‘Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three’, so wrote Joseph Heller in Catch-22. Major Major was a decent looking man who ‘floundered bewilderingly from one embarrassing catastrophe to another’. Major’s major achievements if they can be so termed were Black Wednesday, when George Soros got one over on the government that he led, by initiating a run on the pound; and the privatisation of Britain’s creaking Victorian rail network and the trains that ran on it. The companies which run these have together received more taxpayer subsidy per annum than British Rail did, with profits being creamed off by Richard Branson and his ilk. The network itself was temporarily renationalised and one of the franchises may soon go the same way.
Major’s major failure was in not permitting a referendum on British membership of the European Union, the treaty for which he signed 25 years ago to the day. I was 25 years old at the time, so I am part of the generation – resented by those who were in their infancy, in gestation or yet to be conceived back then – who waited nearly half a lifetime for a vote on this. As I have typed on previous blog posts, I don’t know which way I would have voted had a referendum been held then, so I am not going to condemn those felt the same way last year. However, it should be obvious that the longer a referendum was deferred the more likely a ‘Leave’ outcome would become, if only because voters of my generation would want to kick the political establishment (which the Green Party recently joined through its pro-EU stance), for denying them a say for so long.
But yet it didn’t have to be that way. Back in 1992 there was no inkling that the EU would expand east of the former Iron Curtain (save for the former DDR) and if the eastern boundary of the EU had been permanently defined as Stettin to Trieste then a fully integrated Western European Union may have gained popular support in Britain, because there would have been no large scale economic migration from east of that boundary; and Britain would have been in a union with countries with which it shares a common cultural, genealogical and linguistic heritage; but not with those which it doesn’t. Germans, who inhabit the geographical and political centre of Europe, need to grasp this.
To put it bluntly, ‘Eurosceptism’ has always been the default position in Britain, because Britain’s geographical separation from Continental Europe has always been a psychological one. Where ‘Europe’ in a political sense extends no further east than Germany and Italy – with Sweden also accepted as ‘Western’ – most British people are willing to accept that as a political partnership. What we now have is a political ‘Europe’ that is unrecognisable both in a geographical and political sense from the one which my generation was brought up with.