“On no question of this period did more people in British public life change their minds than on Europe.” So wrote Hugo Young in This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair, published in 1998.
Young was right. One need not believe, as he did, that Britain’s place lies within the European Union, to see that, as he put it,
There were conversions from one side to the other, and sometimes back again, each position often being held with a passion summoned from the realm of faith more than reason, where there are secret uncertainties that only the loudest voice can mask. Many, who first opposed British entry, later decided they had been wrong. Many others, who helped take Britain in, became virulent critics of their own handiwork.
What is true of the political class is true of the wider electorate. The balance of opinion can and does change. The desire to be able to sack our masters comes into conflict with the need to get on with our neighbours. The former requires a national community within which general elections can take place. The latter is said to require membership of a European community which overrides the nation state.
It follows that the result of the referendum to be held on Britain’s membership of the European Union cannot be regarded as a foregone conclusion. David Cameron announced the referendum as a device to keep his party together. He conceded the demand of many opponents of the EU for a referendum, but indicated that he intends to persuade people to vote for continued membership, on what he will present as improved terms. The preferred weapon of the eurosceptics was turned against them: they could have their referendum, but they would lose it.
Harold Wilson conducted a similar manoeuvre in the referendum of 1975. He claimed to have obtained better membership terms, and induced a majority of voters to believe him, or to want to believe him. The alternative – leaving the Common Market and “going it alone” – seemed to most people to be too dangerous, too much of a gamble.
How are those who want us to leave the EU to counter this sense that leaving it would be too risky? Some have floated the idea that instead of one referendum, there should be two: the first to decide whether or not we want to leave, the second to ratify or reject the terms for leaving that are then negotiated.
Polling published at the start of this week suggests the public like the idea of a second referendum. Boris Johnson had earlier expressed his interest in the idea. But it is very difficult to see any reason why Cameron should go along with this. The last thing he wants to do is to make it easier for the No camp to develop a sense of momentum. We live in febrile times, when people can welcome a chance to kick the Establishment, at whose apex sits the Prime Minister.
It is bad enough, from Cameron’s point of view, that he has felt obliged to concede one opportunity for a popular protest. He hopes to obviate that danger by making a strong prudential case for the status quo: the strategy which worked in the Scottish referendum. The task of his opponents is to make a yet stronger case for leaving.
For those of us who believe in parliamentary democracy, referendums are inherently objectionable. We elect people to examine these difficult questions, to make the arguments and to reach decisions. Our representatives have to take account of public opinion, but are not mere delegates. It was always rather curious that the chosen weapon of the defenders of parliamentary sovereignty should be a referendum. It would be even more curious if their chosen weapon should turn out to be two referendums. That is the kind of procedural dodge one expects from the European Commission, and from others who do not really believe in national parliaments.