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The End of the West

‘The End of the West’ by David Marquand; Princeton University Press, 2011. 224pp

Reviewed by David Bowden | 13 January 2012

Aside from being a well known commentator and academic on British constitutional politics, David Marquand is also a former Labour MP from 1966 to 1977, the son of Hillary Marquand, who was in the original Bevan post-war Labour administration. After he resigned from parliament, he was a Chief Advisor to Roy Jenkins during his stint as President of the European Commission and then went on to be a founding member of the SDP, and latterly continuing as a member and very vocal supporter of the Lib Dems. Then he rejoined Labour after the election of Tony Blair as leader and he continues to be a member of the Labour Party despite being very critical of the New Labour Project. He was one of the leading supporters of Ed Miliband during his campaign for leadership and was co-founder of Compass, the left of centre Think Tank. Despite this, he was also one of the signatories of the infamous ‘Lib-dems are the part of progress’ letter to the Guardian, ahead of the May 2010 election, before he retracted his support as soon as the coalition was formed. Notwithstanding that in 2008 he praised David Cameron for following in the Whig tradition of conservatism rather than as a crypto-Thatcherite as he was being accused of at the time, arguing that he offers inclusion, social harmony, and the evolutionary adaptation to the cultural and socio-economic changes to his age. He has also written in support of the big society.

Therefore when he writes in defence of the diversity and pluralism of the European project in The End of the West, it is fair to say that he has plenty of experience of getting round the houses of every political position that you can imagine. However, in his defence we can observe that there is no obvious contradiction in those shifts, beyond reflecting the shifting territory of British politics over this period and in many ways he is the exemplary Eurocrat, he is pragmatic, technocratic, and despite having a significant active role in the political class, on European and national levels, has not stood for election in thirty years. But he’s also, therefore, a useful person to hear critiquing the European union at this particularly perilous juncture in its development. He is a significant barometer of the thinking of somebody within European circles, in particular since he’s been very critical of the EU, having published this book in May 2011 when the EU was grappling with its role as the bastion of Western democracy and freedom in the midst of the Arab Spring.

The book has been widely praised in the UK Europhile press for offering a bracing critical approach to contemporary Europe in the past decade coming from a non Euro-sceptic perspective, but it has also (typical of the way of these divisive debates on Europe) been entirely ignored by the Euro-sceptic press. In many aspects it seems, at first glance, to be quite refreshing in its criticisms. He doesn’t just lament the ‘democratic deficit’ at the heart of the EU, in fact he openly describes them as ‘dubiously legitimate’, but also actively attacks many of those in the EU who consider the democratic deficit to be just a necessary evil, as part of the function of what it is, or as something unimportant that can be returned to later. He attacks much of the scaremongering over immigration and the rise of Islam. He is honest about Europe’s economic decline but is by no means defeatist about its role as a potential economic powerhouse with a significant cultural legacy that can influence the rest of the world.

On closer examination, though, we can also see how deeply paradoxical much of his work is. So while he critiques the politics of fear behind burka bans and the aggressive secularisation of Europe in the 21st Century, he sees this as reflective of an islamophobia, which he says is the 21st Century equivalent of the anti-semitism which led to the concentration camps. These are of course the same impulses which the European project holds so much pride in apparently being able to prevent after the terrors of the 20th Century. He recognises that much of the democratic problems of the EU were part of its function as a now defunct form of cold-war realpolitik, but at the same time he can only posit its sense of identity today in the context of needing to defend Europe from economic decline, the rise of the East, and the decline of the West as a construct.

Crucially he frames the rise of ethnic nationalism as the gravest threat to the EU’s ability to unify Europe and the biggest obstacle to enabling greater sovereignty, which he would very much like to extend to the people of Europe. However he is unable to place the rise of ethnic nationalism within any sort of context, namely how the rise of this type of parochial and ultra local politics has been enabled by the politics of the EU, a kind of local identity driven form of political engagement. There is a useful comparison to be made here between the many other critics of the antidemocratic tendencies within the EU who have suddenly come much more to the fore recently. Previously such critics have stayed quiet on the topic and defended the lack of democracy as a necessary evil. For example Amartya Sen who, around the time this book was published, launched a similar attack on the European elites for ceding too much influence to unelected and unaccountable supranational institutions, of which he did not class the EU as one of them. Christopher Caldwell of the Financial Timesobserved the irony of a book which is critical and tries to get a handle on many of Europe’s paradoxes but is also paradoxical in its defence of the European Union. It is difficult to get a handle on what it is he’s defending about Europe or what he’s saying about it. Caldwell observes that in the space of two pages he’s able to describe Britain as a resolutely unitary state, historically speaking, and also a multinational state which has never been a nation state of the classical kind, and manages to describe the EU as ‘inspiring’ and ‘dull’ in the same sentence.

Nonetheless despite the fact that he expresses very much the deeply pragmatic identity of the EU, essentially a response to circumstances, he provides a very contemporary defence of that kind of politics, adapting to what is actually a kind of cynical nature in which EU statecraft is conducted. He has never felt too defensive about its undemocratic tendencies, but is now very critical of the democratic deficit in recent years, which seems to be an attempt to bury the EU in the name of trying to save it.

The book does, though, raise some interesting questions; what does it actually mean to be pro-European? Does that term actually have much meaning in the 21st Century beyond a loose cultural and historical one which can have many meanings in terms of an ‘enlightenment’ or ‘European’ tradition. Does Europe now mean the EU? Can we conceive of those terms in any meaningful sense particularly with the seemingly inevitable decline of America on the world stage? Is there any contradiction in calling for greater democracy and sovereignty while recognising that the meaningful political forces are currently being expressed by the ‘demos’ of Europe (which is also a term which he tries to unpick) also seem to be also creations of the kinds of low-grade politics of local identity that Marquand espouses. This is paradoxical since identity driven politics are equally reactions against the very kinds of ethnic nationalism that the EU has created. Are these movements providing any meaningful political alternative to the EU or is this just a way that the EU is trying to maintain itself, not any illusions of inspiring narrative, but as something that has to be maintained in the face of crisis?

Dave Bowden is co-ordinator of the Battle of Ideas satellite programme, a series of Europe-wide debates held through the year.

The End of the West was discussed by the Future Cities Readers Group on 10th January 2012

Buy ‘The End of the West: the once and future Europe’ by David Marquand from Amazon UK