2016 is being hyped-up to become a momentous year in British political history, as we head for a decisive ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ referendum vote that will settle once and for all the matter of the UK’s membership of the European Union. This, it is solemnly pronounced, is surely the most important constitutional event for a generation with massive ramifications for Britain’s place in the world. Except, in all likelihood, it is unlikely to be anything of the sort.
The forthcoming referendum has already exhibited clear signs that the event itself, rather than the issues it purports to settle, has become the focus of debate. Through clever, wholly disingenuous machinations, and through the indolent ignorance of the easily directed media (especially TV), the government has made great strides to ensure that this is a meta-referendum: just like those plays or films about people making plays or films, so the fact that we are having a referendum becomes the story.
Of course, the political pundits may be wrong (again) and there may not be a referendum until next year. Under pressure from UKIP successes and a handful of Eurosceptic Tory MPs, Cameron slid out of a tight corner, if only temporarily, by promising (for a second time, but this time, really, really meaning it) a referendum on EU membership, which must take place by the end of 2017. He may even wait that long, hoping for a deus ex machina that will ensure a healthy vote to remain within the EU, his preferred option by a country kilometre. But the money is on as early a vote as possible. Note how government voices are emphasising this. It is designed to reassure waverers of the government’s commitment to keep them on board from the outset: don’t jump ship and make a splash now as we will soon be docking in port.
There are sound reasons for an early vote. Any deus ex machina might turn out to be a UKIP voter; it is the Leave campaign that is much more in need of divine intervention than the Remain one, so procrastination holds more dangers than swiftness for Cameron. A major danger for the PM is that the next wave of trans-mediterranean immigration, which is expected in late summer. This would play into the hands of the Leave campaign. However, all is uncertain and much depends on, strange though it may seem, Vladimir Putin: if his Syrian adventure obtains its desired affect – a positive settlement for Russia in the Ukraine and the lifting of sanctions – he may well de-escalate his inflammatory involvement in the Middle East, thereby reducing the flow of refugees to the West. Europe is likely to accommodate him so that he will turn off some of Syria’s migratory taps.
2017 sees a number of national elections in Europe, not least in France and in Germany, the latter being the EU’s paymaster general. Cameron wants his risible demands for reform under his belt long before then, lest Hollande and Merkel, fearful of exposing themselves to domestic claims of weakness by electoral opponents, make an ostentatious display of refusing to make any concessions to Britain at all.
There is also another highly relevant consideration over timing that receives hardly any attention in the media’s coverage of the referendum. If in the unlikely event that the Leave campaign were to win, then there would necessarily be a period of intense volatility, disruption and uncertainty in Britain as it adjusts its politics, international relations and economy to its radically new place in the world. This would leave the government vulnerable for some time (not least to a vote of confidence). The five-year election rule means that the next general election is scheduled for 2020. The earlier that the referendum is held, the more time the Tories will have to re-structure and re-order matters after a No vote, allowing them more opportunity to shape the confusion into a reassuring and attractive package for the electorate. The likely positive results from this grand political Schumpeterian creative destruction might then be seen; before then, however, unsettled voters might see only the ‘destruction’ and fail to keep their nerve waiting for the creation at the end of it. The fear of concomitant punishment at the polls during a time of major realignment and readjustment will, alas, keep some otherwise Eurosceptic Tory MPs on the government’s side and cheering for the Remain campaign. Cameron and his cronies will exploit this to the maximum, rightly calculating that for many the desire to keep one’s seat will lead to a compromising accommodation with one’s principles. Crudington-on-Sea is worth a mass in Brussels.
The very earliest that Cameron can hold a referendum is in late June 2016, as the Electoral Commission has decreed (much to the PM’s chagrin) that at least six months must lapse between the passing of the referendum bill as law (which occurred in December) and the actual vote. But the Commission would also frown upon referendum campaigning encroaching upon the attention due to the raft of devolved assemblies and local government elections in May. All this assumes that Cameron will achieve his much-hyped negotiating reforms during the EU summit next month and that there will be no need for treaty changes (which would entail years of ifs and maybes).
The Europhile establishment is already lined up to exploit Cameron’s limited window of best opportunity. The House of Lords, currently in a mood to reassert itself over the Tory majority in the Commons, has already backed 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum. This is a cynical ploy to make a Remain vote more likely, as most youths of this age with a passing interest in politics tend to be idealistic in the proto-student mould (as some of their teachers still are): with little grasp of either history or economics, they will easily be seduced by asininely simplistic arguments of harmony and how ‘the EU prevents war’ (Richard Sakwa’s Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, which I review in the current issue of SR, should disabuse its readers of any such dangerously misplaced notions). The government, rightly not wishing to set this juvenile-centric precedence for pandering to poorly-informed ‘yoof’, has vowed to overturn the Lords’ decision in the Commons. But that would mean a risky, lengthy delay for the referendum. And the Lords know this. Liberal and Labour peers, who are overwhelmingly pro-European, outnumber Tory members by a margin of seventy. With plenty of Europhile Tory wets sitting among the Conservative peers, this area will remain contentious and potentially decisive.
It is funny how the issue of Europe draws many left-wingers into the establishment, revealing egregious inconsistencies in their position. Greens and socialists are first in line to harangue bankers as populating the great moral cesspit of our age; but when multinational corporations, not a jot less greedy, advocate Britain remaining ‘at the heart of Europe’ (we’re actually closer to the knees) then the greenies and lefties are happy to go along with them. In the1990s, the Greens were actually anti-euro-federalist. Now that their radicalism has become mainstream environmentalism, they have become absorbed into the conforming mass. They’re still trying to saving the planet by living on another one, but now they have at least established contact with alien life forms on Earth.
Whatever false glimmers of hope the narrowing polls might muster for Eurosceptics, these are likely to be dissipated when the full weight of the Establishment – our betters who know what is jolly well good for us – mobilises behind the Remain campaign. The multinationals and the money behind them will be joined by the universities, the CBI (with its appalling track of malign influence on government policy), and the likes of Gordon Brown and John Major, who will be among those conjuring up manufactured horrors that would follow Britain’s exit from the EU. (Isn’t it odd how failed and rightly derided political leaders become respected elder statesman when they are kicked out of office?) Unless political opportunism offers massive potential rewards, most cabinet heavyweights will line-up behind the PM, as will the vast array of our media and celebrity luvvies, who will suddenly become sought-after experts on the complex politics of European integration. The new referendum will reflect the fraudulently dishonest 1975 one in these respects. For the Establishment, 2016 is not so much a year of destiny, but of déjà-vu.
Not finally, but most influentially, there is the government’s craftily devised distortion of the referendum debate, with Cameron’s setting the bar of renegotiation and reform so low an inebriated earthworm could jump over it. Of Cameron’s four lines in the sand waiting to be washed away by the incoming tide, three are meaningless guff: safeguards against minor points of sovereignty, further integration and the euro not being the only currency of the Eurozone. The fourth concerns the restriction of benefits to EU migrants (note how ‘immigrants’ is now a pejorative and thus unused term). These will be payable only to those who have lived in the country for four years. This may seem more concrete, but it is inherently primed for built-in compromise – he’d probably settle for a year. This is where the government has appropriated disingenuous ownership over the whole debate: it has made the referendum about trivial or worthless issues, allowing for cheap and easy victories (or so it hopes) and the deliberate obfuscation of the weighty matters that should be addressed in such a generational event: national independence and autonomy: the primacy of parliamentary law; and, most significantly of all, the matter of democratic representation.
Ironically, a referendum should be a supreme representation of the vox populi on an issue of overwhelming importance, but unless the government and media is successfully challenged, this one will be an exercise in pretence with huge numbers of voters being misdirected into thinking that the potentially epochal question of our time amounts to a brief suspension of benefits for EU immigrants.
On 17 December, David Cameron gave a press conference in Brussels on the alleged success of his opening negotiation gambits for EU reform and the concessions necessary for him to lead the Remain campaign in Britain. As he was speaking, the UK government’s royal coat of arms attached to the front of his lectern began slipping precariously from a straight alignment to hanging almost vertically. The more he talked, the more the crest slipped. Like Pinocchio’s nose, or Dorian Gray’s portrait, it seemed to be telling us something.