Darren Murphy, Chief Executive, Centreground Political Communications
I am a Eurosceptic. Not one of those on the Right or the Left obsessed by the idea that “Europe” is either some sort of Euro-communist conspiracy against British capitalism or a ‘Capitalist Club’ determined to defeat any chance of a socialist Britain. Thankfully it is neither of those things. Simply, I do not believe that Europe’s advocates have ever really made an effort to explain or justify the pace or purpose of their project to the public. From Common Market to European Community to European Union, the pace was further and faster than the public could keep up with.
I saw Europe’s institutions at close quarters first as a European officer for a local authority in the early 1990s and then attending European Councils of Health Ministers in the early 2000s. I don’t deny these European institutions have made real differences to people’s lives – I saw that too, from regeneration in the North East of England to banning tobacco advertising – but too much of the European project remains the property of Europe’s governing elites. In these circumstances, my Euroscepticism means I don’t want to leave but I am sceptical that the institutions of Europe should gain more power or influence over our lives.
I opposed membership of the Euro and I was one of the few people working in Downing Street who urged Tony Blair not to agree to the European Constitution and to commit Britain to a referendum if he did. For one of the few times in my life my politics were closer to Ed Balls’ than Peter Mandelson’s. To this crime I plead guilty.
And it is as a Eurosceptic that I believe MPs would be fundamentally wrong to vote for a referendum now on Britain’s continued European Union membership.
Firstly, because the focus for the whole country should be on securing recovery from what is increasingly looking like a period of ‘stagflation’ in Britain. We have a virtually stagnant economy, with precious little growth, coupled to persistently high unemployment. The worst of all worlds. The idea that Britain’s prospects for recovery would be anything but damaged by the prospect of a referendum would be laughable if the situation weren’t so precarious. Those Conservative and Labour MPs who think this is the top issue for Britain aren’t faced with losing their jobs. Well, not yet.
Secondly, most of Europe, because of the Euro crisis, needs a question mark hanging over Britain’s long term future in the EU like it needs Greece to default. The situation is too serious, too significant to the prospects for global economic recovery for game playing and political posturing in the British Parliament. MPs need to get real and, by doing so, realise how out of touch our Parliament would look, elsewhere in Europe and in Washington DC, if it took this decision, at this time.
And thirdly, it is the wrong question. I don’t believe the British people want to walk away from our biggest market. They won’t vote yes to leaving the European Union. That’s just not where majority, centre ground opinion is. They know too many jobs depend on our European membership these days. They see that the rise of China and the power of Asia make the existence of a functioning European partnership more essential than at any time since the Second World War. Like a not very entertaining Halloween party, they don’t necessarily find being inside all that comfortable but it is better than being outside on their own.
There is a real need for reform inside of the European institutions so they connect more with the publics of member states. And there is a role for a future referendum if the issue of further shifts of power with constitutional significance for Britain arises. I believe fundamentally, the real existential threat to British membership of the EU has been the constant direction of treaty changes which have gone undebated in Britain in the past and left the public feeling outside of the loop on Europe. People don’t want to leave but they don’t want to be left powerless either.
I have no doubt that Parliament will defeat the motion on Monday. There is an important longer term lesson here for David Cameron and Nick Clegg though and for all of us interested in political strategy.
Since he became Tory leader David Cameron has never once faced down his Europhobic critics in the Conservative Party, just as Nick Clegg never challenged his public service ‘reformophobes’ in the Liberal Democrats. The result is that on Europe (and health in Clegg’s case) their parties have not been challenged and have not changed. Tony Blair had his Clause 4 moment to force Labour to realise it had to confront it’s own ideological idiocies. Neither Cameron nor Clegg share his political courage. They never forced their parties to face up to reality on the centrality of Europe to Britain’s economy and on the necessity of reform to Britain’s public services. Not surprising then, that both Coalition partners have such problems getting their parties, when they need to, to vote sensibly on issues where the public are far more sensible overall.
Monday won’t lead to a referendum on European membership. And, as a Eurosceptic myself, I say, neither should it.
- Reject EU referendum, says William Hague (independent.co.uk)
- William Hague warns Tory MPs over EU referendum vote (guardian.co.uk)
- Tories accuse Nick Clegg of double standards on EU referendum vote (guardian.co.uk)
- EU vote build-up ‘badly handled’ (bbc.co.uk)