David Cameron: Henry VIII or 'crassly stupid' tribalist?

Dec 11, 2011

The great debate: Was David Cameron right to invoke the UK's veto on proposed EU treaty changes?

AFTER 10 hours of overnight talks David Cameron last week refused to sign up to a new EU-wide treaty change intended to tackle the eurozone crisis, effectively separating the country from the mainstream of European politics. Was it the bravest action of a British leader since Henry VIII stood up to the papacy - or a "catastrophic" failure of judgement by a "crass" tribalist?

Economist Will Hutton:

There is little room for doubt in Will Hutton's damning assessment in The Observer of what he calls David Cameron's "crass stupidity" in using the UK's veto, a "catastrophic moment in British and European affairs".

The treaty changes posed a potential threat to "a tiny economic interest", a "fragment of the City", Hutton writes. "The financial services industry in Britain constitutes 7.5 per cent of GDP … the City represents perhaps a third of that, and, in turn, that part threatened – if it was threatened at all – some fraction of that."

What's more, major measures such as the possible introduction of a 'Tobin tax' on financial transactions, would still have had to be agreed unanimously – which "means that the threat was nil". There was no challenge to the City's "casino dimension" which the UK could not have resisted from within the treaty.

In any case, the coalition's desire to protect the City from measures the EU might have imposed is wrongheaded: a Tobin tax would be a "good idea if done right as recommended by the IMF".

Worse, Cameron's refusal to sign up to the treaty – as well as threatening the eurozone's survival – is "self-defeating": now that the country is out in the cold, "the capacity to defend [the banks]" and to "shape policies that may influence a far higher share of our GDP" has been "thrown away" or put at risk.

On the bright side, Hutton believes Cameron's "tribal" decision could cost Cameron's "cocksure" Conservatives the next election.

Eurosceptic MP Douglas Carswell:

In the Mail on Sunday, Tory MP Douglas Carswell praises Cameron as a leader who "has been prepared to put the national interest first", comparing him – favourably – to historical figures including Henry VIII.

Citing Henry's decision to repudiate the papacy, Carswell writes: "It was precisely when our leaders started to say 'no' to entanglement in endless European imbroglios that [our] small island … became a global economic and commercial powerhouse."

Continuing his potted history of the UK's links to Europe, Carswell rebukes the Stuarts for re-forging ties with the Continent. But, after this unhappy interlude, "Cromwell and the Parliamentarians – like the great mass of British voters today – were instinctively distrustful of continental entanglements."

According to Carswell, they looked instead towards the New World, turning their backs on the French and Dutch – and the UK prospered as a result.

This is precisely what we should do now, Carswell says. When the UK joined the Common Market in the 1970s, it "accounted for 36 per cent of global GDP" but by 2020 it "will account for 15 per cent … we have shackled ourselves to a corpse".

So, instead, we should take Cameron's veto as a cue to kick-start increased trade links with the 'Anglosphere', "that sprawling collection of English-speaking countries, with which we already have much in common; Australia, Singapore, India, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States".

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