According to our local paper local Conservative candidates in Hampstead and Kilburn – the most marginal constituency in the country – wouldn't answer questions about Europe until the end of their Open Primary.
There is a dark logic to why Conservative candidates run away from expressing their views on the future of our country. This is the emergence into mainstream thinking of the isolationist tendency within the Conservative Party.
It's true that Cameron’s Euro-credentials haven’t been great since he withdrew the Conservative Group from the Centre Right grouping in the European Parliament, but at least he was the only Conservative since 1992 to not fight an election based on ‘saving the pound’, as his two predecessors tried to do and failed. There was some hope that a brand of less-than-slavering Euroscepticism might be being pursued by Downing Street.
But a number of factors, culminating in Cameron's Europe speech, have confirmed a marriage between grassroots Euroscepticism and an ideological expression of isolationism founded on opposition to the social democratic social model.
Cameron’s insistence on boundary changes and reducing the number of MPs created an instable dynamic in the Parliamentary Conservative Party, where for the first half of this Parliamentary term Conservative MPs in both safe and marginal seats started vying with each other for survival. This manifested itself in pocket rebellions on Europe and other cause celebres - and MPs engaged in active courtship of a notoriously right wing and Eurosceptic Conservative grassroots membership for their own political survival.
Once emboldened, this tendency has proved themselves as keen as Tea Party activists in Kansas to root out voices of moderation in their Party. This can’t be shut down – the Conservative Party from top and bottom has been well and truly captured. Pragmatic engagement with the reality of European relations, as we see even in Hampstead, dare not reveal itself.
Cameron’s speech reminds us that the debate about the future of Europe is not just about our relationship with the Commission, it is fundamentally one about the future of Britain.
Cameron’s argument for more ‘flexibility’ is a proxy for deregulation and the Small State, an a la carte Europe where our country becomes an ‘offshore nation’ of low taxes and even lower social rights. It aims specifically to end the social democratic trade-off between labour rights and business freedoms, a quid-pro-quo which ensured that free movement of goods and services were matched by workforce protections and enhancements.
Trading on our strengths internationally means, unbelievably, less financial regulation for the City and more secrecy in banking.
Pandering to the isolationist tendency carries the danger of empowering other fringe beliefs which have made common cause with Euroscepticism.
Isolationists and extreme Eursceptics tend not to believe in man-made global warming, or why we should have international aid. They don’t believe that Europe should interfere with working hours or rights at work for women when British business failed for decades to develop decent safeguards themselves.
The debate has also moved on: too often the Pro-European Left remove themselves from the debate about sovereignty because they feel ill-equipped to debate the false juxtaposition between the sanctity British versus European institutions.
But if the isolationist tendency hates European institutions, we should remember that they don't particularly like British ones either. Whether the Courts, Parliament, local authorities, the welfare state – to your average isolationist British institutions are so infected by European rules and thinking that only exit or renegotiation will reform them - the only legit British-made institution, the NHS, is often seen as giving too much treatment away to the undeserving foreigners.
For Cameron’s Conservatives embracing the isolationist tendency is convenient: Europe is a fundamentally a social democratic block on deregulation. A preference to renegotiate or ‘go it alone’ is no compromise with his grassroots Right, it is an expression of his Conservative future for Britain, a country responding to the rise of the Far East and technological change by going it alone rather than seeking strength in numbers.
During the late 19th century the term ‘Splendid Isolation’ was a popular conception of the foreign policy pursued by Britain, under the premiership of Conservative grandee Lord Salisbury. It was characterised by a new reluctance to enter into permanent European alliances and by an increase in the importance given to British interests overseas in an era of increasing competition in the wider world. It marked a departure in Britain’s approach to European affairs from earlier in century.
The developing Conservative narrative around Europe pays homage to this policy shift over one hundred years ago. The problem was that Splendid Isolation was ultimately an unsustainable position – driven by elites in whose interest disentanglement served. Faced with increasing international competition, was ultimately short-lived.