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Is Britain falling for Europe’s charms?


David Smith

Our long US love affair is not so potent now: the lure of the new Europe is turning British public opinion

When, just over 50 years ago, the first moves towards economic integration came in Europe — the coal and steel community — Britain’s position was clear and unambiguous. Civil servants, having received Europe’s proposal, tracked down Herbert Morrison, the deputy prime minister (and Peter Mandelson’s grandfather) who was dining at the Ivy.

Morrison had no hesitation. “The Durham miners won’t wear it,” he said, thereby ensuring that Britain stayed out, not only of the coal and steel community but also the European Economic Community which began a few years later.

The Durham miners are no more but when it comes to the euro, the current stage of the European integration process, broader public opinion has been seen to be playing the miners’ role. The idea that the British public “won’t wear” the euro has been at the heart of Tony Blair’s caution on the issue.

Now, however, there is evidence that British public opinion may be shifting, partly because of the successful launch of euro notes and coins on January 1, and partly because of other factors.

Last weekend this newspaper reported the results of an online poll, carried out by YouGov Opinion Research among 4,700 people, which showed that while only 18% of people would vote to join the euro immediately, a further 34% would do so if persuaded that the economic conditions were right. The poll showed an unmistakable shift towards euro entry since the general election.

Normally such results would be treated with a pinch of salt, not least because they appeared to be contradicted by other, more conventional polls. Online polling is in its infancy in Britain. Critics say internet users tend to be male, fairly well off and relatively young, so they are not particularly representative. But this poll was specifically well represented with the poorer “DE” social groups.

Even conventional British polls suggest that a shift is occurring. An ICM poll for the News of the World last weekend showed 31% of people were in favour of joining the euro (no time frame was set), with 56% opposed. When ICM asked this last May, the result was 25% for, 61% against, signalling a 5% swing into the pro-euro camp.

Another poll for Channel 4 on Wednesday asked: “If there were a referendum in a year or two, with the government and some business leaders arguing strongly that Britain would be better off joining the single currency, how would you vote?” The result was 51% in favour, 43% against, a mirror image of the results when a similar question was asked a year ago. Can the people of Britain really be warming to Europe after years in which, under both the Tories and Blair, we have been encouraged to regard America as a model for the kind of get-up-and-go society that we should be striving to become? For the past two decades people have been encouraged to love America and to regard Europe with suspicion. In the 1960s and 1970s viewers used to complain about “cheap” American programmes on British television. Then these programmes became popular. A European film that succeeds in British cinemas is as rare as a European pop record that tops the UK charts. Cinemagoers are more hooked on Hollywood than ever.

American clothes, whether they are Nike trainers, New York Yankees baseball caps or Levi’s, have conquered Britain more completely than Benetton could dream of. Until its recent problems, Gap was wiping the floor with Marks & Spencer. More than that, the fashion was to think American. Once the can- do, long-hours culture of America was regarded with deep suspicion in laid-back Britain. We may have shared a language but that seemed like an accident of history. Certainly there was something Germanic about the American work ethic.

Then, when Margaret Thatcher preached about an enterprise culture in the 1980s, a change began. Slowly, Britain was weaned away from over-dependence on welfare. Gradually, lower taxes came to be regarded as beneficial. A little greed came to be seen as good. Are we now swinging back? The British Social Attitudes study used to ask annually whether people believed Britain’s interests were better served by closer ties with Europe or America. Between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s there was a significant drop from 53% to 46% in the proportion of people believing in closer ties with Europe. There was not, interestingly, a corresponding rise in those seeking to strengthen ties with America, although a greater proportion favoured treating Europe and America equally.

Today, according to Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde, who works on British Social Attitudes, there remains a “them and us” view on Europe.

“Very few people in Britain think of themselves as Europeans,” he said. “The most fundamental finding of surveys is that we do straddle America and Europe. We are more welfarist than America but less so than Europe.”

This is where the debate could become interesting. Last week Peter Hain, the Europe minister, said Britain had the worst railways in the European Union. Blair has restated his ambition of lifting health spending in Britain to the EU average and of matching healthcare standards in the rest of Europe. In his pre-budget report in November, Gordon Brown made explicit the shift away from the tax-cutting ambitions of the Tory years and towards a higher, EU-style level of tax and public spending.

Mark Leonard, director of the pro-EU Foreign Policy Centre, sees this as highly significant. “We’ve got to get away from the idea that Europe is something we are doing, that it is not something done to us,” he said. “People’s perceptions of Europe are generally quite positive. There is a belief in government that a referendum can be won if they want to win it.”

By emphasising desirable things about Europe, in other words, ministers may already be subliminally changing our views on the euro. “Attitudes in Britain are not deeply ingrained,” said Dr Aleks Szczerbiak of Sussex University’s European Institute. “Public opinion in this area is very shallow.”

If it comes to a referendum, research provides pointers on how it could be won. Immediately after last summer’s general election, the British Election Study team at Essex University asked four separate samples of 1,000 people a “referendum-style” question on the euro. When asked if they wanted to give up the pound and join the euro, there was opposition among supporters of all parties. However, if the pound was not mentioned and the question was simply one of joining the euro, Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters had a “yes” majority.Legend has it that British opposition to the euro is insurmountable. The legend may have to be rewritten.



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