Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Referendum folly

Tony Blair reminded us of his political genius and why he won three general elections when he mocked David Cameron’s Europe speech comparing the prime minister to the sheriff in the comedy western Blazing Saddles who points a gun at his own head and says: ‘You do what I want or I’ll shoot my brains out.’

It communicated brilliantly and with humour the folly of the position the prime minister has now got himself into, except he must now keep the gun at his own head shouting threats for years. As the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, said, this is not a speech Cameron wanted to make and not a referendum he wanted to promise. He has been driven to it because he has lost control of his party and is spooked by the perceived threat from the United Kingdom Independence party. I say perceived. Support for UKIP has been falling in recent polls as people get the feeling the worst of the euro crisis might be over. Support for Britain remaining in the European Union has also been rising.

But Cameron has allowed himself to be pushed into promising a referendum at an unknown time, on the unknown outcome of an uncertain negotiation. What a desperate abrogation of the British national interest. What Britain and the rest of Europe need right now are policies for growth and the leadership to see the EU through the eurozone crisis. Instead, the prime minister has inflicted more than two years of uncertainty on us until the next election and, God forbid were the Tories to win it, several more years after that. Even the most Europhobic businessperson will find it hard to deny that this will have a chilling effect on investment decisions and therefore growth.

And what are the prospects of a successful renegotiation? It is hard to say because Cameron has not named the areas of competence he wants to repatriate. What we do know is that he is unable to name a single other EU member state that would support the UK position. And do not forget such a move requires unanimity among member states. Britain has many natural allies in Europe: in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Germany itself. They share our desire to reform Europe so that we can compete more successfully in the world. But they want to see those changes for the EU as a whole and are dismayed by Cameron’s approach. As the Finnish prime minister put it: ‘You can’t pick the currants out of the bun.’

We have had a good example already this year of how fraught the whole issue of repatriating powers is in a policy I know something about – fisheries, which I covered as a minister for four years and is high on the Tory Europhobes’ list for repatriation. The day before Cameron’s speech mackerel was taken off the sustainable fish list because of overfishing by Iceland. We and other EU countries share the mackerel stock with Iceland but there is nothing we can do about their overfishing because they are not in the EU. If you multiply this across the range of policy areas that require cross-border cooperation, or which are vital for the functioning of the single market such as crime, migration or climate change, the list of competences that it is desirable, let alone practicable, to repatriate shrinks and vanishes.

Labour has been gifted something rare for an opposition – a position that is both in the national interest and the right politics. It might not feel like that in the short term, as the Europhobic press hails Cameron its conquering hero. But Labour’s tactics and strategy are right. Pro-EU and pro-reform, acknowledging we too would hold a referendum were there any future proposals to transfer powers from member states to the EU that affected us.

‘Wait and see’ can be easy to mock, but there are so many ifs and buts about Europe in the next few months, let alone the next five years, that this time it is the right policy.


Ben Bradshaw is MP for Exeter


Photo: Rock Cohen

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Ben Bradshaw MP

is former secretary of state for culture, media and sport


  • I can’t believe i read this article. Do you listen to other people and what they say, or are you simply thinking of what you want to say? Don’t answer that.

  • i don’t think this article will mean much to voters…and in fact reflects the sort of style and attitude which could lose us the next election. Technocratic. Lacking in vision and substance. Don’t you realise: Political point scoring like this is off-putting.
    Sorry, Ben, I cheered when you won in ’97, but you need to understand where things went wrong in 1997 – 2010, so we can do better next time. Calling Blair ‘a political genius’ doesn’t suggest that you’ve been reflecting much over the last two years.
    Very disappointing.

  • Imagine, just imagine, that Cameron pulled this one off. Imagine that we arrived at a point where the two options on a ballot paper were a renegotiated settlement acceptable to his lot, and outright withdrawal.

    It would unite the Left on the EU like nothing since a section of it first inexplicably decided that “Europe” was a bulwark against Thatcherism (several years later, Thatcher herself even more oddly seemed to begin to agree with them), much as there have always been a few people on the Old Right who have thought of it as a bulwark against Americanism.

    For if the only alternative were whatever could be sold to the remains of the Conservative Party, then the only viable option would be whatever else were on offer. Namely, withdrawal.

    As would then be advocated in the strongest possible terms by the whole of the Left. It would be the
    Thatcherites who would be campaigning to stay in. Well, of course. It was ever thus.

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