UKIP tail is wagging the Tory dog

cameron and merkel

I am trying my best to get excited about David Cameron’s ‘big speech’ on Europe.

Mainly I am failing.

I can think of a number of questions facing the UK today which are worthy of a fuss and really fundamental for the future wellbeing of the country:

  • How do we restore economic growth?
  • How do we tackle the disgraceful inequality that blights our society?
  • How do we reduce the deficit without wrecking public services?
  • How do we compete with the emerging economies and reorientate our economy towards manufacturing and technology?
  • How do we stop Alex Salmond breaking up the UK?
  • How do we tackle climate change?
  • How will we deal with emerging security threats?

 

The issue of renegotiating our relationship with the EU wouldn’t even make my top 100 worries list if I was prime minister.

Most ‘conflicts’ with the EU ought to be yawn-inducing. They are only exciting if you are the kind of libertarian obsessive that thinks that common standards of health and safety rules are a threat to your liberty, or the kind of nostalgic that thinks fishery disputes should be settled by frigates not by committee meetings in Brussels.

The ‘ever closer union’ clause in the EU’s founding treaty which exercises anti-Europeans so much is a piece of idealistic rhetoric which is only actually believed in by a fringe of federalist countries which are so small they don’t have much effective sovereignty anyway, and by the anti-Europeans. I can live with Franco-German idealistic rhetoric as a replacement for hundreds of years of France and Germany settling their differences by periodically slaughtering each other’s youth on the battlefield. It was also in the treaty we signed up to in the 1975 referendum, so saying we didn’t know what we were getting into and thought it was just a common market is disingenuous to say the least.

I don’t think Cameron really thinks that there are great issues of principle between the UK and EU that need renegotiating.

I think he does know that he has a huge and growing political problem called UKIP.

Nigel Farage is the Tory leader a big slice of the Tory core vote has always wanted, and is untainted with all the messy business of government that the real Tories are now mired in. It’s no coincidence that UKIP’s rise to nearly 10 per cent in the polls has coincided with Labour opening up a 10 per cent lead. Cameron has to get most of those votes back. And he has to manage a substantial rightwing group in his parliamentary party, which is growing with each election as ageing, unrepresentative and extreme constituency associations increasingly refuse to select candidates who don’t tick an anti-European box. He has a group of MPs who would prefer opposition to being in coalition with the Lib Dems, suspect Cameron finds Nick Clegg more amenable that he finds them, and if they thought they could get elected as UKIP would be a lot more comfortable in that party than the one they are currently in.

So Cameron needed to do something dramatic and to try to make an internal party problem a national one by throwing it out to a referendum.

We need to avoid rising to the bait.

Let the Tories rant and rave about Europe. They did it in 2001 and 2005 with rhetoric about saving the pound and it got them nowhere. It will get them back some of their core vote from UKIP. But not all of it, because there are many other reasons, such as immigration and gay marriage, why UKIP is more attractive to the reactionary right than the Tories are. And it will lose swing voters in equal or greater numbers. Not because your archetypal swing voter is not eurosceptic. They are. But because the Tory MPs that will come out of the woodwork to rant about this look like swivel-eyed fanatics who you wouldn’t trust to run a parish council, and all the time they are prioritising this it is obvious they are not remotely focused on the real issues of jobs and growth and cuts that are making people’s lives dreadful.

We should be firm in saying we would not bother holding a referendum, for purely domestic political reasons (Tory MPs running scared of UKIP) when one of the options – ‘out’ of the EU – would be so suicidal for us as a nation that it makes the question meaningless, and when there are countless other more vital questions our politicians should be focused on.

There is already provision, which Labour backed, in the 2011 European Union Act, to hold a referendum if there is a real, rather than cooked-up, reason to: ie a substantive change in the balance of sovereignty between the UK and the EU such as increased majority voting.

In the event that an in-out referendum ever happens we will need to calmly campaign as the real eurosceptics as opposed to europhobes – people who are not starry eyed about the EU but are in it to get the best deal for the UK and sceptically judge each EU proposal on its merits and impact on our national interest.  In a fantasy world where we can have a cost-free exit from the EU I am sure a majority of Brits would prefer not to be part of it, and to have a trade. but not political, relationship with the rest of Europe on Norwegian or Swiss lines. But in the real world we don’t have that option. If we want any residual influence on the world stage we need to recognise that the US only takes us even remotely seriously because we are EU members.

Why would any future partner take us seriously if we were to walk away from one of our most important multilateral treaty obligations? If we want any inward investment we have to realise that quite aside from bilateral trade with Europe, US and Japanese and BRIC companies only come here because we are a useful English-speaking gateway into the wider EU market.

Britain outside the EU wouldn’t be Switzerland or Norway. They are small countries with great prosperity based on big inbuilt advantages that we don’t have.  It would be like Britain in the 1960s. A country in economic and geopolitical decline feeling lonely, isolated and jealous of its continental neighbours and their project. There was a reason we joined the then EEC. It was not idealism. It was desperation, and a realisation that we had made a huge strategic mistake standing aside from the original six in 1957 and pursuing the half-hearted EFTA project with, you guessed it, minnows like Norway and Switzerland.

Cameron’s announcement makes him look a laughing-stock to our EU partners, with Farage as the tail wagging the Tory dog. It would be funny if it wasn’t tragic. Compared to Angela Merkel or Francois Hollande, who are serious statespeople, we are fielding a weak lightweight who can’t control his own party and is letting UKIP set his political agenda. We need to expose the insanity of calling our EU membership into question, the unfitness for office of a PM who puts his party’s poll rating and management of his fringe backbenchers above the national interest, and the cynicism of trying to push this up the political agenda to distract voters from the damage the coalition is doing to our economy.

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Luke Akehurst is  a councillor in the London borough of Hackney, writes regularly for Progress here and blogs here. He tweets @LukeAkehurst

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Photo: The Prime Minister’s Office

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Screen/673340477 Ben Screen

    Alex Salmond isn’t breaking up the UK, he is the elected First Minister of Scotland who is proposing a referendum on the matter, and so Scottish people will democratically vote for their country to leave the UK. It’s laughable how so many people make out he’s some menace who has set out to destroy the UK.

  • Ric Euteneuer

    Luke asks some important questions, but it’s perhaps worth noting that most, if not all these questions will not be troubling David Cameron

    How do we restore economic growth? The market will do that, silly

    How do we tackle the disgraceful inequality that blights our society? By making us all happy workers equally oppressed and low-paid. It would also be fair to say Conservative policy rarely if ever addresses inequality.

    How do we reduce the deficit without wrecking public services? Er, I don’t think quality public services figure highly on the Conservative Party agenda – at least at a national level.

    How do we compete with the emerging economies and reorientate our economy towards
    manufacturing and technology? A dash to a low skills, low wage economy together with a Cayman Islands style regulation of financial services should keep the money rolling in, and the proles in order.

    How do we stop Alex Salmond breaking up the UK? Doesn’t matter, if he does, that’s tens of less Labour Party MPs to worry about.

    How do we tackle climate change? It’s apparently a myth

    How will we deal with emerging security threats? A (cough) closer strategic partnership with the US and NATO forces.

    Sadly, although Luke opines that most ‘conflicts’ with the EU indeed ought to be yawn-inducing, these libertarian obsessives that thinks health and safety rules are a threat to your liberty and the free market also sadly populate and write leader articles for the red top press, which has made this into a major issue. This makes the problem a lot more serious than Luke is implying – this is not an issue that’s going to go away if we ignore it, we need to tackle it, head on, once and for all, and explode the various myths that exist about us and our relationship to the EU.
    The issue that will exercise most rightwingers and the general public is immigration, everything else fades into insignificance. UKIP have identified this as *the* core issue and it will continue like a running sore until we effectively address it. To do so requires guts and the need, perhaps to be unpopular in the short term whilst we explain the benefits of a fair and equitable immigration policy, rather than the continued obfuscation that the party wroughts upon the membership in the hope the issue will go away.

  • Ric Euteneuer

    Luke asks some important questions, but it’s perhaps worth noting that most, if not all these questions will not be troubling David Cameron

    How do we restore economic growth? The market will do that, silly

    How do we tackle the disgraceful inequality that blights our society? By making us all happy workers equally oppressed and low-paid. It would also be fair to say Conservative policy rarely if ever addresses inequality.

    How do we reduce the deficit without wrecking public services? Er, I don’t think quality public services figure highly on the Conservative Party agenda – at least at a national level.

    How do we compete with the emerging economies and reorientate our economy towards
    manufacturing and technology? A dash to a low skills, low wage economy together with a Cayman Islands style regulation of financial services should keep the money rolling in, and the proles in order.

    How do we stop Alex Salmond breaking up the UK? Doesn’t matter, if he does, that’s tens of less Labour Party MPs to worry about.

    How do we tackle climate change? It’s apparently a myth

    How will we deal with emerging security threats? A (cough) closer strategic partnership with the US and NATO forces.

    Sadly, although Luke opines that most ‘conflicts’ with the EU indeed ought to be yawn-inducing, these libertarian obsessives that thinks health and safety rules are a threat to your liberty and the free market also sadly populate and write leader articles for the red top press, which has made this into a major issue. This makes the problem a lot more serious than Luke is implying – this is not an issue that’s going to go away if we ignore it, we need to tackle it, head on, once and for all, and explode the various myths that exist about us and our relationship to the EU.
    The issue that will exercise most rightwingers and the general public is immigration, everything else fades into insignificance. UKIP have identified this as *the* core issue and it will continue like a running sore until we effectively address it. To do so requires guts and the need, perhaps to be unpopular in the short term whilst we explain the benefits of a fair and equitable immigration policy, rather than the continued obfuscation that the party wroughts upon the membership in the hope the issue will go away.

  • david

    The UK needs radical reform

    Sign this petition to restrict Bulgarian and Romanians from entering the UK:

    http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/41492

    Sign this petition to allow UKIP to take part in the 2015 TV election
    debates:

    http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/43153

    • http://www.facebook.com/ric.euteneuer Ric Euteneuer

      Some despond – probably the same person – has posted this on Digital Spy, with the usual inane “Oh noes mor immigruntz” commentary – quite why they are posting it here is anyone’s guess, it’s not exactly his target audience, is it ?