Monday, 6 May 2013

British Euroscepticism - the same old plot? How Hugo Young’s much revered analysis is still unjustifiably influential

No book since 1945 on the subject of Britain and its relationship with Europe has received more adulation from supporters of greater political and economic integration than Hugo Young’s 1998 classic: This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair.  Its central tenets deserve regular review as the popularity of British Euroscepticism develops apace. Painstakingly researched and elegantly written, it has both scholarly value and a fluent journalistic style that sets it apart from other leading Europhilic histories such as Stephen George’s Awkward Partner (1990) Roy Denman’s Missed Chances (1996).  The thrust of the argument is broadly similar however and not hugely original. 

In summary, it contains two core strands.  The first is that the Europe issue has been dominated by elites, with public opinion ‘changeable, ignorant and half-hearted’, rarely achieving ‘what pollsters call salience’ (1998: 287).  If public opinion ‘revealed a consistent pattern’, it was that ‘the people tended to go wherever they were led by the political class’ (508). In particular, one thinks of the 1975 membership referendum as a classic example in British politics of the power of political cueing by mainstream elites on a complicated, often abstract positional question. 

Now, with the possibility of another referendum by 2018 quoted by bookmaker William Hill as a 50/50 ‘even money’ chance, the question of the strength of today’s main party pro-EU cue is an interesting one, especially within the context of declining political trust in Britain, and forms the subject of my own PhD research.  Evidence from the British Election Study’s monthly survey of voter attitudes to EU membership since 2008 (see here), shows decline in the pro-EU influence of the main parties on voter opinion on EU membership, controlling for other causal factors in EU support such as individual economic and immigration attitudes.  Contrary to the Young view, voters are becoming more independent of the traditional political elites in forming judgements on Europe. 

In 1970, Lindberg and Scheingold argued that a ‘permissive consensus’ existed among European publics where they deferred to elites on the question.  It was within this schema that Young developed his history of Britain and Europe.  Since the passing of the Single European Act in 1986 and the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, passive support for integration has been punctured into what Hooghe and Marks have termed a ‘constraining dissensus’ (2005: 426) characterised by heightened issue salience around periods of party elite polarisation.  Across Europe, pro-EU elites have repeatedly failed to carry public opinion in referendum votes on further integration.  For Liesbet Hooghe, ‘the era in which relatively insulated elites bargained grand treaties in the shadow of uninterested and generally approving publics has come to an end’ (2007:5).  During the current financial crisis, pressures of political divergence between Eurozone and non-Eurozone countries, combined with economic failures associated with the single currency are presenting further challenges to the remorseless functionalist logic that more integration brings with it ever greater peace, stability and prosperity.     

The recent weakening of the 'pro-EU elite cue' might have two causes.  Firstly it could be a result of the changing supply in information to the public. Specifically, mainstream politicians in the public mind are not now so associated with the case for continued membership because they are not adequately making the argument.  In their place, contrary messaging is received by the public direct from a fragmentary media.  These competing media cues instil public blame of EU institutions for the crisis, because of the seemingly endless drip-drip of bad news stories from the Eurozone.  Alternatively, and more seriously for the integrationist lobby, it could be a matter of voter demand: the public are discounting what they hear from the main parties when making increasingly Eurosceptic judgements because they don’t trust those parties.    

The second strand to the overall Young narrative is the normative element, a highly critical assessment of British political elite culture.  Young is as gushing as his reserved, but often haughty style permits about the triumph of Ted Heath’s resolute pragmatism in gaining Britain entry to the EEC in 1973, ably supported by the influx of pro-EC civil servants that populated the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the 1960s.  In unashamedly elitist - even conspiratorial tones - he writes of bureaucrats like Roger Makins and Michael Palliser that ‘the interests of their country and their careers coincided; it was an appealing symbiosis’ (1998: 177). 

However, other than during this heroic plot of entry, for Young, British elites have generally got Europe horribly wrong.  The troubled history with the Continent is traceable to irrationalism among the British political class, possessed by cultural attachments derived from the country’s exceptional history of war and empire.  Principled concerns over loss of sovereignty and national identity, made Britain awkward, often arriving late at the European party or missing the boat altogether.  For too long, he declared of British sceptics, ‘attachment to Britain’s cultural and historical differences got the better of their political judgement’ (1998: 3). 

And here is Claudia Trauffler’s main beef, set out in her book review of Young’s work for the LSE’s EUROPP blog, 15 years on.  His argument is still in play she thinks: ‘nothing has changed, it only got worse’ – to which I wonder what she thinks happened in between under Blair?  He was Young’s great hope for a more visionary approach, but presumably let the side down by not leading Britain into the single Euro currency.  One should not forget how, at the time, opponents of British adoption were lambasted with the Young-type invective of missing opportunities and dwindling away influence.  

Right now however, Trauffler asserts, what British influence is left continues to ‘ebb away’ with David Cameron’s awkward and confrontational style.  Not a month after his ‘threat of divorce’ speech in January, ‘Britain was outvoted in Brussels on a piece of financial services legislation for the first time in political memory… The plot has never been more present’ she says, being part of a long line of attitudes dating back to the post-war years, ingrained as it is the British political psyche. 

Her fears that the Young analysis needs reviving should be allayed.  It never went out of fashion.  His core assumptions provide the bedrock of much subsequent discourse on the subject today, bleeding into academia’s generally sniffy response to the recent rise of UKIP and the dominant media narrative of the EU issue as a question of party management, largely detached from public concerns.  A couple of Young’s verses have merely been tweaked, but the chorus remains the same in explaining British Euroscepticism: the public are largely disinterested or ignorant whilst Eurosceptic elites are nothing short of possessed.  With this underlying disdain for public attitudes on the EU as superficial, any policy repositioning by parties in response to UKIP is liable to be seen as ideological commitment rather than a strategic response to electoral incentives.  Public contempt for the main political parties, universally agreed to be embodied in the rise of UKIP, has apparently little relationship with a largely elitist integrationist policy on Europe over the last 40 years – a tacit assertion surely worthy of further research.  


Young had chimed with the times of the late Eighties and early Nineties, focusing on what Menno Spiering has called ‘literal Euroscepticism, a long-established wariness not just of European integration, but of all things European’ (Harmsen and Spiering, 2005: 146).  In examining the likes of Bill Cash, he diagnosed an extreme case of a national sovereignty obsessive, indicating ‘a weakness for nostalgia’ bordering on dependence.  Peter Mandelson recently used a similar line to deny substance to Euroscepticism: ‘the problem we face in this country’ he concluded, ‘is not Euroscepticism at all, but Europhobia – it is a little Englander mentality, a harkening back to a past glory’ (Landale, 2013). 

The difficulty with this cultural take is that it is largely static.  It struggles to fully explain increasing Euroscepticism as a response to dynamic political and economic realities, particularly during the present financial crisis.  It is also a rather tired and disparaging view on British cultural attitudes to Europe, vulnerable to suggestions that Britain has moved on, in a more post-material, cognitively mobilised direction.  Haven’t we been holidaying across Europe for decades now, and love Champions League football, even idolising foreign players in our own Premier League?  And surely we no longer draw on the experience of war to describe European political institutions as a German racket?   

Reading the array of recent academic literature that is critical of Euroscepticism, one senses that the Young chorus of unconcerned, ignorant publics and dysfunctional elites is just too orthodox to question, and too obviously a cheap and easy sneer for Europhiles to ignore.  Rather than fundamentally reappraise it in the light of new circumstances, authors prefer to give it some new ballast, a little more floating time in the stormy sea in which the European integration project battles.  The public may continue to oppose Europe, or at least support UKIP on grounds of nationalism or polite xenophobia during difficult economic times (Ford et al, 2011), but for Eurosceptic elites, there is a new, far more addictive, economically ideological strain to their obsession.  They are ‘falling hopelessly in love with a distinctly American, liberal model of capitalism whose stress of deregulation and creative destruction has long stood in stark contrast to the supposedly sclerotic version popular on the Continent’ (Bale, 2012).

Tim Bale’s ‘etiology of an obsession’ within the Conservative Party on Europe is the Young approach reincarnated; the current exposition of Euroscepticism as delusional.  Replacing the cultural attachments of elites for ones of economic ideology it is hoped, might give the Young thesis a new lease of life within the context of financial crisis.  He argues that ‘true believers’ in Thatcherite ideology rather than ‘prosaic pragmatists’ have come to dominate the direction of the debate, carrying with them a baggage of resentments still felt towards the pro-EC Tory assassins of their folk leader in 1990.  Opposing Maastricht (on sovereignty grounds) was the soft ‘gateway drug’ (the political equivalent of cannabis) ‘that set the Conservative Party on the road to the hard stuff to which it is now utterly addicted’. Euroscepticism has assumed ‘an unstoppable logic all of its own’.  In a similar vein, Tony Blair recently called Euroscepticism a virus and ‘the right have got it bad… (it) makes you want to take positions for the sake of asserting them, when a rational analysis says you don’t need to be in that position’[i].

In seeking a ‘holistic, nuanced and interdisciplinary approach’ to the rise of British Euroscepticism (again, largely ignoring the role of public attitudes on party positioning), other neo-Youngites emphasise the conducive nature of the British political environment to Eurosceptic ‘drug-taking’.  The usual target here is an inflammatory press, brimming with EU scare stories, and institutional arrangements such as parliamentary candidate selection and the adversarial nature of British politics, with its numerous opportunities for factions to score political points (Aspinwall, 2000; Sitter, 2001; Usherwood, 2002).  Structures make the country sick.  For Simon Usherwood and Nick Startin (2013). Euroscepticism has become a ‘persistent’ and ‘embedded’ phenomenon, where a rational public debate on ‘the Union’s values’ has become difficult.  The problem isn’t the power of the Eurosceptic case but a failure for these arguments to be engaged with institutionally ‘through a more inclusive and popular form of integration’. 

So just who are the addicts here?   Young and his disciples would maintain that Eurosceptics elites are hooked on either the past or economic ideology, obscuring them from a rational appraisal of the merits of European integration and its values.  The public are also duped, in part not caring, in part deceived by their prejudices that find expression in hostility to immigration and a vapid political distrust.  What is yearned for within this analysis is elite leadership on Europe that puts the rational case within a new constructive engagement, a call that Tony Blair made in his final interview as prime minister: ‘The British people are sensible enough to know that, even if they have a certain prejudice about Europe, they don’t expect their government necessarily to share it or act upon it’ (Garton Ash, 2007).

But perhaps, in this startlingly frank summary of the false consciousness theory, the real roots of British Euroscepticism are to be found.  It is this patronising elite attitude that is as much the cause of Euroscepticism as the cure.  The goal of greater European union has itself become a compulsion, exogenous of changing factual circumstances in Europe and various economic health warnings about the Eurozone, and ultimately in denial of validity of public attitudes.  This disjuncture has only served to weaken political trust, which in turn has undermined the power of the pro-EU main party elite cue. 

Despite the Young analysis, it increasingly looks like the public will eventually have the final say on Britain’s membership of the EU, and their voice is likely to be more independent of views of the main political parties than it was in 1975.  The plot changeth, and the Young analysis, being ultimately a normative argument about the merits of integration, lacks the scope to understand it.  Not only has British public Euroscepticism hardened, the ability of pro-EU elites to contain this opposition has never been weaker. 


Aspinwall, M. (2000).  Structuring Europe:  Powersharing Institutions and British Preferences on European Integration. Political Studies, 48:3. Pp. 415-42.

Bale, T. (2012).  Conservative Euroscepticism: The Etiology of an obsession.  Article published on e-International  Relations.  Accessed 24 April 2013.

Denman, R.  (1996).  Missed Chances: Britain and Europe in the Twentieth Century. London: Cassell.

Ford et. al (2011) Strategic Eurosceptics and polite xenophobes: Support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the 2009 European Parliament election.  European Journal of Political Research 51: 204–234

Garton Ash, T. (2007).  Like it or loathe it, after 10 years Blair knows exactly what he stands for.   Article in the Guardian, 26 April 2007.  See: (Accessed 24 April 2013)

George, S. (1998).  An Awkward Partner: Britain in the European Community.  Oxford University Press.

Harmsen, R and Spiering, M eds. (2004).  Euroscepticism: Party Politics, National Identity and European Integration.  Rodopi, Amsterdam.

Hooghe, L and Marks, G. (2005).  Calculation, community and cues: Public Opinion on European integration.  European Union Politics 6(4): 419-433.

Hooghe, L (2007).  What Drives Euroscepticism? : Party-Public Cueing, Ideology and Strategic Opportunity.  European Union Politics, 2007 8: 5.

Inglehart, R. (1970).  Cognitive Mobilization and European Identity.  Comparative Politics , Vol. 3, No. 1 (Oct., 1970), pp. 45-70.

Landale, J. (2013).  This Eurosceptic Isle.  BBC Radio 4.  25.02.2013.  Available at  Accessed 24th April 2013.

Sitter, N (2001).  The politics of opposition and European Integration in Scandinavia: Is Euroscepticism a government-opposition dynamic?  West European Politics, 24:4. Pp 22-39.

Startin, N and Usherwood, S. (2013).  Euroscepticism as a persistent phenomenon.   Journal of Common Market Studies, 51:1 pp. 1-16.

Usherwood, S. (2002).  Opposition to the European Union in the UK: The Dilemma of Public Opinion and Party Management.  Government and Opposition. Vol 37, Issue 2 pgs: 211-230.

Young, H. (1998).  This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair.  Macmillan.

[i] Tony Blair, Business for New Europe event: ‘Europe, Britain and Business’, Chatham House, 28th November 2012.