LONDON, UK — Once upon a time, British Conservatives behaved conservatively. Stiff upper lips, disciplined, cool heads in a crisis. They were pragmatists.
Nowadays they act like American conservatives: shrieking, losing their heads over imagined crises everywhere, as disciplined as a kindergarten five minutes before lunch break. Decidedly unpragmatic.
What wrought the change? In a word, "Europe," the inaccurate catch-all for the European Union.
Many Conservatives have wanted to leave the EU since Margaret Thatcher's heyday a quarter of a century ago. Like her, they saw the EU as an attempt to bring socialism into Britain through the back door. Not true of course. Helmut Kohl was no one's idea of a socialist (nor is Angela Merkel).
Now Prime Minister David Cameron is set to give Britons a chance to decide for themselves about the country’s continued membership when he delivers a speech scheduled for Wednesday.
First planned for last summer, the speech was finally supposed to have been given last Friday in Amsterdam. The media was working itself into a lather about it until a real crisis — in Algeria — forced its postponement. Instead he’ll give it in London.
Aimed at both his party and the country at large, it’s being billed as a defining speech of his premiership.
Cameron is expected to say he wants to renegotiate Britain's terms of membership, including by repatriating certain powers — "competencies" in the language of the Maastricht Treaty — from EU headquarters in Brussels.
It’s not entirely clear what powers would be reclaimed. Some believe they would be mostly related to social issues and employment law.
But the main thing, the most dramatic thing, Cameron is expected to say is that if he wins the next election (big if), he’ll hold a referendum on Britain's continued membership.
It would be a close vote and carry the very real prospect that Britons would choose to get out.
That prospect has set off alarm bells at the White House. Speaking to Cameron last week, President Obama made it clear he wanted Britain to remain part of the EU.
However, Wednesday’s speech isn’t something Cameron wanted to give. He's been forced into it by the Europhobia that’s become the cornerstone of his party's grassroots, a hysteria that transfers very easily to the Conservative backbenches.
Some of the panic is about self-preservation. The UK Independence Party, an anti-Europe group led by former Conservative Nigel Farage, has been polling around 10 percent in recent months. UKIP candidates could put some Conservative MPs out of business in the next election scheduled for 2015.
Some of it is straight Europhobia, present among British Tories since Napoleon was on the loose. Improperly medicated by Cameron, it’s now at fever pitch.
Perhaps it can be construed as true conservatism. Conservatives adhere to tradition, after all, and undermining their prime ministers over Europe has been a very traditional activity for Conservative backbenchers.
In the mid-90s, Conservative Prime Minister John Major faced constant sniping and undermining over his decision to sign the Maastricht Treaty, which significantly changed the nature of the union by mandating closer EU integration and the creation of the euro single currency.
Taped calling three of his cabinet ministers "bastards" for their backstabbing, he finally resigned as party leader in 1995. (In Britain, the leader becomes prime minister when a party wins an election.) "Back me or sack me!" he challenged. It was a risky move, but in the end the Eurosceptics put their tails between their legs and Major was re-elected party leader and finished his term.
You could make a good case that Tony Blair's historic landslide victory in 1997 was fueled considerably by the Conservative Party's self-destructive behavior.
So here we are 20 years later. Although Cameron doesn't have a majority — he heads a coalition government — the same madness still runs through his party.
The most legitimate Conservative criticism of the EU is that the public has never had an opportunity to give its consent to Britain's membership. Britons last voted on membership in 1975, when the EU was a very different beast. A free trade area of nine countries back then, it was called the EEC and known as the Common Market. There was no single currency.
Today there are 27 members, 17 of which currently use the euro.
Although Major won important opt-outs for Britain during negotiations over the Maastricht Treaty, including not joining the single currency, many Conservatives have been demanding a national ballot ever since.
The recent passage of new treaties enabling the European Central Bank to more effectively deal with the euro crisis means there will probably be more negotiations over future amendments. Changes to the treaty would give Cameron a perfect excuse to renegotiate Britain's position in Europe. He thinks.
Some German politicians are already saying Britain should get out.
However, polling on the issue of an in-or-out vote has been close and volatile.
When the latest bout of Euroscepticism broke out in November, the online polling firm YouGov found 30 percent of Britons wanted to stay in and 51 percent wanted to get out. However, another YouGov poll from last week shows the figures switching around: 40 percent would stay in and 34 percent want to get out. The "don't know" column is growing.
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Much of this is academic. Reports say Cameron is thinking of 2018 as the target date for the vote. That's five years from now. The world will be a very different place then — just think what it was like five years ago. There was a merchant bank called Lehman Brothers back then, remember what happened to it — and us?
What’s not going to change any time soon is Tory Euroscepticism and the pressure to hold a referendum sooner rather than later. Aided and abetted by the overwhelmingly right-wing press, Britons will be fed a steady diet of propaganda about the evils of Brussels and its usurpation of power over the yeomen of England who fought two world wars to keep Europe free.
When it comes, the decision over whether Britain should remain part of the European project will be a close-run thing.