There’s an utterly mad article in this week’s Spectator, in which a rather overheated Tory called Adrian Hilton argues, with apparent sincerity, that the EU is a grand Papist conspiracy to subject Protestant Britain to Roman Catholic tyranny. I mention it, not just to point and laugh, but because one passage in it illustrates a peculiar blind spot that is very common amongst UK Europhobes:
There are significant structural parallels between the Roman religious system and the political subsidiarity principle, which is itself a concept of papal origin. In the theory of ecclesial authority, an important part is played by the concept of the representation of One Christ, who combined in himself all the offices for the dispensation of salvation (prophet, priest and king). If the Church is ruled by God, then God must necessarily flow down from above, step by step, so at the apex of human order there must be a single channel, directed by God himself, and only at the lower levels could the streams of Gods will begin to branch into subsidiary levels. Subsidiarity was designed not to permit the tributaries to claw back what may best be performed at a lower level, but to permit the infallible centre to decide what freedoms to grant the subsidiary levels. Whether it be termed federalism or centralism, subsidiarity denotes the downward devolvement of certain powers for the practical outworking of the Supreme Powers objectives.
This is strikingly similar to the way devolved governments in Scotland and Wales were set up. The Westminster Parliament chose which powers to devolve to these two nations, and the only choice given about those powers was that Scotland was graced with the opportunity to forgo the ability to vary its own taxes. Local government in England works along a similar principle: local authorities can do nothing unless explicitly permitted to do so by central government. I doubt Hilton would regard that as part of some Papist plot. Yet, when the EU acts in ways which mirror how the UK has developed, suddenly it’s a diabolical scheme which must be resisted by all True Patriots.
There are all sorts of practical political issues surrounding European integration, the single currency, the EU constitution, and so on. They’re worth arguing about, and worth trying to get right. What underlies a lot of the argument, though is a basic emotional reaction to the idea of pooling sovereignty with other nations. Maybe it’s because I come from a country which entered into economic and political union to form a powerful superstate way back in 1707, but I’m fundamentally pretty relaxed about the prospect of the UK doing the same. Some of the rhetoric I hear from British Eurosceptics, like that in the Hilton article, seems to be blind to the real history of Britain, and to the way our thinking about sovereignty and national identity has repeatedly evolved to suit new circumstances.
Notions of national identity and sovereignty in Britain are messy, complex and inconsistent. Partnership with other EU nations may violate some imagined Platonic ideal of Britishness, but out here in the real world we’ll reexamine and recreate our notions of identity as the world changes around us, just as we’ve always done.