01/28/2013 04:07 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

Cameron Fuels the Folly of British Isolationism

Possibly the most stand out moment of levity in David Cameron's speech on Wednesday announcing an 'in/out' referendum on Britain's EU membership within the next 5 years was when he said: "It is time to settle this European question in British politics."

Who's he kidding? In recent decades, Europe has only ever really been a question (or neurosis) in Conservative Party politics.

There's undoubtedly a case to be made for reforming the EU's bloated bureaucracy and focusing more on competitiveness. But as Tony Blair suggested, Mr. Cameron holding a gun to his own head, Blazing Saddles style, and saying to his European negotiating partners, "If you don't do what I want, I'll blow my brains out," is a strategy which practically dares one of the Union's 26 other member states to say, "Well OK, go on then!"

The delusional thinking of those advocating a withdrawal from the EU is in pretending that breaking away from our neighbors will free Britain's shackles and allow us to return to some halcyon vision of Albion where we can trade freely, increase our global influence, and offset any damage done by our isolated position on Europe's periphery with the surety and benefits of our strong relationship with the United States.

But any relationship between independent sovereign states can only go so far if it is not underpinned by mutual interests. As an Obama Administration source put it: "At the moment Britain is a leader in the biggest economy in the world - what's the strategy for being out? Just trail around behind us?"

With reports that Washington and Brussels may conclude a significant agreement on trade later this month, a UK which was outside of the EU would find itself unable to influence the terms of such an agreement or benefit from an important driver of economic growth and jobs.

Mr. Cameron's speech on Wednesday began with a reminder of Europe's "catastrophic conflict" seventy years ago, yet the Second World War became the conflict that it did precisely because so many in his own party had been content to pander to public opinion through appeasement of Hitler and withdrawing from the affairs of Europe.

While the Prime Minister was content to invoke Britain's wartime leader, he neglects to mention how much Churchill's views were anathema to most Conservatives who distrusted the maverick within their own ranks, and who saw his warnings about Hitler in the thirties as the tiresome scaremongering of a 'has been' politician.

The sight of ecstatic Conservative MPs cheering David Cameron when he entered the House of Commons on Wednesday at the prospect of severing the threads of cooperation with some of our closest and most important trading partners and allies, reminded me of something George Orwell wrote about the British ruling class he felt had so betrayed the national interest during the 1930s:

"They dealt with Fascism as the cavalry generals of 1914 dealt with the machine guns - by ignoring it. After years of aggression and massacres, they had grasped only one fact, that Hitler and Mussolini were hostile to Communism. Therefore, it was argued, they must be friendly to the British dividend-drawer. Hence the truly frightening spectacle of Conservative MPs wildly cheering the news that British ships, bringing food to the Spanish Republican government, had been bombed by Italian aeroplanes."

In the EU era, though, it is not Bolshevism or Spanish Republicanism that has got Conservative MPs in a tizzy, but their own anti-European fetish. With all the problems facing the UK and our European neighbors at present, from weak economic growth to high unemployment, from tax avoidance by large multinationals to the threat of terrorism, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the Conservatives' ideological obsession with the EU shows that Mr. Cameron's party is becoming as ungovernable, reckless and extreme as the Labour Party was for much of the 1970s and 1980s.

Whatever the problems in the EU, and there are many, the narrative from British tabloids universally portrays Brussels as a kind of new Rome, dictating our laws on immigration, employment protection and even the acceptable dimensions of a banana.

Rarely if ever do these 'newspapers' mention the benefits of free trade with our European partners, or the ability for UK citizens to take their skills and seek employment in any of the other 26 member countries. The irony of so many Eurosceptic Conservatives arguing for the repatriation of powers from the EU to the same UK parliament which voted to increase tuition fees for British students from £3,290 to £9,000, will not be lost on those students who have opted to study at some of Europe's top universities for a fraction of what they would have to pay at English or Scottish universities

What is most absurd, yet unforgivable about Mr. Cameron's speech, if it does mark the beginning of the end of our membership of the European Union, is that it will have arisen over an issue that polls suggest most British voters care little about.

Those who supported appeasement in the 1930s were just hoping that Europe and all of its problems would go away and leave Britain alone. It took the lone voice of Winston Churchill to point out to the appeasers in his own party who were tempted to make a deal with Hitler that the British Isles could not be unfastened from its rock foundations and towed to the other side of the Atlantic.

Today, our European partners have offered us friendship, trade, and have boosted our national prosperity for decades, yet most of the Conservative Party seems determined to convince us that this is an unhealthy state of affairs.

But then, why should anyone be surprised? After all, "the insularity of the English is," as Orwell is so good to remind us, "a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time."