It seems there is no greater political crime at the moment than pledging one’s support for Europe. But alas, I’ve always been a Europhile so I see little point in hiding it now. I have always believed it is in Britain’s best interests not only to remain in the European Union but to embrace it and play a more active and powerful role. We do that by exercising leadership, not vetoes. As Peter Mandelson once said, ‘I do not share the half-in, half-out attitude to the EU of some in Britain. Britain’s place is in Europe.’
At the same time, however, I am relaxed about the never-ending debate on the relationship between Britain and rest of the EU. If more pro-Europeans engaged in that debate rather than shying away it would help our cause. At the moment it seems that only those who shout the loudest are heard, and the pro-European camp is yet to muster a whimper.
I am not convinced now is time for an in-out referendum but I do not fear one. The outcome would be uncertain but I hope and believe pro-Europeans can win the day. If that happens, should we expect Nigel Farage and the Tory right to give up and start embracing Brussels? Of course not. Regardless of the result of a referendum, there will always be an anti-European movement in Britain, just as there will always be a pro-European one. Which is why those calling for a referendum to ‘settle the question once and for all’ are wrong. It won’t, and nor should it.
One of the great things about an unwritten constitution is that we always get to question and challenge where power lies, whether that be in Europe, at Westminster, the devolved institutions or at local government level. Politicians should stop fearing these debates and start embracing them. We should accept Britain for the asymmetrical and inconsistent constitutional mess that it is, and learn to love it.
That’s why Ed Miliband’s speech on ‘Englishness’ earlier this month was important. Not so much for what he said, but merely for his willingness to talk about these issues, something political leaders have too often avoided in the past because they fear they’re expected to provide a neat and tidy answer when the truth is that politicians need to learn to be less prescriptive when it come constitutional affairs. The make-up of the United Kingdom and the role it plays within Europe is not a debate to be afraid of for fear of not finding a neat and tidy solution.
Partly in response to the threat of Scottish independence, Carwyn Jones, the Welsh first minister, has proposed a constitutional convention in the UK. I think this is a good idea and I hope the Labour party consider it as part of the policymaking process for the 2015 general election manifesto. I would go further and suggest that such a convention be permanent in form, constantly examining where power lies across the UK and in Europe, engaging with the public and proposing changes as necessary, rather than yet another committee of the great and the good tasked with the impossible job of coming up with yet another full and final lasting settlement.
Whatever the outcome of an EU referendum, the debate about Britain’s relationship with Europe will outlast us all. To ‘settle the question once and for all’ would require consensus, and so long as closet Europhiles find their voice and challenge the bellowing Eurosceptic minority, there’s no sign of that. Thank goodness.
David Taylor was special adviser to former secretary of state for Wales Peter Hain
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