Europe is a litmus test: Britain and a possible EU Referendum

As expected, a key battleground of the British General Election due on 07 May 2015 concerns whether Britain should remain in or out of European Union (EU). The position of the main political parties is now clear namely that Labour, the LibDems and the SNP are all fighting the election on the basis that they wish to remain in the EU, whereas the Conservatives are fighting on the basis that if re-elected, they wish to hold a referendum in 2017 on whether to stay in or leave the EU. The Ukip party´s position is to leave the EU as soon as possible, preferably before 2017.  The manifesto positions are summarised here.

I have written about this the possible Referendum in 2017 before (British Voters and EUroscepticsm: much ado about nothing?), namely that it does not actually rank highly in the the average British voter´s list of priorities.  When the Ipsos MORI poll of January 2015 asked British voters about their top concerns, four issues predominated: healthcare (almost half of voters), economy (one-third) followed by asylum and immigration (one-quarter) and education/schools (one-fifth). Europe/EU as an issue is on par with unemployment, which at present is very low in the UK. Indeed, less than 10% of potential voters consider it to be of importance in their list of priorities. The same post also examined the full list of British voter priorities and concluded that they had very little to do with the EU, since they the vast majority of them, with the exception of EU immigration are largely or entirely the responsibility of the British government. In other words, voting for the Conservatives in order to have a referendum resulting in leaving the EU would change precious little in relation to the state of the NHS, the economy, the education system, the housing system and much else besides. The responsibly for these rests squarely with the British government, not with the EU.

There is, in my view, little or no point to quote research and studies regarding the economic and other consequences of leaving the EU. The fact is that both sides of the debate use the assumptions that best suit the conclusions that they they wish to arrive at. Ultimately, each voter will have to weigh up the pros and cons of staying and leaving the EU. The British voter had to do so in 1975 and chose to join the EU. I shall trust them to arrive at an appropriate conclusion in 2017, should the Conservatives regain power after the General Election.

I would note, however, that the Ukip has been simplifying the pros and cons of leaving the EU and, as I have previously discussed, have made strenuous efforts to conflate the issue of migration, use of the NHS, etc. with the EU which also underplaying the consequences of leaving the EU as soon as possible. By contrast the Conservatives have understood perfectly the consequences of leaving the EU but have simply pandered to their Eurosceptical wing while at the same time seeking to stop the hemorrhage of support in their traditional voters which have, until recent months, been increasingly warming to the dubious charms of the Ukip party.

The Labour party, unlike the LibDems and the SNP, initially gave the impression of sitting on the fence on this issue but have ultimately decided to stay in the EU, while reforming the EU budget and ensuring EU migration does not lead to workers’ wages being undercut.

On 07 April 2015, a leading British political figure waded into the debate and, for a change, it was not to denounce the EU, EU immigration, benefit scroungers and all the rest of the anti-EU rhetoric that has become common place in recent British politics. The person in question has this to say about the possible EU referendum, should the Conservatives be returned to power following the General Election:

“For me Europe is an important litmus test. I believe passionately that leaving Europe would leave Britain diminished in the world, do significant damage to our economy and, less obviously but just as important to our future, would go against the very qualities that mark us out still as a great global nation. It would be a momentous decision….

A decision to exit Europe would say a lot about us [United Kingdom] and none of it good: that an adventurous country has become a timid one; that one with global ambitions has opted to be a parochial bystander; that a country known for its openness to the world shuts the open door nearest to it; that a nation which has built its history on confidence towards others defines itself by resentment to others; that, with all the challenges of the world crowding in upon us, demanding strong and clear leadership, instead of saying ‘here’s where the world should go’, we say ‘count us out’. “

At last, a notable politician has the courage to stand up and be counted in relation to the importance of the EU to the UK and vice versa. The speech by this politician has been prominently reported but alas has also been widely dismissed for the simple reason that it was said by none other than Mr Tony Blair (Europe – a very good reason to vote Labour, 07 April 2015).

This is a terrible pity. Tony Blair has gone from being the darling of the left and the person that brought about Cool Britannia to achieving political pariah status in the years since he resigned in favour of Gordon Brown. The main reason for this is that he was he was blown off course by 9/11 and committed British troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Of course, many seem to find his ability to amass a personal fortune since leaving public office galling, though it is entirely his right to do so and simply mirrors what other ex-Prime Ministers have done.

Personally, I believe that because of the so-called special relationship with the USA, almost any other British Prime Minister would have made the very same decisions that he did at the time and that, just like Margaret Thatcher before him, not only has he defined British politics since 1997 but his legacy continues to do so today.

I admire his capacity to communicate and I respect his political courage for making this speech on the UK and Europe.

 Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

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Comments (3)

  1. Chris

    I never thought I’d ever write this, but it seems to me the last honourable and decent PM, especially when it comes to the EU, was John Major. It is no surprise that he was politically murdered by the Tory right for this very decency and honesty.

    Blair gambled away every credibility he might have had with other European governments when he went into bed with W, and Brown wasn’t really interested in the EU.

    Cameron, to me, looks like a man without any political convictions or a moral compass. He only reacts to whatever the Fleet Street mob (and recently UKIP) puts on the agenda.

    And if/once/when Cameron’s gone, it’s going to become worse with respect to Europe, provided the UK is still a EU member, if you look at who’s queing up behind him: Theresa May, George Osborne, Michael Gove …

    Unfortunately, neither Labour nor the LibDems dare to speak out decidedly in favour of a better and more democratic European Union.

    I left the UK more than two decades ago for continental Europe, but following the irrational debate regarding European matters in Britain still breaks my heart.

    1. rpinto_anglodeutsch (Post author)

      I fully agree with your sentiment about “… the irrational debate regarding European matters in Britain”. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why I established this blog.

      I was so pleased that you referred to “continental Europe” rather than simply “Europe” because, to me, this goes to the heart of the irrational debate.

      Britain is totally part of Europe, but many Brits still refer to “Europe” as if Britain does not belong to it. I suppose this is ultimately because the UK is an island, but Ireland is also one and I do not perceive the same sense of “otherness” when they refer to Europe.

      Maybe it comes down to Sir Winston Churchill´s famous quotation: “We are with Europe but not of it; we are linked but not compromised. We are associated but not absorbed. If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.”

      Perhaps, but it must be remembered that Churchill said this on the eve of the Normandy landings in 1944, when the circumstances were rather different, to put it mildly.

      Britain no longer rules the waves, the empire has been substituted by the commonwealth and the emphasis on trade has been usurped by the forces of globalisation.

      Like you, living in continental Europe and looking back at the debate (or perhaps lack of it) during the run-up to the General Election, leaves me bewildered about why the British media portrays the European Union (and increasingly the principle of the freedom of movement) in such a negative light.

      I shall continue to address this issue, regardless of the outcome of the General Election due on 07 May 2015.

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