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History for Hobbits?

by Tom Spencer – former Conservative Member of the European Parliament.

I believe that there will be an In/Out Referendum in 2017. I further believe that it cannot be won as a debate about the defects of the European Union as selectively chosen by the Eurosceptics. Rather we must re-engage in the debate which we abandoned in the summer of 1975 about the infinitely less desirable alternatives for Britain if we were not to be a member of the European Union.

I am delighted that we are having the start of this debate a good four years before any likely referendum. We will need every moment of that time in order to counter the misleading assertions of the Eurosceptics. We need to be preparing arguments about the cost of non-Europe for the UK that relate the issue directly to the employment and living standards of every British citizen, on an industry by industry basis.

I was Assistant to Sir Con O’Neil, the Director of the Britain in Europe campaign in 1975, which the European Movement played such a crucial role in. Sir Con, in addition to teaching me how to write minutes, would regularly reiterate that the key principal of British foreign policy was “that no Continental super-power should be allowed to dominate the mouth of the River Scheldt on the Belgian coast”. We are in grave danger of bringing about such a situation by our self-exclusion from European power. I do not believe that it will be possible to solve this latest “British problem” by a yet more complicated series of opt-outs and special arrangements. If we are to have a second referendum on our membership, it should be one which faces up to the reality of Britain’s choices in a dangerous world. We should embrace a referendum as an opportunity for Britain to catch up with the rest of the EU by promising to end the opt-outs within an agreed period, including joining the Euro if need be.

In persuading the British people to re-commit to full British membership, rather than watered down associate status, we will have to cross an abyss. The Poles have a saying that “An abyss cannot be crossed in two steps”. I believe that we are at the beginning of a national debate that calls for such audacity. I am aware that by even discussing such matters I am being profoundly un-English. We are after all a nation of hobbits, suspicious of great ideas and fearful of journeys that might threaten our “second breakfasts”.

No one can predict the outcome of David Cameron’s “Great Gamble” speech. At a minimum he needs to understand that there is absolutely nothing short of total surrender that will buy off the Eurosceptics. This is the ancient principle of Danegeld. It is reported that 20% of the Tory Party are in favour of leaving the European Union under any circumstances. This is hardly news. Only 1% of the British public are now members of the three main political parties. According to the latest report “Membership of UK Political Parties published on 3rd December, the Conservatives had between 130,000 and 150.000 members in 2010.” While there are Eurosceptic voters in roughly similar proportions of the three political parties, only in the Conservative Party is there the cuckoo-like behaviour of Association Officers who openly declare their willingness to vote for and work with the United Kingdom Independence Party. This must rank as the most sustained act of treason in 250 years of Conservative Party history. Just occasionally comedy programmes hit on brilliant comparisons. The Now Show on Radio 4 presents Nigel Farage, the talented leader of UKIP, as Gollom from the Hobbit. He is clever but obsessive, muttering on endlessly about his “lovely Referendum”.

What then of the phalange of Conservative Eurosceptics in the House of Commons? There is a hardcore of Conservative Euroscepticism which puts the departure from Europe ahead of any electoral victory for the Conservative Party. As such they would be comfortable with the defeat of David Cameron in the 2015 UK General Election, his replacement by a fully Eurosceptic Conservative Party Leader and the adoption of a cast iron guarantee to leave the EU the next time there was a Conservative Government. Political developments in the next three years will have a winnowing effect on Conservative Euroscepticism as events shake out ‘tactical’ Eurosceptics, ‘casual’ Eurosceptics and all those who recognise that departure would be a disaster for the UK.

Let me offer three thoughts to fellow pro-Europeans in the European Movement and beyond.

First, do not trust the assertions of the Westminster bubble as to what issues about Europe really matter to the British public. Their views, set in stone many years ago, now bear little relationship to reality.

Second, do everything you can to build on the European Movement’s long tradition of cross-party co-operation on the pro-European side. Any referendum is going to hugely stress both inter and intra party links. It would not have been possible to win the 1975 Referendum without the cross-party co-operation fostered by the European Movement during the campaign leading up to British entry in 1973.

Third, do not ignore the fact that it is forty years since these issues were last put before the British people. There are therefore two undeclared generations who have never been asked to focus on whether we should leave the European Union. Edwina Currie, whose views history will come to regard with greater interest than is currently fashionable, maintained after she left Parliament and moved into the world of broadcasting that for people under forty Europe was about the freedom to travel to pop concerts in Ibiza and Amsterdam without let or hindrance. Such generations will be appalled by any loss of the European freedoms to which they have become accustomed.

Rather we should speak out on the real geo-political reasons why Britain should remain a full member of the European Union. Pursuing second rate options, with second rate tactics, does not befit one of Europe’s great states.

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  1. Thank you for this excellent article, Tom, with which I am in complete agreement. It’s easy in the current hysteria to forget the three points you close with.

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