David Cameron has opened a new chapter in Britain’s troubled membership of what we now call the European Union. He says his party will hold a referendum to decide whether we should stay in the EU, should it win the 2015 general election. He will campaign for Britain to stay, provided he is happy with whatever new settlement he negotiates with Britain’s EU partners.
Any referendum will be the first on Europe since Harold Wilson’s Labour government’s 1975 poll settled the issue for a generation. At the time, it was seen as a clever fix for Labour’s internal war about Europe. (Typical Wilson…) But within five years the party was at war again, leading to the SDP breakaway. Time will tell if Cameron’s move will be any more successful.
I was 11 when Britain voted in 1975. We had a day off school as Cardiff High was being used as a polling station. I remember telling friends we should pull out – I even stuck a copy of the No campaign’s leaflet inside the lid of my school desk. (My friends were sensibly more concerned about whether Bay City Rollers would make number 1.)
In time, I became convinced that Britain should be a positive, active member of what we now call the EU. But I have always been concerned by the madder aspects of the EU: the stupidity of the Common Agricultural Policy, the bureaucracy and lack of democracy. I hate the way the Irish have been told to rerun referendums until they get the ‘right’ result. This is not an institution that inspires love or affection in sensible folk.
I happened to listen to David Cameron’s speech live on BBC Radio 5 Live on Wednesday. It struck me as a very cleverly constructed case for change. I particularly liked the way the prime minister accepted the role the EU played in ending Europe’s eternal wars. He was right to say Europe’s single market was its biggest strength. No sensible person can argue against the idea that the EU desperately needs to change if Europe is to flourish and compete against China, India and Brazil.
Yet Cameron’s move is so blatantly a bid to secure party unity that it’s hard to see it succeeding. Europe isn’t an issue that most people care about – except in the Westminster village. Cameron is unlikely to win an overall majority in 2015, which means he won’t be the one to hold a Euro poll. Unlike Harold Wilson, that wily politician who dominated British politics for over a decade in the 1960s and 1970s.