Monday, September 08, 2008

A lack of vision

On the face of it, The Daily Telegraph announcement that it is today hosting a conference on our future relationship with the EU, in association with the think-tank Global Vision, is good news. In fact, it is anything but, typifying this paper's continued attempts to control the debate and limit its breadth.

It is exactly a reflection of the same dog-in-the-manger approach that led it to launching its own blog platform, in a vain attempt to dominate the blogosphere, rather than interact with the established political blogs – which it largely ignores (with some honourable exceptions). But it also says a great deal about the leading anti-EU party, UKIP, about which more later in this piece where the link will be made clear.

As to The Telegraph, for sure, we totally agree with the opening sentiments of its leader – which trails the conference. "Europe", it says, "has all but disappeared as a political issue…

None of the political parties wants to talk about it - Labour and the Lib Dems because they know that they are at odds with public opinion, the Conservatives because they are terrified of reviving memories of the 1990s. Most voters, if pushed, are vaguely under the impression that the whole thing has gone away. Didn't the French and Dutch electorates kill the European Constitution? And didn't the Irish drive a stake though its heart when it tried to clamber out of its coffin in the ghoulish shape of the Lisbon Treaty?
Telling us that the "European Constitution" remains very much on the agenda, and that an incoming government will have no choice but to face it, The Telegraph then purports to fill the vacuum, addressing the question of how "Britain might relate to the rest of the EU as an associate member, within the single market but outside other political structures."

If it is seeking to widen out the debate, however, it has gone about it in a remarkably cack-handed way. Not only, in choosing Global Vision for its partner has it selected one of the least active "think-tanks" – one that, if rumour has it correct is on the verge of collapse, offering an agenda which might be better described as "Limited Vision" - the paper has been remarkably secretive about the event.

For such a prestigious occasion, one might have expected some pre-publicity, but the paper has been silent on it up to now. And, as for Global Vision there is no mention of it on its website.

More to the point, for a paper which professes to be interested in widening out the debate on "Europe", where were the other players? Where, for instance, was Open Europe? Was the Bruges Group invited and, if so, was it given the opportunity of putting up a speaker? And, if this is such an important conference, why was not the leading blog on EU issues – this very blog – told about it? I am sure we would have welcomed the opportunity to attend and report on it, rather than take second-hand feed from Dan Hannan.

And, it goes without saying that UKIP was not officially invited, much less any of its representatives being given an opportunity to speak and be reported. That is very much in line with the paper's policy which, in the past, has taken story leads from UKIP and then sought quotes from Conservative MEPs, then publishing those with no mention of the originators of the stories.

Lamentable though UKIP's press effort is, the party does have some good grounds for complaint about the way it is treated – particularly by The Telegraph which, for a long time had a policy of editing out references to UKIP in stories written up by its Brussels correspondents.

However (that word again), the absence of UKIP also speaks for its lacklustre performance and its almost complete invisibility when it comes to offering what might be a "vision" of a United Kingdom without the EU. That much is glaringly evident from the Telegraph's incredible statement: "None of the political parties wants to talk about it (the EU) ...". Isn't UKIP a political party?

Thus, it is all very well Nigel Farage telling his conference over the weekend (ignored by The Telegraph) – as retailed by his new-found press officer - that the party should be placing "a little more emphasis on the wonderful things we could and would do if we were out of the EU". But where has he been since 1999 when he was first elected to the EU parliament and thus given a public platform and some considerable resources to develop and promulgate precisely that message?

If the link between that question and UKIP's absence from today's conference seems a little tenuous, do not fear – it is not. Arguably, had UKIP in the nearly ten years since it has had MEPs, delivered a coherent and well-researched vision of an EU-free UK, the idea of The Telegraph mounting a conference on this issue without reference to UKIP's views (and failing even to mention the party in its leader) would have been demonstrably absurd and petty-minded.

It is its lack of that "vision" therefore, which allows the party to be maginalised. It cannot really complain that its message is not broadcast if it does not have anything interesting or constructive to offer. And it is also that lack which allows "Limited Vision" to hold forth, leaving UKIP silent on the edges.

The key to the ability to deliver a message is, of course, research. In its limited but nonetheless effective way, this is what Open Europe has demonstrated, having produced a steady flow of useful (if politically skewed) research papers – for instance here.

If one were to ask how many research papers of equivalent quality had been produced by UKIP since the last euro-elections, the answer would be none. Despite the considerable resources potentially available to it with the election of 12 MEPs, its output has been derisory. Even now, its grasp of key EU-related issues is often embarrassingly poor, as I am able to argue on the forum through the current UKIP thread.

In politics, the role of research is absolutely vital. It is often said – rightly – that the Thatcher revolution was entirely built on research, albeit provided by the IEA and other think-tanks. Thus, if UKIP was ever going to make an effective case for leaving the EU, it had to be research-led. And, since there was never any chance that any independent think-tank was going to take up that issue, it was also equally evident that such research was going to have to come from within the party.

That it has not represents a huge wasted opportunity, a lack of vision on the part of the UKIP hierarchy which will cost them – and the rest of us – dear. As so often, it is not by what they have done so much as what they have not done that they should be judged. And that judgement is, in part at least, delivered by The Telegraph's conference today, from which the UKIP voice is so notably absent.