I can understand that a lot of my backbench colleagues’ instincts would be to support Adam Afriyie’s amendment. It is true that there is a groundswell of frustration with the EU because it lacks democratic accountability, is a remote body that intrudes far too much in the affairs of our country and seems to many not to offer any advantages for Britain.
People want their say, and I want them to have it which is why I voted in 2011 for a referendum when that was not government policy, or indeed Conservative Party policy. And let’s be clear, as it stands I want out of the EU.
However, when the Prime Minister announced the commitment to a referendum no later than 2017, I realised that this would still be a tough sell to a sceptical public. Whether it is early 2017 (which it could be) or in the last month of that year, the question at the referendum needs to present a credible in/out choice. And for a sustainable decision to be reached we also need a national debate. Neither of these can be achieved by October 2014.
No government can hope to influence and reach agreement with EU members on a renegotiated, less intrusive but more pro-single market European Union within a year. Neither can we hope to stimulate public engagement on the issues that will help to decide if we leave or remain.
This decision has profound implications for our children and our children’s children and therefore deserves extensive scrutiny. This should not be compromised because of a fear of losing party advantage to UKIP, or internal party positioning. Time after time we in the Conservative Party should have learnt that in General Elections this country will not settle their vote on the question of the EU.
“…in seats we are defending against Labour, only just a quarter of Conservative defectors now say they will vote UKIP. Just under one fifth have gone to Labour, and nearly one third – the biggest single group – say they don’t know how they will vote.”
I agree with Adam that the British public are keen for a vote and deserve a vote. However, his present judgement is flawed. At the time of that vote many will expect the Conservatives to have created a climate where informed opinion from the political, civil and business society have had the chance to engage on the issues, motivated less by political advantage and more by recognising all the implications for generations to come.
We should not confuse the fact that because as politicians we may have lived and breathed this issue we feel ready to make a judgement now, when out in the real world many will feel that a referendum in 12 months time,when employment and the cost of living still dominate their daily lives, would be an odd decision. I believe few have evaluated the UK’s relationship with the EU beyond the tabloids and sound-bites and therefore deserve the time a 2017 referendum gives to settle this key issue once and for all.