Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
There are plenty of reasons to vote Conservative in May. While the Eurozone faces its third recession in six years, our economy is the fastest-growing of any G7 state. We have – this is an almost incredible statistic – created more jobs over the past four years than have the other 27 members of the EU put together. Crime is at its lowest level since records began. School standards (as opposed to debased exam grades) are rising. The welfare reforms, combined with tax cuts for the low paid, are rescuing hundreds of thousands of people from the squalor of dependency.
Ah, you say, but what about Europe? Why do you, Hannan, a Eurosceptic, back a party that won’t contemplate withdrawal from the EU? A party that has just nominated the Euro-integrationist Lord Hill as Britain’s Commissioner? A party that pushed through the European Arrest Warrant on a three-line Whip?
Well, first of all, it’s the present Tory leadership, not the party as a whole, that is committed to EU membership. A clear majority of Conservative voters favour Brexit. Let me cite – it seems only polite on this website, though all the pollsters show the same thing – Lord Ashcroft’s mega-poll on Europe, conducted earlier this year. Of those who backed our party at the last election, 56 per cent would vote to leave the EU tomorrow, 31 per cent to stay. Scepticism among activists is stronger still. A ConHome survey showed that 78 per cent of party members want a free-trade-only deal with the EU. It would surely be absurd for the majority to step aside in favour of the minority.
And, in fairness, no one is asking us to. David Cameron is the first leader of our party to have allowed his MPs to campaign against EU membership. It was one of two commitments he gave me when he stood to become party leader. The other was to leave the palaeo-federalist EPP. He delivered on both.
It hardly seems fair, in the circs, to blame the Prime Minister for not holding views that he has never pretended to hold. David Cameron has never once suggested that he wants a substantial disengagement from the EU. Sure, he’d ideally like to improve our membership terms; but it’s clear that, if the referendum were tomorrow, he’d vote to stay in. Then again, his vote will be only one among millions. The moment he announced the In/Out referendum, Britain’s European policy policy passed from his hands into the grip of the electorate as a whole.
Could the UK repatriate significant chunks of foreign affairs, criminal justice, agriculture, fisheries, employment law, welfare, defence, environmental policy, tax? In theory, yes; in practice, not under this PM. He has ruled out the deal that 78 per cent of Tories favour, namely one based on free trade rather than political amalgamation. It’s pretty clear that the referendum, when it comes, will be on the EU we know today, or something very close to it.
Fine. Bring it on. We’ll be up against the same line-up that tried to push us into the euro: the CBI, the TUC, the NFU, the BBC, the Brussels-funded charities and NGOs, the mega-corporations, the Westminster bigwigs. Then again, we’ve been up against that coalition for the past 40 years, and public opinion remains pretty evenly divided. I don’t know what the outcome the referendum will be and neither, for all the Olympian certainty we hear from some commentators, does anyone else.
Still, isn’t a referendum right in principle? Haven’t we souverainistes been demanding one for years? Now that it’s so close, shouldn’t we be lunging at it with both hands?
For what it’s worth, economic circumstances could hardly be more favourable for Outers. Britain’s recovery gathers speed while the Eurozone refuses to grow. Every month’s trade figures tilt the balance further toward Brexit: Europe is the only continent on the planet that is in economic decline. Although Europhiles keep repeating that “half our trade” is with Europe, this hadn’t been true since before the crash. The latest ONS figures, published on 31 October, showed that the EU was taking 44 per cent of our goods and services exports, and the proportion is falling virtually by the minute.
At the same time, Jean-Claude Juncker’s elevation, by 26 votes to two, shows beyond doubt that the EU remains committed to federation. You can’t accuse the man of hiding his views: in his very first speech to MEPs, he announced that he was pushing ahead with tax harmonisation, economic integration and a pan-European minimum wage, and praised Jacques Delors as his hero and inspiration.
Come, my fellow sceptics. Stop fretting about the question. Stop moaning about the power of the lobbies on the other side. Stop grumbling about media bias. This is our moment. If not now, when?