Saturday, May 22, 2004

Sense and nonsense on the referendum

The actual referendum battle, as opposed to the battle to avoid a referendum, will involve many other issues. We had better start preparing ourselves. And that is, of course, what this blog is doing in its own way.

The referendum is still a long way off, if, indeed, it will ever take place. But the amount of nonsense spoken and written about it on both sides of the divide is quite astonishing. Given that a large proportion of the population is in the “don’t really know, not too sure, but will make up my mind at some later stage” category, this is becoming a serious problem.

Let us look at the “yes” side first, because their problems are easier to analyze. Take the, for instance (no music hall jokes, please). Earlier this week they had Polly Toynbee fulminating in her usual semi-ignorant and wholly arrogant fashion about the “British hooligans” who are causing trouble at the negotiations, beating up their opponents and refusing to come to any agreement on some “red lines” that she has clearly not given much thought to. Well, that’s Ms Toynbee, one might say. What would we do without her for entertainment?

Today, however (Saturday, May 22), the Guardian has a thoughtful leader, which acknowledges that “[b]ritain is not the only country whose objections are causing the current final drafting process to take longer than expected” but refuses in its usual anglo-centric fashion even to look at what it is that bothers other member states.

Instead it calls on the government to abandon its “David and Goliath” stance, presumably agree to whatever is that is required to produce a constitution and start campaigning for a “yes” vote. “Whether one agrees with last month's u-turn on the referendum or not, it is plain that the vote will only be won if the government gives a lead to all those others - opposition politicians, business leaders, workers' organisations, pressure groups and even newspaper editorial writers - who need to be mobilised if the current Eurosceptic majority in the country is to be turned around.”

What this thoughtful leader lacks is any analysis of what the constitution says or does or why the government should be asking for a “yes” vote. Why should the Eurosceptic majority be turned round? Just because it is a majority and whatever the vulgar majority wants must be wrong? Does the Guardian think that fighting for British interests or having Britain’s interests at heart is somehow ipso facto wrong, while other countries are fully entitled to fight for theirs? Do they think no country has a right to fight for its interests? Do they think that European integration and the creation of a single European state (superstate or otherwise) is such an absolute good that it must be pursued by whatever method it takes? If so, why do they not say so?

The problem with all the voices on the “yes” side or supposedly on the “yes” side is that they tend to blame others for not fighting the good fight but refusing to do so themselves. The Guardian, an influential publication, quite clearly still lives in a world when the word Eurosceptic invokes a frisson or horror in all right-minded, educated, politically sophisticated people. Alas, it is not so. The reason the “no” side has managed to make some headway is because it has produced a large number of substantive arguments against the constitution, the way it was concocted, the way it is being rammed down people’s throats (to use a vulgarism the Guardian and Ms Toynbee would probably shudder at) and, above all, against the whole ideology of the European unification.

If the government or the europhile media or, for that matter, business organizations and trade unions, old uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all, want to win the referendum vote, whenever that may happen, and want to win or, even, win back the hearts and minds of the British population, they had better stop behaving like the proverbial maiden aunt who hears a naughty word in her presence. You think we should support the constitution; you think we should vote “yes”; you think the Eurosceptics are wrong. Well, get in there and tell us why. Tell us what is right with that constitution, as it stands and why we must accept it.

So much for the “yes” side. Despite all that, despite all the intellectual advantages, the “no” side is crowing too soon. It seems to be spending too much time preening itself before the media and too little time marhalling arguments and looking at what might be termed the bigger picture (unlike this blog, naturally). It is good to have some parts of the media stating unambiguously why the constitution is wrong, why Blair is completely wrong in campaigning on an “in/out” ticket (if that is what he is doing) and, even, occasionally, why “out” is not such a frightening thing. It is good to have Gisela Stuart explaining to the left what was wrong with the Convention on the Future of Europe and with the constitution it produced (though, as we have already noted, it would be good if she could learn a few things beyond that). It is good to have Lord Blackwell write a pamphlet for the Centre for Policy Studies on what will happen if we vote no (nothing very much) and why we should, while we are at it, reform some of the clumsy and entirely wrong-headed EU policies.

Yet it is worth remembering that the other side has not started campaigning. When it does, it will marshall resources that are not available to the “no” side. It is very good to read in the press that the “No campaign” is ready to go into action as soon as the constitution is agreed on at the June Summit. But what if, as looks quite likely, it is not agreed on and negotiations will resume in the autumn for the December Summit? Will the “No campaign” take the manifestly sensible option of continuing its activity, strengthening the foundations and advancing the arguments in general? Or will it simply stop and say that as there is no constitution there can be no campaigning?

It is good to know that the glib, divisive and hard to explain slogan of “No to the Constitution, Yes to the EU” (or some such wording) has been abandoned in favour of “Vote No.” But is there a clear understanding that this campaign is going to be very different from the one against the euro?

The aim of the “No campaign” as it was fighting against the euro was very simple: to avoid a referendum. As long as there was no referendum, there was no euro. Given the famous opt-out and the equally famous promise extracted by Jimmy Goldsmith from both the main parties during the 1997 election not to go into EMU without a plebiscite, this was a clear and easily taken option. It was successful but largely because the “No campaign” had a powerful ally in the Chancellor of the Exchequer. For whatever reason, Gordon Brown, refused to say that the five spurious conditions that he attached to our entry had been met and, therefore, Britain could not take that last step and call a referendum.

The negative side of that concentration of effort was that the “No campaign” appeared to be manning a political Maginot line. The tanks of the EU came round the end of it and imposed a large number of laws and regulations on the City, business and the country in general, tying it all down without membership of the euro. The positive side is that we kept out of EMU and the economic black hole that is euroland. Together with the “no”votes in Denmark and Sweden the “No campaign” in Britain has ensured that the whole European project is looking distinctly battered. The argument of inevitability has not been heard for a long time.

However, the battle of the constitution is going to be fundamentally different. For one thing, there is no option about whether we have a referendum. If and when the constitution is agreed on, each member state will have to implement it. That means, given Blair’s statement on it, a referendum, whenever that is covenient to the government, which is, in itself, a difficult problem. Therefore, the methods used to prevent a referendum will not be entirely appropriate to a fight for a “no” vote in the referendum.

Furthermore, when it comes to the actual referendum, we shall not have the Chancellor on our side. At present the Cabinet is under instruction to fight as one body for the “yes” vote. Whether that will change or not, is unclear. It did in 1975. Nevertheless, if some ministers decide to fight for a “no” vote either while they remain ministers or after an enforced resignation, they will be fighting as individuals not as heads of ministries or great officers of the state. There is a basic difference there.

We shall, also, and this ought to go without saying but seems to have been forgotten, not have the great resources of the government, certain influential sections of the media and institutions of the EU, as well as leading politicians and personalities from other member states lining up, trying to convince the population that a “no” vote is harmful, retrogressive, nationalistic, xenophobic, evil, what-have-you. Will the “no” side be able to counter all that rapidly and accurately? Will it have the resources to spread its message far and wide as fast as possible?

Then there is the question of alternatives. When opposing the euro, alternatives are unnecessary. We already have an alternative, it has worked for many centuries and appears to be working well still – sterling. That is not a killer argument, as witness the destruction of imperial weights and measures but, coupled, with the economic problems in the eurozone and the very obvious inability to overcome these, single currency or no single currency, it worked. With the EU pushing ahead to a different level of integration, those who oppose it will be asked what alternatives they have and how viable these are.

A corollary of that will be the “in/out” argument. It is clear that the government is simply scaremongering by presenting the choice in those terms but scaremongering can work. The actual “No campaign” may say that its job is merely to tell people to reject the constitution because that does not mean we shall be out of the EU or even marginalized. But the wider “no” campaign has to work on alternative strategies for reforming the EU or, given that reforms do not seem to be on the agenda, for renegotiating agreements. (When talking of renegotiation it is important to ignore shrieks of horror on both sides of the divide. “Would you break a treaty?” is not a valid discussion point, as treaties are, be definition, renegotiable and doing so is not a crime like ethnic cleansing. On the other hand, those who get the vapours when they hear the word “renegotiation” and call all those advocating it traitors to the cause of Euroscepticism do not really know what they are talking about. Even announcing that you are pulling out of the EU involves renegotiation.)

Simply to say that we do not like what we have and want something else is not enough. We do need to clarify what we want and how we are going to get there. In other words, we need to work on what we should like to see as Britain’s foreign policy, defence policy, trade policy and so on. Then we, that is the wider “no” campaign need to put forward strategies of how we get from here to there. What methods do we use to repatriate the fisheries or agricultural policies, for instance. The Conservative Party has announced that it would do so. How? And what will it put in its place? If we do not want to be part of the common foreign and security policy, what do we want? And how are we going to achieve it?

Many in the “no” campaign will insist that all these points are irrelevant. I do not think so. The actual referendum battle, as opposed to the battle to avoid a referendum, will involve these and many other issues. We had better start preparing ourselves. And that is, of course, what this blog is doing in its own way.

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