From the Observer 4 April 2015
NOTHING is more dishonest than David Cameron’s slogan that a vote for the Conservatives is a vote for “competence over chaos”. Nothing is more disreputable than the failure of our allegedly ferocious 24/7 media to examine it.
Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on Europe in 2017, should the Tories win, will bring political, constitutional and economic chaos, which will continue into the 2020s. I suspect he is bailing out because he knows it all too well.
His announcement that he won’t serve a third term is little more than a confession that Britain might soon be ruled by a prime minister chosen by Tory party members rather than the voters. Cameron has given everyone who wants to succeed him permission to begin campaigning as soon as his hollow victory is assured. Boris Johnson, Theresa May, George Osborne and ambitious Tories whose faces you will struggle to recognise, grasp that the only way to win over a greying, nationalist party membership is to demand ever more concessions from the European Union or complete withdrawal.
Voters who do not give Europe a thought from one month to the next do not realise how large it looms in the rightwing imagination. To Conservative minds, the EU is an aggressive imperial power. Fighting it compares with the fights against Hitler and Stalin. The EU is all that stands between us and the chance of becoming a sovereign, unregulated country: a new Victorian Britain.
The right has fallen for a mixture of half-truths – the European Union undoubtedly diminished national sovereignty – and fantasy. It is not only the leaders and partisans of Ukip who are in a dreamland; David Cameron has been unable to fight Ukip, because large sections of the Tory party agree and the entire Tory press are in it too.
Half of Conservative members want to leave , as do six members of the cabinet, including our foreign secretary, who does not want alliances with foreigners. Nothing Cameron can negotiate will satisfy them and he has next to nothing to offer waverers either.
I say the coverage of this election is an embarrassment to a free press because only the Observer reported last week that the Conservatives suppressed a series of civil service reports on alleged EU interference in British life. Not one report found that “too much power resided in Brussels”. Little room for Cameron finding concessions to placate his party there then.
He cannot ask the EU to end the free movement of labour – it would be asking the EU to abolish itself. He cannot tear up the social chapter, which so infuriates Conservatives. The coalition has thought about changing it for five years and discovered the task was beyond its ministers, as he well knows.
In any case, you only have to look at the triumph of capital and impoverishment of labour to realise that the European Union does not guarantee the strong workers’ rights of Tory fantasy. As the Economist, which may be a conservative magazine, but is at least honest, says: “Britain’s workers are a bargain because their pay is so pitiful.”
To be sure, Cameron may win the power to refuse migrants from the EU benefits from the moment they arrive. But it is hard to see what other concessions he can force and harder still to see the Tory party retaining its discipline as it realises how little he can achieve.
It is not too fanciful to imagine the strain of a referendum splitting it, a disaster for the Conservatives that would delight many readers but is hardly an attractive pitch for a party promising “stable” government.
If Britain votes narrowly to stay in, you cannot expect Eurosceptics to accept the result. The experience of the Scottish referendum ought to teach us that close referendums become neverendums.
If Britain votes to leave, then the real turmoil will begin. Car manufacturers have said they will leave too. As two-fifths of finance firms gave access to European markets as their main reason for choosing London as their base you can’t expect them to stay either.
Scotland may join the rush to the door. I oppose nationalists, but accept that the SNP would have every right to demand a new independence referendum if England votes to leave the EU and Scotland does not.
A Britain outside the EU would no longer be the country Scotland voted to stay with in 2014.
The dislocation will come at the precise moment when the economic consequences of George Osborne will be plain for all to see. By 2017, he will be implementing what the Institute for Fiscal Studies describes as “the largest fiscal consolidation out of 32 advanced economies over the period from 2015 to 2019”.
In plain English, it means that local government will not be able to provide essential services, the police and armed services will struggle to maintain law and order and national defence, the NHS will crack and the government will slash the benefits of the mentally ill and handicapped, who rarely vote and are thus an irresistible target for the crooked politician.
All for nothing. Eurosceptics cannot grasp that the EU is like the Hotel California – you can check out any time you like but you can never leave. Norway is outside the EU. But it wants access to the single market, as will all those doltish businessmen and women who are instructing us to keep their taxes down by voting Tory. Norway has “regulation without representation” as a consequence. It has no say in EU policy but it must obey the EU’s rules and face punishment if it breaks them.
Maybe whoever succeeds Cameron will want a looser arrangement. Turkey has a customs union with the EU, but tariffs are decided in Brussels and Turkey must also follow the EU’s preferential agreements with non-European countries. Britain, assuming there is still a Britain and Scotland hasn’t gone, would again have no say on policies it must follow.
Meanwhile, what’s left of our Foreign and Commonwealth Office after Osborne’s cuts will have to spend years renegotiating EU trade agreements with China, South Korea and the rest of the world from a position of weakness.
I give up on my own trade ever breaking out of the 24/7 news cycle long enough to think more than five minutes ahead. But Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians should be having a frank confrontation with the supposedly pro-European Nick Clegg.
If he means what he says about Europe and the British national interest he cannot possibly agree to another coalition with the Conservatives.
No spin or broken promises this time. A simple “no” will suffice.