For the Liberal Democrats it was the AV referendum. For Labour, perhaps it is a loyal adherence to Keynesian principles. For the Conservative party, it is membership of the European Union.
You know the issue: the one that the politicians care about, but voters, especially apolitical, undecided voters, would, well, let’s just say they would probably very rarely chat about these issues in the pub over a pint.
The polling can be misleading on these kinds of issues, too. When asked outright, especially in a push poll, a lot of people say yes, they think that we should pull out of – or at least seriously re-negotiate our membership of – the European Union. But if you ask people whether they want their prime minster to cut his own sandwiches at lunch time they’d probably say yes, too.
When asked outright what we’re worried about, angry about, or what we want politicians to get more worried and angry about, very, very few Brits raise EU membership as a priority unless they are prompted.
In fact, independent polling company Mass1* named the UK’s top concerns thus:
2 Cuts to council services and NHS services
3. Rising cost of living
7 Job security
8. Coalition government
Yet just as the Liberal Democrats reserve their moments of defiance against David Cameron for issues like electoral reform and the Human Rights Act, so the Conservatives reserve their moments of rebellion against him for a parliamentary debate about holding an EU membership referendum. Neither issue makes the list above, nor do they come up on many other such polls, although you could, of course, argue that immigration is intrinsically linked to EU membership. Yet politicians take a tougher stance than they do over the NHS, tax avoidance, job cuts, defence spending, or taxation.
But all this aside, the question remains: should we have a referendum on the EU? Well, if only so as not to make our democracy look rather silly, and to avoid the crowing of the likes of Nigel Farage and John Redwood, the party leaders should allow a free vote on whether to have a referendum or not. And is there really such a risk that such a vote would be won by the pro-referendum lobby, even if not whipped? Perhaps Conservative MPs are quietly relieved at being able to blame a three-line-whip for voting with their experience and understanding rather than voting as their constituents might wish them to.
Annoyingly, this risky debacle probably could have been averted had the promise of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty been kept by Labour in 2007. In fact, the British electorate have always been told that whenever there is a significant devolution of further powers to Brussels, we will be given a referendum. So first things first: did the Lisbon Treaty actually devolve further powers to Brussels?
Well, the creation of a High Representative for the Union of Foreign Affairs certainly looked like a further devolution of power. So did the policy of making the Charter of Fundamental Rights legally binding. Not to mention the Labour party’s manifesto promise for a referendum, and the Conservative party’s manifesto promise to do the same. The Lib Dems, at the time, called for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership itself instead; it’s unclear whether they’ve all changed their minds about that now or not.
You don’t have to be much of a hardened cynic to suspect that the Lib Dem call for a referendum on full membership was because they felt this debate was winnable. Yet how times have changed; everyone is looking incredibly nervous about a referendum, which they surely wouldn’t do if they believed it was a sure win. In fact, Tory MP Louise Mensch admitted in a tweet she didn’t back a referendum because “I don’t believe in unwinnable referendums. I’m not a Lib Dem.” This hilarious tweet might remind us of David Cameron’s famous warning that “too many tweets may make a twat”: the kind of forty character smack down that sounds like a clever one liner until you read it back ten minutes later and you realise what you’ve actually just said: you don’t want to give the public a vote on something they might change if you don’t agree with them – unlike those pesky Lib Dems with their democracy and whatnot.
So we all the know the anti-EU sentiment, whilst not a electoral game-changing issue, is getting stronger, and this trend won’t reverse itself without action from Westminster. Unless people’s criticisms of the European Union are properly listened to and, where appropriate, responded to, the reluctance to let the British electorate express their views about who actually governs them will play right into the UKIP narrative. The Tories can’t afford for that to happen, electorally, any more than they can afford to risk being the party that yanked Britain out of the European Union.
In other words, the pro-European voices need to get their boxers on the right way around and suit up because the debate is too important to leave it up to people with their own negative, sometimes potentially dangerous, anti-EU agenda.
There is an honest discussion to be had about Europe, and we – by which I mean keen Europeans, who believe that whether perfect or not, being part of the union is in Britain’s best interests – should start by not calling every single person pointing out the flaws in the EU’s sometimes laughably corrupt and undemocratic institutions xenophobic little Englanders, or even Eurosceptics. You don’t have to be a Eurosceptic (in its commonly understood sense) to notice the elephant-sized problems with the EU. Lots of bright, informed, sensible people are extremely suspicious of an organisation that makes so many of our laws yet is near enough impossible for us to exercise any real influence over. That’s not Eurosceptism, a hatred of brie, a fear of siestas, or a nostalgic harking back to the days of the Empire. It’s just a passionate regard for representative democracy.
Tim Montgomerie has posted up a (by no means extensive) list of key concerns about the EU on ConservativeHome. The issues Montgomerie lists affect all sorts of people from low income workers, to small and big business owners, to farmers. But the fact is, none of these issues would matter quite so much if not for the enormous democratic cavern between Brussels and each citizen of each member state. It’s number eight on the list (lack of democratic accountability for decisions made in Brussels), but it might as well occupy every other spot as well.
It’s this feeling of powerlessness; of smallness, that makes people resent the EU so much. After all, many, if not all, of the other things on Montgomerie’s list apply to Westminster and local councils too, but because voters feel we can hold these people to account they become tolerated grievances, not real sore points of anger.
The yawning democratic deficit is there for a number reasons, but one reason is that well over half the eligible population don’t bother to vote at all in the first place in European parliament elections. And even when you do vote, it seems undeniably pointless in such a big constituency. You elect an MEP who is going to represent you and hundreds of others, in a parliament with over 730 other MEPs from other countries, and it must be a simple fact that the sheer size of the parliament will immediately drown out your own MEP’s voice, let alone yours. And that’s just the EU parliament; the Council of Ministers feels even less democratic, the European Commission, all but entirely so.
So the pro-Europeans need to get serious about not just the UK’s relationship with the EU; not even necessarily the repatriation of more powers back to the UK, but just about some basic reforms, together with our other European allies, of the EU’s democratic institutions.
This is a wonderful opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. Whether they have scrappy enough fists for it remains to be seen. Many critics of the EU believe one reason the union will never be scrapped is because ministers here in London love being able to blame a higher, foreign, hated power for unpopular decisions, and to declare occasional empty victories for stopping things that were never going to happen in the first place. Brussels also doubles up to function as a safe place to dump MPs if they’re disgraced or sacked but you don’t want them either on the back benches or on Andrew Marr’s breakfast show every weekend. But if the Lib Dems are genuinely committed to the European Union because it’s good for our country, they should start work now to stop making the union such an easy target for attack. Ideally before Monday’s vote.
Because the fact is, all things considered, Britain is almost certainly better off in the EU than out of it. For a start, we’ve had peace in Europe for well over half a century now. How much that can be attributed to nuclear weapons and how much it can be attributed to the successful diplomacy of the EU is probably the kind of intellectual tug of war between the pro-European left and the Eurosceptic right which can be, and probably will be, argued about indefinitely. It’s probably at the very least a little of both. Either way, the role the EU has played in maintaining that peace should not be casually disregarded, especially not by a generation of politicians and voters who haven’t lived and fought through world wars on their doorstep, or on their soil.
And even if we decide we do want to pull out of the EU, we aren’t ready to do it any time soon, anyway. We don’t have strong enough trade relationships with non-EU nations, for example, and we would need to bolster these considerably before giving up the special arrangements with have in the European Union. Even downgrading to a business and economic only partnership with Europe could considerably impact upon our trade and with growth still flat-lining hopelessly, we can’t afford to take that kind of a risk with people’s jobs.
Perhaps most importantly of all, none of this would extrapolate us from the Human Rights Act or the ECHR anyway, and as the bad press both of these get is almost certainly the basis for much of the anti-EU sentiment expressed in Britain, it’s difficult to see how pulling out of the EU would actually address the electorate’s main concern with Europe anyway, which is, according to the polls, immigration.
So should we have not just a free vote on the referendum, but also have a referendum on the EU? Perhaps, democratically speaking, we are owed one. It’s an enormous risk to take, but if the British public do choose to vote us out of the union, the politicians in Westminster have themselves to blame: they have done us all a disservice, pro-Europe and anti-Europe alike, by never giving us a referendum over the Lisbon Treaty after promising one; by dragging their heels so much on reforming the union’s institutions you’d think they had shackles around their ankles; and by ultimately leaving the debate in the hands of the likes of UKIP, John Redwood, and Roger Helmer, who are irreversibly convinced we should leave, no matter what evidence, argument or research shows the union to be in the nation’s best interests.
So now here it is: we’re at a crunch, the Eurozone has imploded, people are fed up and we’re facing a debate on an in-or-out referendum. The Conservative party could risk flooding the UKIP membership office overnight by whipping Tory MPs on an issue which for many of them is the reason they went into politics and why they joined the party they did (not to mention being an issue they know their constituents may have seen as a vote decider; if fiercely anti-EU Tories are forced to vote against this referendum, it could be, democratically speaking, a tuition fees pledge moment for the Conservative party).
Or they could allow a free vote, and trust the very political system they expect us to trust every day with our jobs, our economy, our lives. With only a minority of the seats held by the Tories, with most Labour MPs and all the Lib Dems extremely likely to vote in favour, and with the vote not legally binding anyway, we surely won’t see a referendum on EU membership any time soon, no matter what happens on Monday? The least they could do is make a pretence at asking us what we want.
If not for our faith in the European brand of democracy, then for our faith in our own. Because when our own government has no faith very same democratic system that puts them into power to deliver the answers we know to be best for the nation, you really, really have to wonder why on earth they so continually expect us to trust it – or them – at all.
*Conducted for UnitetheUnion