Time to part? How I shall be voting

We shall be subjected to a barrage of insults about our insularity and threats about the terrible consequences that await us if we dare to say No. We shall withstand it.

Peter Shore MP, speaking to the Bruges Group, July 24 1990

In my adult lifetime there have been four major forks in the road regarding Britain’s relationship with the European Community, later European Union. These were, respectively, the Single European Act 1986, the decision to join the Exchange-Rate Mechanism in 1990, the debate about British membership of the euro in the late Nineties and early 2000s and the current in/out referendum.

All four occasions saw the grand figures of the age almost entirely on one side and an (alleged) assortment of oddballs on the other. In three of the four cases, the grandees were proved wrong and the ‘oddballs’ right.

On the form book alone, I am going with the oddballs on June 23.

If the lack of standing in polite society of the Benn/Powell/RMT/Farage line-up is one bad reason upon which to base a vote, another is the confusion of ends and means, one of which both sides in the current debacle are guilty. Do not vote either Leave or Remain on the basis that that you support either an open-free-trading Britain or Autarky in the UK, or something distinctive in between. Don’t vote either way to preserve the National Health Service or spend more on schools or stand up to President Putin.

Neither an independent Britain nor one confederated with other EU member-states is pre-ordained to sign up to one or other package of policies. There are always choices to be made. The referendum question is where those choices are to be made, who will make them and to whom are those that make them accountable?

One look at the EU set up suggests the distinction here is between national democracy (as practised by most of the advanced countries and an increasing number of developing ones) and the Byzantine ways of Brussels, with its rival centres of power, its opacity and the ‘trialogues’ among the different bits of the EU machine.

A third bad reason on which to vote is the belief that either Leave or Remain come with a guarantee of economic success. They don’t. This relates to the last point. Both at national and EU level, it is possible to make economic policy decisions that have good outcomes and ones that produce bad outcomes. In both cases, it is not always possible to tell which is which.

Indeed, at different times the same approach can produced good and bad outcomes.

Ultimately, the question is about the legitimacy of the governors in the eyes of the governed. In the early part of 1999, Larry Elliott and I were invited to talk to Labour MEPs in Brussels. They were very generous hosts but confronted with this question, they were either uncomprehending or suggested, in one case, that even raising such issues threatened a return to the concentration camps (in a pre-echo of David Cameron’s more ludicrous claims recently).

It is often said that the EU is trying to turn itself into a state, and on one level that is true. Perhaps more worrying still is its apparent belief that there need be no final locus of legitimate authority, that ‘different levels of government do different things’ and that all that matters is locating each activity at the ‘correct’ level.

Finally, a very bad reason to vote is the belief that if Britain is ‘at the table’ it can ‘reform’ the EU because – the perennial lie of the UK establishment – the debate in Europe ‘is going our way’. David Cameron was at it on the morning of June 21, telling the Sun: ‘I will sort EU Out.’ The only ray of light is that the Prime Minister almost certainly does not believe this nonsense.

The EU, we have been told ad nauseam for decades, is going to ‘do less and do it better’. True, the programme for the current six-monthly EU presidency of the Netherlands is trim by recent standards but given these recent standards included the 72 pages of ‘priorities’ of the Italian presidency in the second half of 2014, this is not saying much.

In all honesty, I may probably always have voted Leave, although I cannot help thinking there is, in some parallel universe, a version of the EU that could have won me over. But a monumental wrong turn was taken after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, taking Europe on a journey into gigantism, bringing about the Europe of the euro, of austerity, of mass unemployment, the Europe of no fewer than five presidents, none of whom is actually a president.

The Europe in which some fairly modest requests by a British Prime Minister were treated with contempt.

Writing this in Sussex, just over 20 miles from Lewes, home for six years to Thomas Paine, I can only echo the great radical’s cry on behalf of American independence: ‘’Tis time to part.’

Europe Isn’t Working by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson is out now, published by Yale University Press.


Thomas Paine (artwork by Alwyn Turner)

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