Complacency over vote on Europe is astonishing

Owen Paterson put in a vigorous performance in Oxford. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Owen Paterson put in a vigorous performance in Oxford. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Well, if anyone was labouring under the misapprehension that it is a foregone conclusion that Britain will remain part of the EU after the referendum, then Owen Paterson’s performance at the Oxford Farming Conference might have opened their eyes.

Often viewed on this side of the Border as a stand-offish, almost sulky politician during his term as UK secretary of state at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Conservative MP for North Shropshire put in an extremely vigorous and persuasive performance outlining life outside the EU at last week’s debate on the issue.

Up against EU farm commissioner Phil Hogan – himself no slouch when it comes to charming an agricultural audience – Paterson painted a picture of a dynamic UK free from the shackles of bureaucracy and restraint outside the cloying confines of Europe.

READ MORE: Paterson and Hogan fight it out over Brexit effects

While his claim that the in/out referendum represented the biggest historic decision since the reformation might have crossed the line into hyperbole, it did at least acknowledge the importance of the up-coming vote and conveyed a sense of urgency which seemed to be missing elsewhere.

In this context, step forward the current incumbent of the revolving door which the Defra position seems to have become in recent years, Liz Truss.

In the interest of fairness I’d have to admit that while she addressed the conference, she wasn’t actually taking part in the debate on the Brexit issue – however she is effectively the “buck stops here” for UK farming interests.

And, while many in the agri-hack world had been both surprised and exasperated during a meeting with the minister at last year’s Highland Show when we tried – and failed – to get a squeak out of her over “Plan B” should the referendum go against EU membership, to hear, six months down the line, that her department still hadn’t looked into the issue was quite astonishing.

There may well be sound political reasons for adopting such a head-in-the-sand stance on the issue – but it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that there is also a huge underlying element of complacency amongst those in the corridors of power that the status quo will continue.

Now, if the establishment should have taken anything from the referendum on Scottish independence, then it was the fact that, no matter how likely it appears to them that the prevailing view will continue, the electorate might not agree.

But it looks worryingly like little has been learned – and we could be set to see a repeat of the low-key, “Daddy-knows-best” response from the ruling parties right up until the polls induce a last minute panic – and hard-to-fill promises ensue.

The Danish government certainly found itself getting a bloody nose in a similar situation just before Christmas – when the country’s electorate voted down its intentions for greater integration with the EU.

An although no date has yet been set for the referendum, indications are that PM, David Cameron might be set to call it sooner rather than later – with some political pundits suggesting that it might be in the summer of this year.

So while Cameron’s charm offensive to convince Europe’s leaders that his much vaunted reform of the EU is not only necessary but also desirable might only just be underway, it’s long past time for doing some of the groundwork on the home front.

For, despite Paterson’s performance at Oxford, it’s still likely that most in the farming community want to remain part of the EU. And while the industry loves to criticise the reams of red tape which either emanate from Brussels or which are pushed upon us by our own administrations for fear of upsetting the EU auditors, membership puts us on an equal footing with our continental cousins not only in terms of support measures but also in terms of market access.

A vote to leave the EU would lose all this.

It would also, in all probability, trigger another referendum on Scottish independence. And many Scottish farmers – as well as those in other sectors – used the fact that it was in the interests of their businesses to remain within the EU as justification for voting “no” to independence. Under these circumstances they would face a much tougher choice in an Indy#2 referendum.