Oh, what an opportunity missed! The majority of the British electorate want a referendum. It knows that the relationship with the EU has fundamentally changed since we first joined what was then an economic free-trade area. The heart and soul of the Conservative Party wants to represent them. But instead, Monday’s three-line whip has served only to conceal the extent to which the Party is in tune with the country, despite the best efforts of 81 Tory MPs.
Let us remember why this debate took place. The Prime Minster supported the establishment of a Backbench Business Committee through which an e-petition with sufficient signatures triggers a debate on the floor of the House. He knows that over 100,000 people signed this petition calling for a referendum. Yet a three-line whip by all party leaders ensured the vote was defeated.
Like previous Administrations, this Government claims it knows best and ignores the electorate. Yet, the red herrings and Aunt Sallies which the Government uses to justify its refusal to allow a referendum illustrates the weakness of its case.
Their first argument concerns economics. We are told how important Europe is to us economically and how things would get so much worse if we left the EU. This ignores the option of re-negotiation for a free-trade area. The fact that our balance of trade with Europe is strongly negative means our continental neighbours are unlikely to deny us access to their markets when it is they who benefit most from such trade. However, whether true or not, such a view cannot justify a refusal to have a referendum. Such issues are germane to the debate, but they are not relevant as to whether a referendum itself should take place.
Our political leaders then talk about poor timing: ‘this is not the right time.’ But according to consecutive Governments, there has never been a right time throughout the boom and bust of the last 36 years. Rather, I would turn this red herring on its head and say that, with Europe in a state of flux, this would be a very good time to renegotiate our relationship.
Then there is the argument that if we had a referendum this would somehow weaken the Foreign Secretary’s hand. Again, this is questionable. A Foreign Secretary or Prime Minister would be emboldened by having a fresh mandate from the British people as to the future direction of travel. They would have greater legitimacy when negotiating on behalf of this country.
Another argument suggests: ‘why bother with the motion? We’ve already got an à la carte Europe.’ The idea being that countries already opt-in and opt-out of various arrangements, including Schengen and the Eurozone, and so why bother with renegotiation. Once again this argument does not stand up. For what is happening, under the very noses of the British people, is that our sovereignty is being salami-sliced, week in and week out. The Coalition Government talks of a referendum “lock”, but this is tilting at windmills for the simple reason that there is no treaty on the horizon. Meanwhile, major competences and powers are being transferred to Brussels on a weekly basis – criminal justice is but one such area. Talk to Members of the European Scrutiny Committee, chaired by Bill Cash MP, which meets regularly to monitor Government decisions in this area.
The final red herring suggests that the Conservative Party would like to be more Eurosceptic, but they are checked by the Liberals. Part of the price for Coalition Government they say. But if we can get the Liberals to vote for tuition fees, surely we can get them to side with the British electorate in favour of a national referendum. Why be afraid to discuss our options?
No, all in all, Monday was a bad day for the country and a bad day for the Conservative Party. Labour was the main Party to have benefitted. Our three-line whip has helped them by disguising the extent to which the Conservative Party now represents the British people on this issue. Indeed, a number of Labour MPs have admitted that the Conservative Party is now closer to their grassroots supporters on this issue than their own front bench.
Let us hope there will be further opportunities before the next General Election for our Party to show its true colours on this increasingly important issue.