Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Lib Dems should welcome - and call for - a referendum on Europe, not to mention the UK

The BBC's Nick Robinson has written a useful piece setting out the Tory arguments about Europe and, helpfully, he sums it up by pointing out that it is all the fault of the Lib Dems.  If it wasn't for the pesky Lib Dems, the Tories would have a referendum, Britain could be saved from the clutches of foreigners and Nigel Farage could be exiled to St Helena.  Utter, unalloyed cobblers.

What the BBC's nice Mr Robinson is either wilfully or accidentally ignoring is the simple truth that the Tories have been fighting over Europe since the 1970s and they will fight over it for decades to come, coalition or no coalition.  No amount of referenda will resolve their deep-rooted dilemma, which is that Tories want to wave the flag but they also want to trade and make money.  They think they can't do both in the EU, completely missing the point of the organisation, whose raison d'etre is to encourage trade.  You almost have to feel sorry for them.

Labour is in a similar, if more muted bind.  The bruvvers who pay for them don't like the free trade element of Europe, yet old Trots like Bob Crow think socialism can be born out of the workers coming together in Brussels.  On the other side, the Labour party in the Commons has no policies, least of all on Europe.  Labour has been against, for, against and for Europe, like a bad-tempered yoyo.  It would take the gentlest of nudges to get them fighting once more.  And that's what the Tories want: Labour and the LDs to start fighting over this.

My frustration with this is that we are involved in their private/public madness at all.  Lib Dems are pro Europe, internationalist and relaxed about trade, managed immigration and the myriad benefits the ECSC, EEC, EC and latterly the EU have brought us, from a convenient end to all those nasty wars to the rather brilliant integration of Eastern European countries after 1989 ( a policy fostered by one M. Thatcher, should anyone care).  Why on earth don't we make more of a fuss about this?  
If it is the right policy - which I believe unequivocally - we should not be afraid to argue for it.

With the other parties riven by fear over Europe and the almost Dom Joly-esque lunacy that is UKIP, why don't we turn to face the Toriesand loudly proclaim our support for a referendum.  If we do, several Tories are likely to self-combust in fury at our temerity.  Others will accuse us of being disloyal to the coalition.  Yes, that would be Tories accusing someone of disloyalty...I'll leave you to chuckle over that image for a few moments.  

We should not fear a referendum, we should lead the charge for it.

All that said, I am not in favour of referenda for their own purpose.  There is no question that they are generally bad as the mob then rules but occasionally one is needed to draw some bile from the body politic.  The experience of 1975 is instructive as it lanced a boil for a generation.

In calling for a referendum over Europe, I can see an opportunity to address a far wider problem.  In this particular case, Europe might be considered a symptom rather than the key problem.  The issue we face in the UK is one of political legitimacy across the board, which comes down to our constitutional settlement, which is flawed and imperfect.

I - and millions more like me, I would bet - am an Englishman frustrated by the greater control Scots have over their government, angered that I have no say over the potential destruction of the Union next year (a union being an agreement between partners, rather than a creche where one bad-tempered infant can simply threaten to walk away, in return winning more sweets from a petrified childminder), and disappointed that no Westminster government has had the guts or the wit to address the 'English Problem' - that of proper democratic legitimacy for this part of the UK.  

However, this is not a plea for nationalism, far from it.  The reason I am so fed up with Pandora Salmond's nonsense is precisely because it threatens to unleash the stupid, vicious nationalist demons we have managed to control for so many years.  No, my frustration with the constitutional settlement in the UK goes form Europe to the local Council, where, despite their woeful performance in Oxfordshire, it was nonetheless the Tories who won the County Council elections with the support of a tiny minority of voters.

The Lib Dems could point out that the system is broken at every level and propose that what is needed is what politicians talk about but seldom offer - real power at the proper level.  Local government for important local issues like planning and roads, sensible regional government for strategic plans, economic development and major transport infrastructure, national government for defence, foreign policy, energy policy, and European democratic government for international trade and environmental policy - but not agriculture and fisheries.

A constitutional settlement which recognised the many levels of government and their interrelationship could redefine politics in the UK, re-energise English regions, refine our relationship with Brussels and rectify the democratic deficit which leaves much of the country under the tired, grey hand of Conservatism.  It might also stay the divisive hand of Pandora Salmond and his ilk.

And the simple riposte to the fools who say they 'don't want to be ruled by Brussels' is that, even if you live in Lambeth, you are still ruled by remote government in Westminster, which cannot possibly understand the individual situation across the UK in communities as diverse as Handsworth and Chipping Norton.  One of the great unsung innovations of the coalition has been the move to localism, giving local authorities far greater freedom to run their own affairs, for better or for worse.  Let's have more of the same.

The LDs should welcome a referendum on Europe and they should make clear that we need a vote on a proper system of government which includes Europe, Westminster, a settlement for England, sensible English regions and practical local government to provide what Sir Humphrey once decried in horror to Jim Hacker as, 'democracy, Minister!'

Chances of this happening? Zero, because one-story hacks like Nick Robinson will continue to focus on Westminster, two party politics and ancient wars which will be fought and re-fought until nobody cares any more.  So much for political debate.

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