The European question did much to split political parties and bring down prime ministers and chancellors across a couple of political generations. That this great clash may now be fizzling out would be one possible reading of a fascinating new YouGov poll on British attitudes to the European Union, which is published next month in a new pamphlet 'Europe's Left in the Crisis' from FEPS and the Fabian Society, and which The Observer previews in a news report today: Britons want EU to assert itself on the global stage.
This post sets out below more of the YouGov poll details, showing that the British public are sceptical of the EU as an idea, yet rather in favour of having more of it in practice, along with some initial thoughts on what this could mean for public and political arguments over the future of the EU and Britain's place in it.
YouGov polling for the Fabian Society/FEPS book 'Europe's Left In the Crisis'.
Is Britain's membership of the European Union a good thing or a bad thing for Britain?
Good thing: 22%
Bad thing: 45%
Neither good nor bad: 21%
Don't know: 12%
* This good thing/bad thing question demonstrates a stark class gap in attitudes to the EU. 53% of C2DE voters say British membership of the EU is a bad thing overall, and only 13% a good thing overall (-40), than among ABC1 voters, where the gap closes to -12, with 28% positive and 40% negative.
Narrow pluralities of Labour (35-34) and LibDem (36-27) supporters are positive about the EU, while Conservatives are strongly negative (15-61).
Only 16% of women say the EU is a good thing, compared to 28% of men. But men (48%) are also more likely to say it is a bad thing than women (43%). 23% of women say it is neither a good nor bad thing, while three times as many women (18%) as men say they don't know.
The 27 countries in the European Union work together in different ways. Thinking about Europe as a whole, rather just Britain, what is your view of the level of cooperation between EU countries?
Overall, the EU member states should cooperate more closely so that they can better deal with major international issues: 21%
Overall, the EU member states should loosen their links so they have more flexibility to deal with national issues: 49%
Overall, the current balance between EU cooperation and national action is about right: 9%
Don't know: 20%
* Supporters of all the major political parties prefer looser EU cooperation overall. While 66% of Conservatives favour looser ties, with 15% favouring closer cooperation, the margins in favour of looser ties are narrower among Labour (40-30%) and LibDem (38-33%) voters.
Below are a list of specific areas. For each one please say whether you think countries in Europe should co-operate more closely together, or should loosen their links or if the present balance is about right.
Tackling climate change
EU countries should co-operate more closely on this issue: 55%
EU countries should loosen their links on this issue: 14%
The current balance is about right: 14%
Don't know: 16%
Tackling climate change: Closer climate cooperation has support across all parties, with Conservatives in favour by 50% to 22%, alongside 66-67% of Labour and LibDem voters. Those who say the EU is a bad thing overall want closer cooperation on climate change by 48 to 24%.
Diplomatic relations with non-European countries (such as sharing embassies)
EU countries should co-operate more closely on this issue: 35%
EU countries should loosen their links on this issue: 26%
The current balance is about right: 17%
Don't know: 22%
Fighting terrorism and international crime
EU countries should co-operate more closely on this issue: 71%
EU countries should loosen their links on this issue: 7%
The current balance is about right: 9%
Don't know: 13%
Regulating banks and financial institutions
EU countries should co-operate more closely on this issue: 53%
EU countries should loosen their links on this issue: 25%
The current balance is about right: 6%
Don't know: 15%
Closer cooperation in this area has the backing of Conservatives (45-38) and those who think British membership of the EU is a bad thing (48-37), along with very strong support (74-11) among those who are positive about the EU. There is 54% support from C2DE supporters, along with 53% of ABC1 voters.
Recovering from the recession and financial crisis
EU countries should co-operate more closely on this issue: 45%
EU countries should loosen their links on this issue: 30%
The current balance is about right: 9%
Don't know: 16%
Conservative voters, who oppose closer cooperation by 37-44% disagree with both Labour (59-21) and Liberal Democrat (48-26) supporters on this.
Some people think that the European Union should pass common regulations across the whole of the EU to discourage companies from relocating to other EU countries with lower taxes or fewer regulations. Other people think that countries in the EU should be free to set their own taxes and regulations.
Do you think the European Union should agree minimum levels of levels of workers rights so EU countries cannot undercut each other with cheaper labour or lower regulation, or should each country be able to make their own decisions about what regulations are best for their workers?
The European Union should agree minimum levels of workers rights: 55%
The European Union should not agree minimum levels of workers rights: 27%
Don't know: 17%
* Minimum labour standards across the EU gains equally strong support from ABC1 (56%) and C2DE (54%) voters. It is favoured by Conservatives (48-42) as well as Labour (71-16) and LibDem (66-20) voters. It is also supported by those who think EU membership a bad thing (49-41) or who are neutral about it (54-25) as well as among pro-EU voters (76-15), suggesting this could be an issue which could help to address concerns about the EU.
Do you think the European Union should agree minimum levels of taxation on large businesses so companies cannot relocate to whichever countries offer the lowest tax rates, or should each country be able to make their own decisions about what level of tax is best for their companies?
The European Union should agree minimum levels of tax on large businesses: 47%
The European Union should not agree minimum levels of tax on large businesses: 34%
Don't know: 19%
* Both Labour (59-26) and Liberal Democrat (56-30) voters agree with the proposal for minimum business tax rates, but most Conservatives oppose it (36-52). There is stronger support among C2DE voters (48-30) than among ABC1 voters (46-38).
Thinking about the next 25 years or so, many people have suggested that China will join the United States as a second political and economic Superpower. If that turns out to be true, which of the following is closest to your view.
Britain and other European countries should work more closely together to maximise their voice and influence in the world. 40%
Britain and other European countries should use their own historic international links to try to maximise their own voice and influence: 33%
Don't know: 18
* Both Labour (54-25) and LibDem voters (55-23) believe the rise of China should see closer EU cooperation, but Conservatives are more likely to disagree (30-47).
YouGov carried out the fieldwork for the poll of 2144 GB adults on 28th-29th November 2010.
So what might we make of those findings? They ought to generate debate on all sides of the question. If the British have a reputation for being among the most Eurosceptic of European publics, the poll suggests that the reality is that British Euroscepticism is a very moderate affair and does not present any great barrier to closer EU cooperation in almost every area where a pragmatic argument that cooperating across national boundaries is necessary to make a positive difference can plausibly be made.
Even as 45% of the public think EU membership is a 'bad thing' and 49% supporting the general principle of EU members loosening their ties, this is combined with strong support for closer EU cooperation across most major areas of policy - including climate change, anti-terrorism measures, economic cooperation and foreign policy. The appeal of the idea of fair rules to make a single market works means that, on balance, the public are more likely to support than oppose shared minimum labour standards and common minimum business tax rates - which would of course be highly politically contested areas. Those views are more likely to be held by both LibDem and Labour voters than Conservatives - though large numbers of Tory voters and those who are generally Eurosceptic in all parties in fact support closer cooperation in many specific cases.
The poll shows that Eurosceptics have been politically effective in demonising European institutions, but that they have failed to make their arguments resonate over concrete questions of what we might want the EU to do. Pro-Europeans ought to be better placed than they often think to win these real world debates - as long as they take seriously the need to earn permission for cooperation where it is genuinely necessary, and as long as the EU can demonstrate that it can respond effectively to problems which nations can't tackle on their own.
So the YouGov/Fabian/FEPS poll perhaps helps to explain British Foreign Secretary William Hague's welcome conversion from being a Eurosceptic cheerleader when a party leader from 1997-2001 to pragmatic engagement in government as foreign secretary.
If Hague has disappointed old allies on the European question, he seems to have realised you can't govern on simple slogans, and now seems to lack the stomach for refighting those battles again.
Cameron and Hague's approach to the EU in power has dismayed many Tory Eurosceptics, whose core demand is for a "fundamental renegotiation" of British membership (though it has never been particularly clear what this entails, nor whether it would be compatible with staying in the EU).
Influential activist and blogger Tim Montgomerie, the editor of ConservativeHome put it very starkly before the election, as David Cameron prepared to u-turn on a Lisbon referendum.
If Britain's relationship with the EU is fundamentally the same after five years of Conservative government the internal divisions that ended the last Tory period in government will look like a tea party in comparison.
That now looks more like an empty threat. Wherever there are real reasons to cooperate - from helping Ireland, defence cooperation with France or global climate talks - the Tory right have been unable to get any traction with most of the public, enabling LibDem Business Secretary Vince Cable to claim last week while being 'stung' by the Telegraph that he and other pro-Europeans have won the policy arguments within government on pragmatic grounds.
The poll perhaps helps to show why Vince Cable was right - for now at least. But the detail of the poll also shows why the EU could still prove the great "frozen conflict" within the Coalition government. On the biggest questions about our national future - such as whether we cooperate more closely with European partners in a world where China emerges as a second superpower - Labour and LibDem voters see the world in one way, and Tory voters in another.
That is even more true of MPs and party activists. So any shared Tory-LibDem long-term view of Britain's future still looks very difficult. The conflict has been frozen. With only weak encouragement from leading Tories, the Eurosceptics have retreated to the hills. But both their allies and opponents surely expect them to be back for a final battle.
But this new poll suggests that their opponents might find more confidence than was the case in the last decade to contest the question of which side of the EU argument really resonates with British public opinion.
* The poll is published in 'Europe's Left In The Crisis: How the next left can respond', edited by Sunder Katwala and Ernst Stetter, and to be published by the Foundation of European Progressive Studies FEPS and the Fabian Society. The collection also contains pieces from Jessica Asato; David Coats; Caroline Gennez, leader of the Flemish social democrats; former Austrian chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer; and Roger Liddle of Policy Network on the social democratic response to the political and economic challenges we face at a time when the austerity agenda of the right is in the ascendant across Europe. We'll have more about the pamphlet in the next few weeks.