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Scaredy cats

Posted by Helen Sunday, April 10, 2005

The other day I went to the Institute of Economic Affairs to hear Gerald Frost, editor of eurofacts talk about the way the government is trying to skew the referendum vote.

Mr Frost’s point, of which he has written at length is that the Government has fiddled about with the proposed referendum question, relying on focus groups and the advice of the invaluable (from their point of view) Bob Worcester, and produced a question that was inaccurate in its wording and biased in the way it is intended to influence the public.

It is quite true that Britain seems to be the only country where the question will deal with a “Constitution for the European Union” rather than a “Constitution for Europe”, thus implying that this is a document that is somehow distant from us and does not affect our own lives.

On the whole, I am not certain this is right, since if it were that distant we would not have a referendum but we cannot tell until the campaign starts in real earnest.

Gerry Frost’s other and more important point is that by using the word “approve” the Government is trying to play, against all the rules outlined by the Electoral Commission, on people’s positive, affirmative attitudes.

In Mr Frost’s opinion the Conservative Party and UKIP should have made a fuss of it but did not. Not all is lost, however, as the European Union Bill is one of those that died with Parliament being dissolved and will have to be brought back in the same or different form in the next Parliament. Fuss about the wording of the referendum question can be raised then.

For what it’s worth, this blog thinks that the actual wording is relatively unimportant as the referendum and the preceding campaign is not going to be about the actual Constitution but various matters around it and the European Union.

Indeed, during the formal discussion I expressed the opinion that while the europhile side, from Margot Wallström downwards, is gearing up to a campaign about the manifold virtues of the European Union, the eurosceptics are getting bogged down in niggling detail about the Constitution and how to present it, not to mention idiocies like the yes-no campaign (of whom we have not heard for some time).

Gerry Frost and I agree to differ on detail as we are at one on the substance of the campaign. The title “scaredy cats” refers to something else.

During the informal part of the evening, I was accosted by a lady who may have imbibed a little too freely or, maybe, she always spoke like that. She informed me that she was europhile and came to listen to the other side. Very admirable, I thought, and asked her whether she supported the Constitution.

After all, not all europhiles do support this monstrous document, Gisela Stuart being simply the best known opponent among those who continue to believe in the project.

Alas, the lady I was speaking to was not as clear as all that what it was I wanted to know and told me with a good deal of vim that the United States of Europe held no terrors for her and she would rather be ruled by that entity than the United States of America.

The obvious response to that is that presumably there is no absolute necessity in either development. I took a different tack and asked her in what way she thought we were ruled by the United States of America, then cutting across her babblings about Mr Blair getting into bed with Mr Bush by asking who she though legislated in this country.

That stumped her. What did I mean by legislated? Well, I said, who made the laws? Did I mean European laws? No, I replied, the ordinary, common or garden laws that we had to obey. Where did they come from?

The lady became somewhat agitated and wondered aloud what was wrong with us having the same laws as Europeans. At this point the discussion became general with people bringing in examples of ridiculous European legislation.

It is, however, worth thinking about the whole conversation. In the first place, fear of America and American control will be used a good deal by the yes side in the referendum campaign. I have already heard Professor Stephen Haseler of the Federal Trust produce that argument.

The reason that can work and will work with many people is the widespread ignorance and lack of understanding of what is actually meant by having power or control.

Thus, American influence on a small part of Britain’s foreign policy, based on the fact that the US is the strongest country in the western alliance, is built up to mean that British affairs are somehow run by the American President. (An added piece of ignorance there is the assumption that somehow Bush is going to be President for ever and ever instead of only till 2008.)

The fact that the European Union is actually responsible for half of the major pieces of legislation and 80 per cent of all legislation in this country (and that, presumably, does not include the many rules and regulations that never go through Parliament at all but are implemented by agencies such as the Food Standards Agency) passes people by.

Once the referendum campaign starts in real earnest we shall be faced with that argument often and each time we shall have to knock it down. Unfortnately, it will mean continuous and very dull lectures on the EU and its legislative powers. But there is no way round that. People must understand the difference between vague concepts of influence and direct, enforceable legislation that cannot be rejected.