The false hope of a referendum

Over at the Spectator, Melanie Phillips has a characteristically hyperbolic posting on the new Tory policy on the EU, in which she asks:

what is the point of the Conservative party?

To which her own response is:

The answer is, bleakly, there is none.

Phillips’ thesis is that the UK has lost its capability

as a sovereign nation … to govern itself in accordance with its own laws, culture and traditions

She ends by coming out strongly in favour of an ‘in-or-out’ referendum:

the people must now be given the opportunity to say whether they wish to remain in the EU or not

It doesn’t take a political genius to work out where Phillips stands on the issue. As I say below, I’m not a fan of referendums. And Phillips and her co-Euro-naysayers are doing themselves no favours in seeing a referendum as the saviour for their political ills. The British people may well say to opinion pollsters that they are sceptical, even hostile, to Europe. In practice, they have shown themselves to be more pragmatic, indeed worryingly so for someone of Phillips’ point of view.

Since the 1975 referendum, when the population voted pretty tidily for our continued membership of the then EEC, there have been seven general elections. At each one, the party most hostile to Europe has lost. In 1983, the Labour party campaigned for complete withdrawal. And look where that got them. In 1997, the Tories shifted to a markedly more Euro-sceptic position. And hey presto, electoral desolation for over a decade.

I’m not making a simplistic point that being pro-Europe makes you popular with the voters. British politics is far too complex for that. But it is simply a plain fact that being pro-Europe is totally compatible with electoral success, while being Euro-sceptic is a much dicier affair.

Of course, Eurosceptics will claim that the 1975 referendum was somehow rigged, and that subsequent general elections have never had Europe as the central issue. Many would disagree, but even if true, wouldn’t the same be true of any future referendum or election?

If there were to be a referendum on continued membership of the EU, there is a strong chance, a very strong chance in my view, that the result would be a yes vote. And thus would die the hopes of a generation of Euro-sceptics. Be very careful what you wish for.

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