Blair and Brown chose Atlanticism over EU
by Oliver Daddow
Despite promising to lance the boil on Europe, New Labour instead pursued "red lines" and Eurosceptic-friendly rhetoric – says Dr Oliver Daddow
The lasting images of New Labour's governance of Britain are likely to be those relating to the country's involvement in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Tony Blair's close association with the hawkish stance of the George W. Bush administration and its drive to prosecute a seemingly endless "war on terror" overshadowed New Labour's second and third terms in office and caused huge rifts within the Cabinet and parliamentary party. It also stimulated huge public demonstrations against the war.
Gordon Brown was left to pick up the pieces of Blair's cavalier approach to foreign policy, although attention soon turned to the global economic recession - which enabled Brown to rebuild some faith in cooperative and multilateral approaches to solving complex international problems. The fallout is still in evidence, with the Chilcot Inquiry publicly grilling the major protagonists one after the other. The pictures of a somewhat gaunt-looking Blair arriving for his interrogation in 2010, testify to the strain the event put on the former Prime Minister personally. Meanwhile, his recently published memoirs are dominated by Iraq and its fallout.
This is all a far cry from the optimism that greeted the arrival of the youthful and vigorous Blair, leading an ambitious New Labour into power on May 2 1997. Intent on modernising Britain through an overhaul of staid traditions of policy-making and ideas about the UK's role in the world, Blair and his team seemed to personify the confidence of the "Cool Britannia" ethos they wanted to instil in the country.
The early signs appeared to be good, with Blair taking a leading role in the negotiation of a new draft Treaty for the European Union in Amsterdam - in June 1997. And Robin Cook was making a splash at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with his plans to enhance the "ethical dimension" of foreign policy. Even, if this bold language became little more than a stick with which to beat the government – on arms sales, for example – New Labour was able to implement a foreign policy that had a clear humanitarian flavour to it.
The high point of this forward-leaning stance was surely Operation Allied Force, in Kosovo, early in 1999 - which, despite the lack of a UN mandate for action, propelled Blair into the role of an international statesman of some calibre. David Cameron might not wish to admit it, but on the Libyan question he could learn a lot from the clear leadership Blair displayed over Kosovo.
And yet therein lies the problem. Blair seemed more comfortable exercising decisive leadership abroad – often using military force delivered by his "guys" in the defence establishment – than he was domestically, where the cumbersome civil service machinery and press cynicism would dilute the dynamic thrust of his reformist vision. Nowhere, though, do we better see Blair's reluctance to engage the domestic public and establishment on a sustained basis than over the Europe question.
A thorn in the side of British politicians and parties for decades, notably Michael Foot's "old" Labour party of the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher and John Major's Conservative party in the 1990s, New Labour came to power promising to revamp British policy - to put it at the heart of Europe and update public attitudes in order to make citizens less Eurosceptic. By 2010, New Labour could perhaps claim success on the former goal - but as for the latter, the British public remained as reticently sceptical about the merits of the EU as it had been in 1997.
Much press and broadcast media commentary on Europe remained apathetic and not overly informed about the organisation, preferring to publicise scare stories about Brussels directives and the divisions between nations at the biannual EU summit meetings. For all intents and purposes, Europe remained something "over there" for the British, a foreboding and malign presence across the English Channel waiting to strip the UK of its cherished customs and way of life.
For their part, Blair and Brown did little to sell the Europe idea to their domestic audience. They talked of modernising attitudes, but this was hard when they shied away from making the tough decisions that could have provided them with policy successes - on which to build a case for a more informed debate about the EU. Instead, on the big issues that sparked public interest New Labour's default setting was to delay, fudge and prevaricate. The Treasury's five economic tests ruled out debate on the euro; referendum promises were routinely made then broken; Brown could not even be bothered to attend the signing of the Lisbon Treaty.
After supranational summits, both Blair and Brown fell back on the jingoistic language of having "stood up to" Europe by drawing "red lines" in the negotiations and, thereby, preventing the creation of a superstate. This was more Thatcher than Edward Heath by anyone's measure. A key plank of New Labour's foreign policy strategy, from the outset, was in sum stifled by government in-fighting and a reticence about confronting opinion-forming constituencies.
Including the Murdoch press, which supported Blair the person - but which just as passionately despised the EU. New Labour calculated, like many of its predecessors, that the Europe question could be used as a football in domestic party politicking and when push came to shove - the governments looked to the tradition of instinctive, unquestioning Atlanticism in British foreign policy. We can only speculate on how differently things might have turned out had Blair and Brown been as critical of the US as they were of the EU.
Dr Oliver Daddow is a senior lecturer at Loughborough University, in the UK - his latest work is New Labour and the European Union: Blair and Brown's Logic of History