John Stevens is a former Conservative Member of European Parliament who stood in 2010 as an independent candidate against John Bercow.
Bertram Wooster, whom recent controversy has led some to compare to the Prime Minister, once recommended the would-be dictator Spode (or I think by then he had become Lord Sidcup) to resist his rabid reflex to break Gussie Fink-Nottle’s back in two or three places, as it might become habit-forming. It is advice we would be wise to heed with regard to referendums.
I have long advocated a renewed popular mandate for our membership of the EU, because I had hoped it would be possible to secure the once-in-a-generation decision of principle about our European engagement, which we so clearly need in order to form a coherent overall national strategy.
Such an in or out choice would be completely different from the various plebiscites on European questions held in other member states, the outcomes of some of which have been quite rapidly reversed by subsequent democratic consultations. For in none of those instances was the issue of the very aspiration of European Union: the acceptance of a basically shared destiny, on the line.
The most extreme example of this has to be the Greek referendum of July this year, which was reversed by a mere parliamentary vote in under a week. The Greeks, ostensibly, had simply been asked their view on a specific renegotiation. Their membership of the euro (and thus of the EU) was not on the line. Yet when it became clear it was, they acquiesced in their government’s acceptance of terms considerably harsher than those originally offered to them, and validated this in last month’s General Election.
Scotland however seems now to have proved that even putting the “leave” option on the ballot paper is no guarantee of a referendum offering clarity of issue, and thus closure on outcome. There, an ostensibly convincing choice of principle to stay in the UK has, in a matter of months, become a springboard for a further plebiscite, perhaps as soon as next year. Neverendum looms. Several commentators, and by no means just nationalists, have suggested this was because the debate became dominated by the renegotiation of the terms of the British Union, the “Vow”, the currency issue, EVEL and the rest, at the expense of focusing on the fundamental desirability of our being institutionally together, rather than apart, in this island.
Likewise, some commentators, and not just Eurosceptics, have pointed out that we might be facing not just one climacteric choice on EU membership, sometime before the end of 2017, but at least two, and quite possibly three referendums on European questions, within the next five years, a scenario which must devalue the degree to which any of them can be expected to be truly decisive every bit as much as it must seriously depress the spirit.
How is this so? Well, assuming the present referendum on the terms the Prime Minister secures in his renegotiation results in a vote to stay, we will then face a new EU treaty (on economic and monetary union and possibly much else besides) in, say, 2019 or 2020. There must be a real prospect that this will trigger a new referendum here under the European Union Act 2011. Certainly both frustrated phobes, and philes, not to forget fanatics, might share an interest in such an eventuality, as by then the full implications of a more politically integrated Eurozone will have become clearer, including the value, and the price, of any safeguards for euro-outs to be embedded in the new treaty that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor would have doubtless promised, and in anticipation of which we will have already voted.
On the other hand, if the present referendum results in a vote to leave, there must be an equally real prospect that, after the negotiations of our new relationship with the EU, which under Article 50 will be essentially a straight offer to us agreed by the other states amongst themselves, both frustrated sceptics and philes, (the fanatics by then might have found asylum in Scotland) could argue most convincingly for another plebiscite on whether these terms are acceptable, or whether we should rather revert effectively to the status quo ante.
Such a scenario has, for example, already been floated by no less an expert than Dominic Cummings. If this subsequent referendum resulted in our choosing to reverse our earlier judgment and remain in the EU, under whatever terms, then again we would be faced, in short order, with the previous situation of facing an additional plebiscite on the new Union treaty.
So we seem set on a dog’s dinner of national dithering, the political and economic consequences of which cannot fail to be negative. One might even suggest this would create circumstances signally supportive of the Spode-Sidcup world-view. The root of the matter is the reluctance by both sides in this argument to separate questions of long-term, grand strategic principle, from those of immediate, granular tactical practice, which is the direct result of the elevation of the renegotiation of the terms of our membership to the status of unique determinator of the debate: such as is demonstrated by those antis pretending that our access to the Single Market can continue entirely unaffected by our departure, or by those pros pretending that “ever closer union” can meaningfully be set aside.
Lately, some US observers of our politics have taken to comparing Britain’s long-standing unease over European integration with the South’s alienation from their Union, that culminated in secession, the seeds of which went right back to 1776. Bruce Catton, the historian of the American Civil War, famously defined its cause as being the North’s fundamental presumption in favour of the Union, which the South neither understood nor took seriously, to everyone’s, but especially to the latter’s, great cost. If the South had been more imaginative and engaged, he argued, they might have found they shared that presumption far more than they had supposed, not least since they were reconciled to it relatively easily after 1865. Thus the path to compromise and a peaceful, evolutionary resolution of the weighty constitutional, commercial, social and moral interests dividing the country could have been possible.
I would say the interests now dividing the EU are considerably less weighty, which is why I sincerely hope the debate in the forthcoming referendum will boil down to the basic choice: given who we are and where we are, and the way the world is going, is there, or is there not, a fundamental presumption in favour of our standing together with, rather than apart from, our fellow Europeans, and thus in favour of remaining in the one institution which gives reality to that notion? Otherwise, I fear, we may find the equivocation born of focusing only upon the detail, and evading the general, which has already gone on far too long, becomes a most damaging, even a devilish, addiction.