By Mark Wallace
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By common consent, James Wharton acquitted himself extremely well yesterday – after weeks in the spotlight since he topped the Private Member's Bill ballot, he steered his referendum proposal to a large victory, and spoke with intelligence as well as good humour.
It's a sad reflection on the current party system that had it not been for his good luck in the ballot, Wharton would not have been given the opportunity to demonstrate his abilities. Hopefully this experience will encourage the leadership not only to make more use of him in future, but also to better appreciate the unplumbed reserves of talent sitting on the backbenches.
With an in/out referendum becoming a serious possibility, now is the time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the eurosceptic movement. Indeed, a new analysis by Weber Shandwick [PDF] provides a useful insight into the state of play, and the various voices in the field.
Plotting the respective positions of the main players in the debate in (admittedly arbitrary) terms of left/right alignment and pro/anti-EU views shows how the battle lines are shaping up:
This raises a number of important points which demand eurosceptic attention.
Unite new and old
Some of the eurosceptic organisations have been around for quite a while, such as the Bruges Group, others have been around for a few years, such as Better Off Out (which I launched for The Freedom Association in 2006), while a couple are very new, such as Business for Britain.
Like any movement, there are always a few people who are more interested in establishing their long pedigree in a field than they are in actually winning. This should be rejected out of hand – it doesn't matter whether you saw the light first or whether you're a newcomer to the fight, being on the right side is all that matters.
It's a team effort, not a purity contest
I want Britain to leave the EU. I suspect if we don't choose to do so, we'll end up suffering far more when the project goes horribly wrong (or rather, even more wrong). I think there are both reasons of principle and reasons of practicality for a Better Off Out position.
But I appreciate that not all eurosceptics go so far – at least not yet. Some want to stop further powers going to Brussels, some want powers returned to Westminster and some want a trade-only relationship within the EU. I don't believe those outcomes are feasible, for various reasons, but some sceptics (and some UKIPpers in particular) find such opinions more infuriating than actual support for Eurofederalism.
This has got to stop. Browbeating those on the same side will get us nowhere. Just because someone doesn't hold exactly my view doesn't mean they are a "useful idiot", or a traitor – that they question the EU at all is a good thing, to be encouraged. If, like me, you expect the EU institutions will prove incapable of taking part in serious renegotiation, then that will harden the opposition of those who try in good faith and are rudely rebuffed by Brussels.
To win, euroscepticism must be an alliance, not a purity contest.
Nurture left-wing eurosceptics
As you can see above, broadly the two sides of the EU debate are split along ideological right/left lines. There are certainly outliers – Labour MPs backing Better Off Out, or the rump of the once-mighty pro-EU Tories hanging out in British Influence – but by and large in Britain the EU is attacked from the Right and defended by the Left.
It hasn't always been this way. Until the mid-1980s euroscepticism was a central tenet of the Left. That changed when Brussels persuaded many in Labour and the TUC that only by bypassing democracy could they implement the costly regulations and green taxes that they desired.
But there are valid left-wing critiques of the EU. The Left ought to share free-traders' outrage at the damage done to African farmers by the Common Agricultural Policy, for example. The unaccountability of Brussels is a rich hunting ground for corporatist big businesses, keen to secure regulatory advantages at the expense of consumers, too.
We should seek out and nurture left wing euroscepticism in Britain. It may be dormant now, but it should be a powerful force in successfully taking on the EU.