democracy, emptied our seas, impoverished our countryside, smothered small businesses in regulation and diverted commerce from its natural channels.

The year that we became members, Western Europe (defined as the 15 members of the EU before the admission of the post-communist states) accounted for 38 per cent of world GDP. Today that figure is 24 per cent and in 2020 it will be 15 per cent. Far from joining a prosperous market, we confined ourselves in a cramped and dwindling customs union and, in doing so, stood aside from the parts of the world that were still growing, not least Australia.

During the 1970s, British Eurosceptics fretted that joining the Common Market would damage the dominions. In the event, the dominions flourished, massively outperforming the EU. It was Britain that suffered, wrenched from its hinterland. The EU becomes more anachronistic with every passing year. When capital surges across the globe at the touch of a button, geographical proximity is irrelevant. A business in my constituency will as easily trade with a firm in Sydney as with one in Sangatte, immediately across the channel. The Australian company speaks the same language, uses the same accountancy system and follows the same unwritten business codes. If there is a dispute, it will be arbitrated in a manner familiar to both parties. None of these things is true of the EU, despite decades of harmonisation.

The internet hasn’t simply sidelined the EU as a commercial concept; it has also reoriented our attention towards other English-speaking democracies. During your 2010 federal election, a slightly peeved column appeared in the Euro-enthusiast The Guardian, lamenting that the internet had left Britain “trapped in the Anglosphere”. Why, asked the author plaintively, were British people so much more interested in the Australian election than in events in France?

In that question, we glimpsed our cultural elites’ annoyance at the way the web had broken their monopoly. For decades, our bien pensant intellectuals have insisted that we are really a European country, despite the ties of history and habit, of sentiment and speech, that pull us towards the Anglosphere. We have relatives in Australia. We feel familiar with your political system. We share a head of state. Plenty of Britons are reading these words in The Australian online. Both your party leaders were born in Britain. How could we not be interested, for heaven’s sake? Truly the internet is a wonderful device. Not only has it made the EU redundant; it has also unmasked the Anglosphere. No longer do our political and cultural elites get to tell us who we are.

My constituency is 35km from Europe. I speak French and Spanish, and have lived and worked all over the Continent. But, when in Europe, I think of Abraham’s words: “I am a stranger and a sojourner with you.”

No Briton feels that way about Australia. We share too much: common law, representative government, parliamentary supremacy, personal freedom, property rights, free trade, religious toleration, control of the executive by the legislature.

These things are not just words. Our fathers were prepared to defend them with force of arms. No British visitor can remain unmoved by Australia’s war memorials, so much larger than ours. The thought of hundreds of thousands of young men crossing half the planet for the sake of a country on which most had never set eyes still makes me want to weep.

What drew those volunteers? Was it simply coincidence of language, ties of family? No doubt ethnic and linguistic affinities played their part. No doubt, like young men in every age and nation, some were attracted by the prospect of adventure. But there must have been more to it than that. The two world wars — and the Cold War, come to that — were not simply tribal feuds, like the Hutu-Tutsi strife. While contemporaries might not have expressed it by talking about Anglosphere values, they would have felt in their bones that they were defending a way of life: fighting for a system that exalted the individual over the state rather than the other way around.

Few countries have as much to celebrate. The list of states that were on the right side in both world wars and the Cold War is small, but it includes the Anglosphere democracies. Something in our shared political inheritance has served to make us free, and willing to defend that freedom. “Ye therefore that come after give remembrance,” says the inscription on the west wall of Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. Yours — ours — is an extraordinary story. We shouldn’t be shy about passing it on.

Daniel Hannan is a British Conservative member of the European Parliament.