Britain’s relationship with the EU is absolutely vital to the economic and political future of the country, and even to the political and economic future of the EU. The structure of British democracy, the way the country is governed, is a matter of first order political importance – Britain’s membership of the EU ranks alongside the electoral system, the powers of regional and local government, or the role of the monarch as central constitutional questions.
So what is happening? For the past few days, British politics has descended into an even more sordid, tactical and short-term ‘debate’ about these vital issues than ever before.
The initial process started on 9th August when a petition calling for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership initiated by MEP Nikki Sinclaire gathered more than 100000 signatures (the first news story about it is here*), although not on 10 Downing Street’s e-petitions site. On 19th October a motion passed by the Backbench Business Committee (details here) proposed a debate and vote on the issue, to take place on 27th October, with a resolution to be debated to advocate a 3-way referendum (in, out, renegotiate) to take place before May 2013.
The debate has subsequently been moved forward, to Monday 24th October, so Cameron, Hague and Clegg can attend, and the press has been full of the reactions within the 3 main parties, all of which will issue 3-line whips to get their MPs to vote against the resolution. This has of course prompted howls of protest, mostly among the Tories, with a series of lower-ranking Tory MPs promising to vote against the whip. CCHQ has issued a vague, poorly argued and vacuous paper explaining its position.
Labour’s position is no better. Ed Miliband has a measly statement on his website, stating “It’s not the right thing for Britain. It is not the right thing for jobs. It is not the right thing for growth. The prospect of a referendum would create economic uncertainty our country does not need right now.” This sort of everything-else-is-more-important argument is deeply uninspiring and, frankly, wrong. If, Ed, you want Britain to be in the EU and for the UK to shape the EU, then why not show some leadership to say so? As if that were not enough Sunny Hundal fans the flames further, arguing why Ed’s tactics are not right.
I don’t actually know the way out of this cul-de-sac and, as I have previously argued, my experience of referendums in the UK makes me very nervous that one on this issue would be anything other than a horrid experience (not for the result but for the process). I just know that a matter this important needs a more measured, sensible and strategic solution than the one being served up in Westminster just now.
* – 9th August is the first news story I can find about the petition. The actual number may have been achieved earlier. If anyone knows then please comment!