A referendum on the UK’s EU membership? Please not yet!
In an eloquent article on Our Kingdom, David Marquand, the academic, former Labour MP and later chief adviser (1977-78) to Roy Jenkins as President of the European Commission, laments that the Britain he’s proud of, the Britain that “stood alone against Nazi Germany for twelve long months”, that welcomed foreign exiles and was a beacon of free speech and peaceful protest, no longer exists. Despite having consistently supported UK membership of the European Union, Mr Marquand is —
now getting more and more favourable to a referendum – not on the Lisbon Treaty, which is a side issue, but on the one question that really matters: in or out? I’m pretty sure that the Europhobes would lose, just as they did in 1975, but even if they won there would be a silver lining. British secession from the EU would be a disaster for Britain, but it would be a good thing for Europe. Its progress towards federalism would still be slow and halting, but at least the UK would no longer be there, throwing spanners in the works at every opportunity. And – a bigger bonus – the UK would probably break up. Scotland and (probably) Wales would not want to leave their continent, even if England did. I’ve always been against the break-up of Britain, championed so brilliantly by Tom Nairn, but I’m increasingly coming to feel that it offers Wales, where I was born, and Scotland, where both my grandmothers were born, their best hope of escape from the deadly UK mixture of authoritarian illiberalism, gross inequality and small-minded insularity.
It’s a tempting idea, but the temptation needs to be resisted: unless it’s a rhetorical trope, it’s a death wish. I have posted this comment on David Marquand’s article:
“I’m proud to be European as well as British and English and a Londoner. It’s obvious to me that Britain’s future lies either in Europe or else in rapid decline and obscurity. The ravings of the Europhobes are incomprehensible: why should anyone take seriously the paranoid xenophobic lies of the Sun, the Murdoch press and the Conservative party? The prospect of at least five and possibly ten years of a Tory government under Cameron and Hague, oscillating between Europhobia and Euroscepticism, constantly dragging its feet in Brussels, constantly whingeing about wanting to claw back its ‘right’ to treat British workers worse than anyone else in Europe, constantly trying to extract petty chauvinist advantage by blackmailing our European partners with the threat of an obstructive veto, constantly blaming every national failure on Europe, constantly undermining our standing in Washington and the rest of the world by puerile displays of vindictiveness and disloyalty in Brussels — doesn’t that prospect depress you?
“If it does, then I can see how the idea of an In/Out referendum, almost certainly in my view resulting in the UK’s withdrawal (or expulsion) from the European Union (“It was The Sun Wot Won It“), might have a kind of masochistic attraction. As Marquand rightly says, it would be a disaster for Britain. If it led to the disintegration of the United Kingdom, with Scotland and perhaps Wales seceding and rejoining the EU, (and Northern Ireland probably joining the Republic of Ireland), leaving England to sink without trace, it would be not just a disaster but a catastrophe. But the luxury of being able to tell the swivel-eyed Europhobes and Eurosceptics that it served them right, and would teach them a salutary lesson, would be pitifully small compensation for seeing our once proud country swirl relentlessly down the drain.
“If we must have a referendum on UK membership of the EU, let it be preceded by a period of several years in which an enlightened British government awakens from its torpor and starts to play an active and constructive role in Europe, not fatuously claiming a “leadership” role (who else in Europe these days accepts Britain as a leader?) but engaging seriously and whole-heartedly with the French and the Germans and the Poles and Spanish to put yet more flesh on the bones of the great European idea, to develop its benign identity in world affairs and to help it to play as effective a role in tackling the world’s horrendous problems as the United States, Russia, India, China and Brazil. Before we hold this referendum, let’s have a government that shouts from the rooftops that as partners in Europe we’re part of an exciting and imaginative enterprise of a kind never seen before, a new kind of partnership among sovereign states which transcends nationality yet preserves and safeguards all that’s best in national identity. Before that referendum, let’s have a government that recites five times every day before breakfast the enormous benefits that flow to our economy, our culture and our way of life from our European membership card. Let’s see a great national crusade to expose and kill with ridicule the tawdry lies and psychotic scaremongering and Europhobic ranting of the tabloids and their Eurosceptic groupies. Only then, when national awareness of what’s at stake has been raised to a moderately mature and adult level, can we dare to risk that referendum. Until then, it would be a form of national suicide, a victory for ignorance, prejudice, chauvinism, xenophobia, cowardice and a shameful failure of vision. For all our shortcomings and failures of courage and optimism, we surely don’t deserve that. It’s far too early for us Europeans to surrender to defeatism.
“And, by the way, what is this plucky little Britain that “stood alone against Nazi Germany for twelve long months”? Better ask the Canadians, the Australians, the New Zealanders, the South Africans, the Free Poles, the Indians, the East and West Africans and the West Indians, the Free French, and a host of other tough and welcome allies. I bet their memories won’t be as short and flaky as ours seem to be. It’s fashionable and politically correct now to sneer at the Empire. I’m old enought to remember, though, that we weren’t sneering at the Empire in 1940. How shaming that it’s now their turn to sneer at us!”