The first referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community in 1975 was less about securing democratic consent, than about internal party management for the governing party. Forty years on, what’s changed?
Since the UK joined the old EEC, a lot has happened. The EU has a different name, an elected parliament, much wider membership across the continent, and a free internal market. Opinion polls, should we be minded to believe them, suggest that popular support for remaining a member of the EU continues to be stronger than that for leaving Europe. Which is surprising, given that all the noise in the referendum argument has been made by the anti-EU right.
Perhaps ‘popular support’ is overstating it? ‘Passive aquiescence’? ‘Grudging acceptance’? For the case in favour of the European Union has never much been made in this country, and under pressure from an often vocally Eurosceptic press, even pro-European politicians have rarely shown much political leadership when it comes to building support for the institution.
Like much else in this country, the roots of this attitude go back to the 1980s and the Blessed Margaret. At a time when the German taxpayer might willingly have given us the money to improve our transport infrastructure in the under-developed or post-industrial regions of the country, and to finance a wide range of other socially or economically beneficial projects, Thatcher turned it down. All over the continent new roads, schools, leisure centres, museums and galleries, and the like, proudly displayed the EU symbol to show how they’d been built, but that public acknowledgement of the benefits of solidarity rarely happened in this country.
Thatcher’s approach to Europe was shaped by a toxic combination of petty prejudice and a grandiose neocon vision. That the Soviet Union, and its hold over Eastern Europe began visibly to crumble and then fall in that decade, fed a triumphalist attitude. Where some European leaders might have thought it best to finish the job of raising up the former fascist countries to higher standards of governance, economic stability, and social progress before widening that task to include the former communist countries, Thatcher was adamant that expansion eastward was necessary as quickly as possible. The gangmasters of the Fens with their Romanian vegetable pickers and Bulgarian abattoir workers are Thatcher’s children.
The ills of the European Union are much less important than the benefits, however. The EU economy is the biggest in the world, and one of the aims of the EU is to ensure that higher living standards and a good quality of life are enjoyed across Europe. Workers rights, safety standards, food quality, educational opportunity, and scientific and cultural co-operation are underpinned by the institutions of the EU. Many things we take for granted, like flying off for a weekend in Prague, or working for a while in Berlin, or retiring to a villa on the Med, are things that were once almost unimaginably difficult to do.
And so to the referendum. There will be a campaign. The danger in referendum campaigns is that they are often about a question that isn’t on the ballot paper. This one could easily be about whether David Cameron is still sufficiently popular to win the vote. There’s also a danger that the campaign could be dull, turnout low, and motivation to vote highest amongst the Europhobes.
Those of us who are on the left, and who want success for the left at the next election, should regard the EU referendum as a challenge and an opportunity. We should learn from the Scottish referendum campaign.
There should not be one, unified ‘Yes To Europe’ campaign, which would inevitably be dominated by business and policy wonks. The SNP were able, however unfairly, to tarnish Labour by association because they worked with the Tories on the ‘No’ campaign. This time, distinctive ground should be staked out in making the case for ‘Yes’.
There is a good business case for Europe, and many jobs and industries need continued EU membership to thrive. But let business make its own case, separately.
A popular campaign for Europe needs to highlight the other benefits which aren’t just measured in accountancy terms. There should be Scientists For Europe showing off their EU supported research. Artists For Europe. Educationists For Europe. Europe for safe food, Europe for animal welfare, and above all, a focus on the rights of men and women in the workplace that Europe guarantees against the worst practices of global capitalism.
Campaigns in these terms should start as soon as possible. In mobilising people, in seeing what works, what enthuses people, what has traction, lessons can be learned and a head-start made on winning hearts and minds. If we do it well, we can use it as a laboratory for the next general election.