The other day I was stopped by police officers as I was going through security at the House of Commons. Astonishingly they took me to one side and confiscated a handful of leaflets I was carrying that called for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. I was sat down in a room with two police officers and was quizzed as to who I was, who I was going to see and why.
Now before anyone gets too carried away at this glaring assault on civil liberties, I should say that the offending leaflets depicted the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, dressed as the TV character Vicky Pollard, best known for her studied line in indecision; “Yeah, but no, but yeah, but no....” We had used what we were calling ‘Cleggy’ Pollard to demonstrate that Nick Clegg’s Manifesto promise to hold an EU referendum didn’t amount to very much at all, and had spent the past few days touring Sheffield with an actor dressed as ‘Cleggy’ Pollard to get that message over. This image, I was informed, could cause offence – especially if I were to stick any of the posters up. When I said I was going to give them to my old friend, John Cryer MP and suggested to the Officer that he could phone him if he liked, the policeman said “How would I know that it would be John Cryer?”
This little vignette seems worth re-telling because it says so much about the state of power, tolerance and freedom of speech in a country that increasingly takes itself far too seriously and which is presided over a by a professional political elite which gives every impression of finding the wider electorate rather troublesome. Originality and openness of mind are frowned upon under this dispensation. Radical opinions or honestly held beliefs are seen as belonging to the wilder shores of Right and Left. The European Union, or any rational discussion of it, seems to fall into this category. Which may explain why some of us – in fact a good number of us from all parties and none - have set up a campaign – The People’s Pledge - to have a referendum on membership of the EU. The idea is to get as many people as possible to exert pressure on their MP or candidates to get them to commit to supporting a referendum call by signing the pledge on line. For, notwithstanding the fact that the last one to take place was in 1975, the political establishment on both sides simply don’t want us to have one in case we all end up voting the wrong way. What is more they like to lump those of us who do believe that the British people have a right to hold the European Union to account in a referendum as all being right wing extremists and xenophobes.
Of course at different times the parties have promised us referendums on the Maastricht Treaty, or as the Liberal Democrats did at the last election on EU membership itself, but as soon as the prospect of Government beckons, the door is firmly slammed shut again.
Last week a booming voice was heard in the House of Commons as the Prime Minister, David Cameron, took questions. As the question was being asked, a low murmur of approval seemed to come from both sides of the House, which grew into a crescendo once MPs had heard the second part of the question
“Now that the AV referendum is out the way—incidentally, nobody asked for it and nobody wanted it, except for the Liberals, and the rag, tag and bobtail here—[ Interruption.] I did not want it—[Interruption. ] I did not want it. Yet, Prime Minister, a survey done a few weeks ago said that 70% of the British people wanted a referendum on Europe. It is in the Liberal manifesto, although that does not mean much, and more than half your Back Benchers want a referendum as well.
When are the people going to get the referendum on Europe?”
It was the question that dare not be asked – and unsurprisingly perhaps, the Prime Minister chose not to answer that part on an EU Referendum. Given that much of the media is little interested in Parliament these days, it was largely missed. The question didn’t come from one of the usual suspects, Bill Cash MP or Austin Mitchell MP, but from the Blyth Valley MP and former miner, Ronnie Campbell. The campaign is just beginning to build a little momentum with more MPs from both sides of the House – although so far not from the Liberal Democrats – signing up.
Some of the referendum supporters such as Keith Vaz are in favour because they believe it will bring final closure to the issue. Others such as Green MP Caroline Lucas, who may have their difficulties with the EU, would not vote to leave. But what they all have in common; those who are hostile, those who are doubters and those who simply think that a referendum would re-commit Britain to the EU, is a belief that voters are intelligent enough to make their own decision.
Opponents of an EU referendum accuse those of us who want one of being in favour of populist plebiscites. But the argument to hold them over major constitutional issues seems to be becoming unanswerable. Alex Salmond and the SNP have just won handsomely in Scotland, and partly because the SNP made a promise to hold a referendum on independence, even if the majority of Scots would probably vote ‘no’.
The clamour can only grow larger and louder, as more bail outs from the sinking Eurozone beckon and more and more people begin to realise just what little democratic power is available to them as citizens of an island nation, where more and more decisions are actually made elsewhere.