Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Not in my name

Even as this post was being written, 400 people, mainly men and including 25 of the richest 200 in Britain, were sitting down to a slap-up dinner at the Savoy Hotel, making decisions which could shape the future of the United Kingdom as an independent country.

No, this was not another meeting of the Bildergers, or the Trilaterals, or some other shady group, although in essence there can be little to chose between them. These are people who are setting out to make decisions for all of us.

As it happens, this group was meeting to launch the "Vote No" campaign against the proposed EU constitution and the dinner was so oversubscribed with those 400 guests – if The Times report is to be relied upon – that it had to be switched from the Barbican to the Savoy hotel. Key to it all though, it fund-raising and the guest list is so blue chip that there is hope that the funds raised could reach £1 million.

The prospect of a well-funded "no" group, readers might think, should fill this Blog with unalloyed joy but, as regular readers will be aware, the enthusiasm has been somewhat muted in the past and sentiment is not about to change.

In essence, the objection to this group is exactly the same that we express about the EU and any other group that purports to make decisions in our name.

Rich and powerful men (and women for that matter) are perfectly entitled to do what they wish with their money, within the law, but in a free society (or what is left of it) us lesser mortals are entitled to comment on their actions, adversely if we so wish.

And what attracts the opprobrium is that these people (or, at least the organisers) have taken it upon themselves to mount a campaign against the constitution – a commendable enough activity – but have then presumed to call it the campaign, presenting it as such to the media.

Furthermore, without any significant consultation, they have chosen to adopt for their campaign the slogan: "Europe yes, constitution no", a slogan which is highly contentious and can do nothing other than divide the Eurosceptic ranks, many of whom could not possibly campaign alongside an organisation promoting this view.

What is doubly offensive about this is that the suggestion that this might be the campaign slogan was aired in The Sunday Times on 16 May of this year, whence I wrote to one of the leading organisers and backers of the group in the following terms:

While the sentiment may have been good enough for the euro campaign, in the constitution referendum, it seems to me we need an inclusive campaign that allows as many people as possible to participate.

My fear is that many people – even those who would not go as far as UKIP in calling for immediate withdrawal, will be deterred from participating in the campaign by such a slogan. Other might be deterred from voting as they might have difficulty in understanding the difference between "Europe" and the "constitution" (many people actually think the constitution will take us into "Europe").

Furthermore, it also seems to me that if your organisation does insist on this slogan, it will spur other groups and organisations to set up their own campaigns, with the risk the effort is diminished – and even that the various groups start fighting each other instead of the common enemy.

I have to say personally, that while I no longer support the UKIP stance of immediate withdrawal, I would find it difficult to campaign alongside any organisation which used the slogan that the Sunday Times article highlighted, and would feel impelled to cast my lot in with alternative groups.
In return, I got a personal assurance from this man that there was no intention of using this slogan and that the campaign would seek to be inclusive. In the event, either the writer had less influence than he led us to believe, or he is a man without honour.

Reneging on such a promise far transcends personal issues for the slogan is precisely what I claim it to be – divisive. It was also unnecessary. The campaign could have easily set out its stall, stating that it was a coalition of people with a wide range of views who had one important thing in common – their opposition to the proposed EU constitution.

In fact, there is room for three broad viewpoints. Firstly, there are those who oppose the constitution because they are utterly opposed to the EU and see this as the first step towards withdrawal. Secondly, there are those who are dissatisfied with the EU but do not want to withdraw from it, and see in rejecting the constitution the opportunity of forcing a reform agenda on the member states. Thirdly, there are those who are broadly satisfied with the EU as it stands, but regard the constitution as a step too far.

A skilled and more sensible – to say nothing of more honourable – group could have accommodated all these viewpoints and stitched together a powerful and united coalition. If they were not so arrogant and self-centred, they still could do so, but show no inclination whatsoever to make the necessary moves. Instead, the message coming down from on high is that we, the dissenters, should swallow our pride and our principles, in order to present a united front and to avoid damaging the campaign.

But actually no - it is you who are doing the damage. And, speaking personally, I do not take orders. I do not wish to fall into line behind a campaign that so far has shown itself intellectually incoherent, divisive and insensitive to the point of being tactically maladroit.

Clearly, I cannot speak for others, so all I can say is that you may campaign if you like, to your own agenda, but it is not in my name.

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