Before history is quickly re-written and the essentials forgotten, the vote that took on Monday night in the House of Commons on whether British voters should be allowed a referendum on membership of the European Union came about because a petition of over one hundred thousand electors demanding just that had been collected. There would of course be no binding vote and no legislation; the debating device was designed to allow MPs to let off steam. The device would have the added benefit of allowing the professional political class to go through the motion of listening to unpopular, unfashionable opinions from the great unwashed without having to lift a lazy finger.
Except as we know, the Prime Minister, David Cameron decided to elevate the popular demand for a referendum into a trial of strength, and one which he would have lost had not Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg come racing to his rescue. Cameron insisted on a three line whip, egged on by the Coalition’s chief hostage taker, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and supported by the leader of Her Majesty’s astonishgly loyal Opposition, Ed Miliband. What a lost opportunity! What an apology for an Opposition! The late John Smith, Europhile that he was, never lost an opportunity to harry the Major Conservative Government to the near bitter end over the Maastricht Treaty.
In the end over eighty Conservative MPs rebelled against their leader. They were joined by a record number of Labour MPs – not that they were deemed worthy of mention by much of the media, since it is pre-ordained that the issue of Britain’s relations with the EU is primarily an issue for the British Right.
This Westminster farce took place against the backdrop of a mounting and increasingly insoluble crisis in the Euro zone. It took place as the European political establishment acknowledged that a Europe wide referendum on a new Treaty designed to shore up the Euro zone with the political and economic integration needed to save it is inevitable. Meanwhile the serried ranks of cavorting clowns from UKIP and the BNP managed to keep sections of the media entertained, burning flags at Westminster, and harping back to a time and a place that may have existed sometime in the mid 1950s.
So here, I believe is an uncomfortable truth; one that British newspapers of Left and Right will either deliberately ignore or simply fail to comprehend. It is this; an overwhelming majority of people in Britain favour a referendum on Britain’s relations with the EU. They comprise a majority of supporters of each of the main parties. Some of them may not be able to express themselves as well as the commentariat, while others may simply be woefully ignorant. But a majority are simply plain, straight talking folk who are deeply worried that Britain – not a member of the Single Currency – could be dragged ever closer to the Euro zone mire. They do not trust or like their own politicians very much, but they distrust the leaders and nomenclature of the Brussels EU Commission even less. Deep down, they are fundamentally democratic. Patronised and ignored, their rage, for once, was echoed on Monday night by the rebel Parliamentarians.
I declare an interest, as an internationalist, a European and a democrat. I have been campaigning for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, because I believe the issue is one of democracy and accountability. The People’s Pledge, which I am supporting, does just that, but as neither a force for withdrawal or for staying in.
Today the European Union is divided into two sections; those countries who are part of the Euro zone, and which will out of absolute necessity now move with astonishing speed to integrate into full political and economic union, and those outside who will either be sucked into this vortex or keep a sensible distance. And since Europe’s leaders have thus demonstrated a singular lack of competence so far, there is precious little confidence that they have the ability to make the right decisions now.
This, in practical terms, is where we are. And while Britain’s professional political class effected an historical and empty collusion on Monday, events will continue to run ahead of them. That is until the grown-ups decide to step into the breach.