David Cameron is a short term thinker and a risk-taker; characteristics also shared by investment bankers. We can only understand his strange and shifting positions on the EU referendum if we understand this.
Cameron has blown hot and cold on the referendum, sometimes dismissive of the need for a referendum, and when faced with the prospect of defections of Tory MPs and voters to UKIP, changing his mind and inventing reasons to support a referendum. During the recent election campaign many of his calculations were less about UKIP than about damaging the Opposition when it looked like Labour was at more risk from UKIP than the Tories. Now his position seems to be changing again. With an election win under his belt he’s decided to use the referendum to crack down hard on his Eurosceptic wing, whilst playing a charade of ‘tough negotiations with Merkel and others’ in order to win a campaign as a national saviour who faced down twenty seven other countries and won. That’s the narrative he’s trying to establish.
We know that as a spinner of narratives, Cameron’s a shoe-in for a Booker nomination, should he ever write a novel. Tall tales with a straight face? That man can tell ’em.
But what if the plot isn’t quite the one he expects? The press will do much as Cameron wants, and most likely the bulk of his party will go along with him, too. Even the EU leaders against whom much of his party rails will play nice and help him out. After all, they’ve got some real issues to deal with, from Greece to the migrant catastrophe in the Med. The Cameron sideshow’s scarcely more than a distraction, assuming that Britain won’t leave the EU anyway. What Cameron doesn’t control is the messy potential of the referendum campaign to come off the tramlines along which he wants it to run.
This is where things might be fun. After all, Cameron is using the referendum as a narrow political instrument, but it has the potential to be much more than that.
The Scottish referendum showed that an apparently dry constitutional issue, if presented in an attractive, optimistic way, can engage people who had previously seemed unresponsive to politics. I was often irritated during the independence referendum because people seemed to be talking about issues which were utterly irrelevant to the question on the ballot paper. But Europe quite genuinely opens up the possibility of talking about issues which do matter to people in a very immediate way.
We’ve heard a lot about the ‘business case’ for the EU. The importance of the single market. A certain amount of coughing when it comes to the free movement of labour, though that’s integral to the business case, too. But we haven’t heard enough about the ‘people’s case’ for Europe.
Battered by ‘austerity’, British people have felt insecure for years. Wages have scarcely risen, hanging on to a job has often come with worsening conditions of service, housing is some of the smallest, meanest and most expensive in the world. Catastrophic floods and other extreme weather events. Food safety scares. Is anything safe?
Well, yes. The Conservative-led coalition government made access to Employment Tribunals more difficult and expensive; something that has hit women especially hard. Thank goodness the EU ensures that rights on working hours, or against discrimination in the workplace can’t be removed altogether.
Worried about the food your kids are eating? Cash-strapped councils who’ve already lost 40% of their budgets may find it difficult to enforce safety standards, but whilst we are in the EU there remain rules and obligations around food safety. When something like the ‘donkey lasagne’ scandal comes along, there’s cross-border cooperation to hunt down the culprits and enforce the law, whether they’re on a farm in Romania, or an abattoir in Mid-Wales.
Are your kids safe at the seaside? Those EU rules let you know the water quality, and whether the sea is fit for swimming. Are your kids safe online? Child sexual exploitation is a real fear. Thank goodness there’s European cooperation on this issue, with a specialist unit based in Amsterdam. After all, we might be able to pull out of the EU, but we can’t pull out of the internet.
If all this seems a bit vague, do a bit of lazy Googling. I just did. With one click I came up with almost £300 million of EU investment into my city alone into everything from the usual business development and educational programmes, to help for carers, artists and transport. Even the city’s annual Frankfurt Market boosts the city’s economy by £85 million (2012 figures).
In any case, we are culturally all Europeans now. We expect to travel freely, to get waved through passport control with a wave of that precious burgundy travel document. Our footballers have the accents and names of Europe. We sit at outdoor cafe tables, drink wine with our meals, devour Danish box sets on nights in. It’s who we are.
So don’t let Cameron and big business ‘own’ the referendum campaign. Why not use the campaign to import a bit of EU optimism and hope? Inspire people to think ‘Europe’ every time they sip an espresso, bite into a Danish pastry, down a glass of Merlot, toss some chorizo into a sizzling pan, watch a football match, lust after a BMW, buy a frock from Zara…..