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The times they are a'changin' ... but very, very slowly

Posted by Helen Thursday, June 17, 2004

Nothing much can be done about politicians. They hang on to their positions both in terms of power and of political ideas unto death. They have not yet faced the famous Ceausescu moment, when the Romanian tyrant and his “delightful” wife went out on the balcony to wave to the cheering crowds only to realize with dawning horror that the crowds were calling for their blood.

The media, on the other hand, is picking up the scent of a new political order. The Financial Times, usually a model of decorum, published on Tuesday a cautiously entitled article: Eurosceptic support gave powerful view of unease.

The gist of the article was that UKIP’s strong showing in the European elections was a reflection of the way many people and many businesses feel about involvement in the EU. This is not, in itself, a startling revelation. After all, an unexpectedly good result by a small, recently formed party must be the reflection of feelings in the country. What does appear extraordinary for those of us who have been battling with the media’s skewed coverage is the open admission in the most respectable outlets.

The Financial Times article quotes a multimillionaire telecoms entrepreneur, the chairman of Cameron-Price, an automotive components business, and the finance director of Churchill China. One and all they say that they do not think the European Union is helpful, that people across Europe, including their business associates, have had enough of the EU, and that there is a general disquiet about further integration.

A dissenting note is struck by the chief executive of Hotbed Media, a TV and film production company. In her considered view, based, no doubt, on conversations with lots of other media people, UKIP was “reactionary” and had capitalized on hostitlity to immigrants. It was all, according to her, the result of people reading the tabloid press and, one assumes, not watching the programmes her company puts out. The dissatisfaction could not possibly have been based on people’s own knowledge and experience. If UKIP can be said to be tapping into anything it is people’s anger at that kind of patronizing rubbish doled out by the media and the political classes.

Still, the times they are a’changin’. On Monday evening I was asked to take part in a discussion on Radio Five Live. Its theme was unexpected. The two questions asked were: Can we get out of the EU? What will happen if we do?

The consensus was that we can and should get out (with some demurral on the second point) and nothing much will happen if we do. By the end of the programme, it became obvious that the real question was: Why bother to stay in?

Over the years I have taken part in many discussions and given many interviews on the subject and have noted a remarkable change in attitudes. My own views are withdrawalist, though I appreciate that this will have to be done carefully with much negotiation. Nowadays, those views are treated with respect. Eurosceptics are still seen as a bunch of nutters but a bunch of nutters who have some good ideas and among whom there are people who can explain them clearly and sensibly.

No longer is one faced with the incredulous stare from some half-ignorant BBC interviewer and an impatient snort of “oh come on!” And, above all, the possibility of withdrawal is discussed with some seriousness.

I do not suggest that the media and its right-on, politically correct denizens have had a Damascene conversion. But they lean with the prevailing wind. And that wind is changing directions.

It is possible to pinpoint the moment when the real change occurred. There had been stirrings in that direction for some time, thus proving that if you keep on arguing cogently and coherently, eventually people do listen to you. But the big change came as the first version of the EU Constitution was published. A mental panic ensued as all the eurosceptic warnings seemed to be justified. It was the first time that the BBC interviewers (I was doing a round-up for regional news and drive-time shows) worriedly asked me to tell them more about the document.

All of which makes one wonder whether the Blair nuclear option will work. Of course, as we have said before on this blog, the real referendum campaign will be very nasty and difficult and not at all like the “no to the euro” one. For one thing, the other side will throw all its considerable forces and resources into the battle.

However, they think that their most effective weapon will be the threat that a no vote to the constitution will necessarily mean withdrawal from the EU. This, of course, is not true, as has been said by many people, including the outgoing President of the Commission, Romano Prodi. Still, it is a bogey. The question is, just how frightening is that bogey for most people? Considerably less than it used to be, I’d say.