Would I like a referendum on Europe? Yes

Last week, David Cameron announced that the next Conservative manifesto will contain a pledge to have a referendum on whether Britain ought to remain in Europe or to withdraw. His intention is that the Conservatives will win an outright majority at the next general election, thus giving them a proper mandate to govern; something they lack at the moment.

I’ll give Cameron some credit, given how much of the current government’s actions were in neither manifesto of the two coalition parties, he has had the decency to delay any European referendum until after the next general election. Though I do wonder if Cameron’s promises are worth any more than Nick Clegg’s promise was when he vowed not to vote for an increase in university tuition fees.

Those who know me, and other regular readers, will be aware that I am no friend of the Conservatives or the values they stand for. I value fairness, equality and community above prejudice, capitalism and individualism. So it is through slightly gritted teeth that I say I would favour having a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. I’ll explain why:

When the first referendum was held in 1975 my parents were younger than I am now. All 4 of my grandparents were eligible to vote. My generation was just in the process of being planned, conceived, born, etc. So firstly, the population has largely changed since then. Anyone who voted in 1975 (if they were 18) will be 60 by the time of the next referendum. My grandparents’ generation have largely gone, my parents’ generation has aged and my generation has been born, grown up and become fully fledged members of a British society that, as far as our living memory goes, has always been part of the EU.

Though that last sentence is not quite true, is it? The 1975 vote was on membership of the EEC, not the EU. A small difference in the acronym, maybe, but it is indicative that what we have now is not what was envisioned back in 1975. The very nature of what is referred to as ‘Europe’ (meaning the politics of the union thereof, not just the geographical nature) has evolved in time, with more member states now than at the beginning and a sense of government that is stronger than economic friendliness between near neighbours.

Given that politics, parties and economies change so quickly, it is right that we get to vote for a new government at least once every 5 years. I might even argue for a 4 year term, though not here. Given how different Europe is now from what it was in the mid-1970s, it seems only reasonable to offer the British people a choice.

On top of this, anyone aged 18-59 (allowing some flexibility for months of the year, depending on when precisely such a referendum may take place) would be having their first say. Although ‘Britain’ may sometimes be personified, the question isn’t really being asked to the same group of people. Those that have the opportunity to vote in both referenda will be a small minority indeed.

The odd thing about last week’s politics was the position of the Labour party. I cannot help but think that Ed Milliband has painted himself into a corner by saying that he would not support holding a referendum. Had he done so, he would surely have taken some flak from the Conservatives for not bringing about a referendum during Labour’s time in office. But any such accusations wouldn’t have stuck, given that Milliband wasn’t leader of the party then. Nor would it likely still be an issue by the time of the next general election. As it is, however, the next Conservative manifesto will contain one attractive promise that the Labour manifesto will not.

It may be reasonably argued that those who wish for a referendum are those who are wanting to withdraw. In that case, I am in the minority who would want a referendum for the sake of following through on principles of democracy, but who would likely vote to remain in Europe.

Though I do wonder, given the current governments deplorable attacks on the poor, disabled and unemployed and their total and utter lack of credibility on the economy (not that Labour’s reputation, if not their actual record, is all that better in this last respect) whether or not the referendum is going to be the Conservative’s biggest selling point at the next general election. Are they just going to be the Referendum Party in the emperor’s new clothes? I would be fearful if they are, as they may well campaign on a referendum and then claim they have a mandate to inflict much more harm than they have done so in the last 3 years. That is, if they win. I shall be voting strategically to do my best to ensure they don’t.

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