TOMORROW’S parliamentary debate about a referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the European Union is, like every other travesty performed on the slime-green benches at Westminster, a complete charade.
Yet that does not mean it is unimportant: to discern what is really happening it is necessary not only to discount the scenario presented by the politicians, but to examine why they feel obliged to stage this particular performance.
The immediate explanation is that yet another of Dave’s cack-handed initiatives has blown up in his face. Cameron, like all autocrats, is always on the lookout for ploys that will enable the mug punters to let off steam, without remotely challenging his control of events. So, his election manifesto promised an online petition system whereby topics that received 100,000 votes would be debated in Parliament. That seemed a safe enough concession: a debate is not a Bill and if it led to embryonic legislation the Coalition’s parliamentary majority would easily fillet it of any objectionable features.
The first debate tabled as a result of an online petition was on the topic of the Hillsborough disaster. The second successful petition, however, was the stuff of Dave’s worst nightmare: a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. His problem is not that the debate has the slightest chance of resulting in an affirmative vote for a referendum: honourable members in the Mother of Parliaments did not get where they are today by paying the slightest attention to the wishes of the British public. Even if, by some freak, the Commons voted in favour of a referendum, the motion is non-binding.
No, Dave’s problem is that this debate gives voice to the Issue That Dares Not Speak Its Name: Europe. The policy of the “modernising” (ie principles-free) tendency currently controlling the Conservative Party has been to suppress any discussion of serious Eurosceptic concerns. Minor issues relating to a few of the more outrageous impositions, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, may be raised – such whimpers are tolerated, again on the safety-valve principle. To address any of the major issues of British sovereignty, however, is “banging on about Europe”, a vote loser (sic) and threatens to reopen divisions in the party. In reality, public hostility to the EU is now irreversible.
On Europe, Dave has previous. Remember his “cast-iron” guarantee of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Cameron is not happy with discussion of an issue on which his previous perfidy may be cast up against him. It was that betrayal above all that drove former Conservative voters to support UKIP at the last general election. Psephological analysis shows that UKIP denied the Tories victory in 21 constituencies, as a consequence of those Tory defections. That in turn cost Cameron his overall majority. Dave pleads impotence over Europe because he is shackled to the Liberal Democrats; but he is only hostage to those fanatical Europhiles because he lied about the Lisbon Treaty.
The Lib Dems’ mendacity is equally shameless. They claimed to be the only party with the confidence to put Britain’s EU membership to the test of an In/Out referendum – a “real referendum”, as they termed it – and attacked the Conservatives for only proposing a more limited referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which they considered inadequate. So, tomorrow, will the Lib Dems, now in government, honour that boast by voting for the referendum they promised us? Do not bet the farm on it. On Europe, as on most other issues, you could not put a cigarette paper between the main parties. The new politics is no longer a contest between rival party ideologies but between the political class and the public it despises.
Nor is the Tories’ much-hyped rebellion, with ale-house gossip predicting resignations by five parliamentary private secretaries and 66 MPs backing the motion in defiance of control-freak Dave’s three-line whip, genuine. The dissidents’ mutiny is as much an act of self-interest as their acquiescence would normally be. With 50 parliamentary seats about to be abolished, constituency activists temporarily have the whip hand and they are representative of the rest of Britain in viscerally loathing the EU. Voting against a European referendum could mean deselection, or rejection for a new, winnable seat. This is the self-preservation society.
If politicians knew how bitterly they are hated, even they would be afraid. To savour the in-your-face hypocrisy that characterises politicians, consider Dave’s self-righteous reproach as he denounced Labour in 2009 for reneging on a manifesto commitment to a referendum on the European Constitution (subsequently the Lisbon Treaty): “I believe that if you make a promise in your manifesto, and the country votes on that manifesto, then you are honour-bound to keep that promise.” Love that “honour-bound” bit. It’s the way he tells them.