Issue 226 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Not so different

Lindsey German looks at some surprising conclusions from a new report on public opinion

Are attitudes towards European integration different in Britain from in continental Europe? This is the view propagated by much of the British press, which claims that the mass of people are up in arms about bureaucracy, the ban on British beef and the threat to remove the queen's head from the currency. In fact, views on Europe are much more contradictory than this and do not necessarily differ from those expressed by people in other EU countries.

This is the conclusion of the latest British Social Attitudes survey, which looks at 'how Britain differs' from the rest of Europe. It shows some surprising and revealing results. For example, this year's Eurobarometer figures show that only 36 percent of British people believe that EU membership is good for Britain. But only 38 percent of Germans-- usually thought of as pro-Europe-- felt their membership was good for Germany. Support for membership of the EU has fallen in Britain since the early 90s, but is still higher than in the first half of the 1980s, and far fewer people now favour withdrawal.

The armed forces, scientific achievements, history and arts and literature were all reasons British people cited as making them 'very' or 'somewhat' proud of Britain. All of these factors were regarded as important by 80 percent of those surveyed. In Germany, by contrast, history and armed forces scored very low, while economic achievements scored 83 percent, compared with 43 percent in Britain. While 72 percent of Germans were proud of their social security system only 48 percent of Britons were.

But uncritical pride was not particularly evident. While in each of the four countries surveyed-- Britain, Germany, Spain and Sweden-- around 70 percent stated that they would rather be citizens of their respective countries than of any other, only 24 percent in Britain agreed that 'people should support their country even if the country is in the wrong'. And three quarters of Britons agreed that 'there are some things about Britain today that make me ashamed of Britain.'

However, attitudes towards immigration tend to be less tolerant in Britain than in some other countries. Britain, along with Sweden, was shown to have the highest number opposed to government aid to preserve ethnic culture and had by far the lowest figure of those agreeing that immigrants are 'good for the economy'. In most countries, there was a majority in favour of reducing immigration, although this was much higher in Germany than in Britain, Sweden or Spain. But Britain is out on a limb over those who have suffered political repression in their own countries: it is the only country surveyed where a majority were against political asylum for refugees.

On other issues, however, there is little evidence for such reactionary views. British support for the break up of the nation remains much higher than any other at 31 percent. Expectations of state and welfare spending also remain very high. Indeed, the percentages wanting more money to go on social spending in Britain (52 percent in 1996) was more than double that of Germany, while only 11 percent wanted less spending (against 41 percent in Germany). Social democratic values are still intact. As the survey puts it, 'No welfare backlash or tax revolts seem remotely in view.'

Refugees feel the pain of European unity

How do we explain these contradictory attitudes? The attitudes to welfarism are symptomatic of the common defence against the cuts and the attacks on welfare now taking place throughout Europe. They demonstrate that the pure free market, neo-liberal views which our rulers try to inflict upon us have virtually no purchase among the mass of the population. Indeed, the survey demonstrates a marked divergence of views between those with high and low incomes, the latter being much more sympathetic towards state spending on welfare and social spending.

At the same time, the attacks now taking place in the name of closer European integration can lead to more dubious conclusions. The idea that there is some 'British' identity which workers here benefit from can become influential in a world where many people feel that decisions affecting their lives are beyond their control. They may have as little control over the government in Westminster as over the European parliament, but they feel it should be more accountable. This feeling is demonstrated by the survey, which shows large majorities for national governments, as opposed to the EU, making decisions over issues ranging from taxation, farm production, immigration and rights at work. Only in the areas of controlling pollution and stopping drug trafficking does direct EU control win sizeable support.

That this sense of powerlessness can be turned against those even less fortunate is seen by attitudes on immigration. The 'common sense' on immigration can be whipped up by a right wing xenophobic press, as we have seen recently over the Roma refugees put up in closed hospital wards or the Kosovans living in London. The grotesque spectacle of an exceedingly rich group of countries being unable to care for very small numbers of refugees from its poor eastern periphery can find support because there is so much bitterness and resentment anyway.
British and European Social Attitudes: How Britain Differs
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What's the question?

Labour is committed to a referendum on Britain joining the euro. This is a long way off, and we have no way of telling what form the question will take. Blair is certain to exploit Tory weaknesses on Europe. The Labour left is far weaker, at present, than it was at the time of the referendum on the Common Market, and the Communist Party has ceased to be. The line up of forces opposed to EMU is bound to be dominated by the right, and any campaign will certainly be used by right wing politicians to strengthen their hand.

Yet at the time of the Common Market referendum some of the most prominent opposition also came from the far right, notably the racist Enoch Powell. The campaign was dominated by nationalism, and left wing arguments against membership were largely crowded out. The Labour left and the CP essentially gave up their independence and agreed to share platforms with the right. The main 'left wing' argument in the campaign was that joining would reduce the sovereignty of the British parliament-- a position perfectly acceptable to Powell and his followers.

On the Common Market, the International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP) called for a no vote-- after considerable debate on the merits of a call to boycott the referendum. This time round, the arguments are clearer. It's not about Europe versus Britain, but about what kind of Europe. The terms of monetary union are weighted heavily against workers' interests. A call for a no vote would therefore fit naturally with protests and campaigns on all the day to day issues we face: health, education, job losses, closures, speed-up, rationalisation. The fact that workers elsewhere in Europe will also be fighting to defend themselves against the impact of monetary union will also make it much easier to argue the socialist case.

Countdown to the euro

1 January 1999 By 1 January 2002 On 1 July 2002