In the early 1980s the debate about the European Economic Community, as it was then called, was dominated by the demands from the Labour Party that we should withdraw our membership in order to facilitate the UK becoming a siege economy with import controls. Combined with the complaints of “Little Englander” right wingers it was easy to see the argument as between those who were outward looking and wanted us to remain members and the “stop the world I want to get off” element who wanted to retreat inwards.
The debate has moved on. The relative economic importance of the rest of the world has increased dramatically. These days it is those who want to be shackled to a protectionist, restrictive Fortress Europe who are seem narrow minded.
This change is uncomfortable for the former Eurocrat, Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. Mr Clegg response in his speech to his Party’s conference in York today, by ignoring it. He tried to reheat the tired old carcicature of Euroscepticism. Of course it suits his purpose to say that only outfit offering a different view are UKIP and that the “stuffy parachialism dressed up as patriotism” and “sepia-tinted memory of empire” should be rejected. Instead we should “look forward and outward.”
He talked about the United States,South Korea, Mexico, Columbia, Ethiopia and China. He mentioned how he been to visit to promote trade thus getting across what a thoroughly internationalist fellow he is. But he did not mention that our membership of the EU, on it’s current terms, greatly restricts our freedom to trade with those countries.
Perhaps his most desperate argument for EU membership was when he said:
How else would we, right now, be making our presence felt against Vladimir Putin’s Cold War aggression in the Ukraine?
When it switched to domestic matters Mr Clegg said of the Coalition Government:
Don’t let anyone airbrush out our role.
The trouble is so many in his own Party and been trying to do so. They have been acting as sullen passengers.
Mr Clegg does make some effort to defend the Government. But his determination to provide equal criticism of Labour and the Conservatives result in his own position being a muddle. He said that Labour want “a bloated and cumbersome state.” But that the Conservatives want “a remorseless shrinking of our public services.”
Here Mr Clegg appears to conflate spending with the quality of services. The public services provided by local government, for example, have seen a reduction in spending but an increase in the level of resident satisfaction. Does Mr Clegg celebrate that achievement showing that “shrinking” the size of the state can still deliver better services? Or is it something he is ashamed of? Would any further cuts in council funding mean a “shrinking of public services” or would any increase mean a return to “a bloated and cumbersome state”?
In an episode of The Simpsons an alien from another planet took the form Bill Clinton and said:
We must move forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!
Mr Clegg said we must be:
Open not closed.
In not out.
Great Britain not little England.
Forward not back.
Hope not fear.
The future not the past.
For all his talk about taking on UKIP he really sees them as his best hope for portraying Euroscepticism as an unappealing cause. Instead of trying to play that game Mr Clegg should set out his own stall. This he failed to do. The speech had no new policies, no new arguments and no coherent message.
As long ago as 1992 Margaret Thatcher said that handing power over to European institutions was “yesterday’s future.” There is nothing more dated than politicians telling us to go “forward not back.” Speeches about the exciting opportunities of being in the EU are half a century too late.