Thursday, December 09, 2004

Keeping "Europe" off the agenda

Following on from Helen’s posting about the possible postponement of the Referendum Bill until after the election, this should come as no surprise to any close student of the relationship between EU and UK politics.

Essentially, British politicians, either side of the divide, prefer to fight general elections on domestic issues, and are very uncomfortable when the wider world – and especially "Europe" - intervenes.

Even when the enthusiastically Europhile Ted Heath held the 1970 general election – when there was only 15 percent of voters were in favour of joining the EEC and nearly sixty percent were against – "Europe" hardly featured in the campaign.

Sixty-two percent of Conservative candidates made no reference to the EEC in their election addresses and only two percent declared strong support for British entry.

Heath devoted only three percent of his speeches to the Common Market and, for a prime-minister-to-be , who just two weeks after he was elected was to pack his foreign secretary off to Brussels to start entry negotiations, his Party manifesto was remarkably low-key. It contained only a one-line promise: "…to negotiate, no more, no less," - one of the more egregious of Heath's lies.

In television and radio coverage, the Common Market did not even feature among the top 12 issues.

Prior to the 1974 election however, when Wilson suddenly went to the country in October, the Common Market was certainly threatening to become an election issue. However, Wilson, having first resisted the idea, included the option of a referendum in the Labour Party manifesto, thus neutralising the issue electorally.

Subsequently, our current prime minister saw first hand the baleful effect "Europe" could exercise on electoral fortunes. As a lowly candidate for Sedgefield, Tony Blair joined his leader Michael Foot in committing to withdrawal from the EEC, writing in his electoral address:

We'll negotiate a withdrawal from the EEC, which has drained our national resources and destroyed jobs.
That pledge was included in the 1983 general election manifesto – described then as "the longest suicide note in history". Margaret Thatcher gained a landslide victory.

It was unsurprising, therefore, that Blair would be uncomfortable with the idea of fighting on EU issues when, in 1997, he made his bid for the premiership. And, with James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party rampant and threatening to make real electoral gains, he successfully defused "Europe" as an election issue by aligning himself with the Tories and committing to a referendum on the euro.

Against that background, as the pressure for a referendum on the EU constitution built up through the early part of this year, there was never really a question of whether Blair would agree to one. It was more a question of when, and the timing was determined primarily by his need for damage-limitation, preventing the June euro-election becoming too much of a rout for his party.

Had he not agreed to a referendum then, Blair would most certainly have announced one at some time before the forthcoming general election, for the very same reason that Wilson promised a referendum – to take it off the electoral agenda.

It is in that context that the threatened postponement of the Referendum Bill must be seen. Having taken "Europe" off the agenda by the promise of a referendum, the last thing he would have wanted to see was a high-profile debate in the run-up to the that election. Neither, for that matter, would Howard be at all enthusiastic, so there would have been a ready accord to delay the debate.

That much is so obvious that one wonders why Times political commentator Peter Riddell cannot see it. But he clearly cannot, as evidence by his piece in The Times today, when he suggests that the lesson of the three-to-two victory for the "yes" side in the French Socialists' ballot is that "intensive campaigning round the country will be required over the next 18 months, rather than just a short-term media offensive."

Equally, the Independent columnist, Steve Richards – already overtaken by events - writes in today’s edition (subscription only) that:

Senior ministers have finally realised the issue cannot be ignored until the election is safely out of the way. Almost certainly the bill that gives the go-ahead for a referendum will be debated in the Commons next month. This will be one of the few occasions when a parliamentary event attracts wider interest.
All that just goes to show how wrong the political commentators can be. In fact, the political classes will go to great lengths in their attempts to make sure that the EU stays way down the political agenda until the election is over. Nevertheless, they may not succeed.

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