Why politicians admit to being Eurosceptic only after leaving office

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Why politicians admit to being Eurosceptic only after leaving office

By Daniel Hannan PoliticsLast updated: May 9th, 2013
That was then
First Nigel Lawson argued that Britain would be better off outside the EU. Then Michael Portillo agreed. Now we learn that Margaret Thatcher reached the same view after leaving Downing Street. Hannan's First Law, it seems, is as robust as ever: no party is ever Eurosceptic while in office.
Why not? Mainly because of what Milton Friedman called 'the tyranny of the status quo'. An immense apparat has grown up around the Brussels system. Disbanding it would mean taking on the Foreign Office, the Home Civil Service, the big multinationals, the mega-charities and NGOs (most of which receive EU subsidies) as well, of course, as the Brussels machine itself. It would consume all the energies of an administration for at least a year. Small wonder most ministers, while grumbling at their powerlessness, prefer to leave things as they stand.
Of the three converts, the most interesting is Michael Portillo, whose article this morning is characteristically sincere and penetrating. The poor fellow has been suffering for longer than people realise. A few weeks after he lost his seat in 1997, he spoke to a small number of younger Conservatives at the Institute of Economic Affairs. His speech was all about the need for what he called 'honesty and clarity'. During the question-and-answer session, I mischievously asked him, whether, given the importance of honesty and clarity, he thought Britain should stay in the EU. He paused uncomfortably for a few moments, then said: 'Let me instead answer a different question?'
Part of the problem is that the status quo looks respectable simply because it is the status quo. David Cameron's support for EU membership isn't based on a deep commitment to the European ideal: you will scour his speeches in vain for any such sentiment. It is instead based, I suspect, on the impression he formed in the early 1990s that the people 'banging on about Europe' were disagreeable and eccentric.
In fairness, some of us probably were: any movement that challenges the orthodoxy attracts  its share of oddballs. The same was true of, for example, the campaign against prices and incomes policies in the 1970s; or, for that matter, the campaign against the slave trade in the 1790s. Only when something becomes the new consensus do the moderate, sensible, cautious men suddenly remember that they backed it all along.
Try a little thought experiment. Imagine that, instead of joining the EU in 1973, the United Kingdom had had the sense to negotiate a Swiss-style free trade deal. Does anyone seriously suppose that, in such circumstances, any of the main parties would now be arguing that we should join? One answer can be found by looking at Switzerland itself, where 79 per cent of voters now oppose accession, leaving the pro-EU campaign to ? well, to a few oddballs.
The status quo will be the Euro-integrationists' strongest card in the event of a referendum. In almost every public vote, there is a swing against the change option in the final weeks: that is why it was so significant that Britain voted on staying in in 1975, rather than on joining in 1972.
Then again, the status quo might not be an option either way. On Tuesday, the President of the European Commission, Jos? Manuel Barroso, made clear that what he called the 'intensified political union' necessitated by the euro crisis would apply to all 27 member states, not just to those that had joined the euro. 'This is about the economic and monetary union but for the EU as a whole,' he said, for the avoidance of doubt.
Portillo, for one, grasps the implication:

    If we were cowed into voting for continued EU membership, the British Establishment would claim that the issue was settled for all time. Over the following few years, defeatism would run its full course and the political class would deliver Britain into the euro. So the referendum, were it to occur, would not be simply about withdrawing from the EU or going on as we are. It would really be about pulling out, or in due course entering political union.

Indeed. And that's why, despite everything, it can be won.

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