The first law of referendums is that politicians want them only when they think they will get the right answer. Thus Lord Mandelson, in an interview with Jeremy Vine at the weekend, was frank enough to tell the BBC man that he was against the holding of any “In or Out” referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, because it would be “uncontrollable…. a lottery”. For the ultimate political control-freak – that’s Mandelson – there can be no more damning criticism.
It is for the same reason that Michael Portillo is also against the holding of an “in/out” referendum – even though he also declares that if there were one, he would vote for the UK to leave the EU. The former Conservative cabinet minister explains this apparent paradox with the argument that such a referendum would produce a vote in favour of staying in the EU and that, as a result, the Eurosceptic cause he supports would be dealt a fatal blow.
Or, outside the world of ex-cabinet ministers, Polly Toynbee urges Labour’s leader Ed Miliband not to yield to the idea of supporting such a vote because “if Labour bends under pressure and agrees [in government] to a 2017 in/out referendum, Britain will leave the EU”. She regards this as an appalling outcome: “Do we want to be Belarus?” Well, no, we don’t want to be like a country where elections have been criticised by independent observers for their fraudulence; but the main principled objection to membership of the EU is precisely that it causes laws to be enacted in this country which do not originate from our elected parliament.
Last week’s latest edict from a Brussels committee that olive oil should not be presented in restaurants except in hermetically sealed containers (for reasons of hygiene, apparently) is a trivial but telling example. You liked it being served in an earthenware bowl? Sorry, that’s now banned under the Single Market. Rather pathetically, a spokesman for our own impotent Environment ministry said that “the new rules will lead to unnecessary waste and place added burdens on business” but “we will work with the catering industry to help them adapt to these changes”.
OK, the right to dip our restaurant bread in olive oil without having the lovely liquid presented in aseptic sachets is hardly the stuff of great political campaigns. On the other hand, it is precisely the sense that a distant polity is interfering quite unnecessarily in the minutiae of domestic life that makes millions of people – who cannot all be dismissed as merely “anti-European” – so receptive to the arguments of Ukip’s eloquent leader, Nigel Farage.
Those who think that the British Department of the Environment has always been too laissez-faire have a quite different view. Last week, the head of policy at Friends of the Earth UK, Craig Bennett, warned that there were “huge risks” if Britain withdrew from the EU, because the “EU’s approach to policy-making” – good – “is fundamentally different” to our own – bad. He argued that “the painful truth is that the UK has a poor record on supporting progressive environmental policy and continues to do so”.
Now, it may be that the British are less enlightened than what Bennett describes as “our more progressive continental cousins”. But the point is that if we have a much smaller Green movement than Germany’s, that is among other things an expression of differing national characters, priorities and, yes, prejudices, reflected at the ballot box. Bennett is clearly of the view that it is a good thing that the unenlightened British have lost political autonomy over such environmental matters: that, for our own good, our elected representatives need to be made subservient to a wider European “progressive” ethos of health and hygiene (even as applied to the way olive oil is served).
What has made the whole debate over Britain and Europe so unhealthy is exactly this mindset: that politicians and lobbyists have supported such a loss of democratic autonomy precisely when they themselves have struggled to get the sort of answer they want from the British voter.
Thus, when the Conservatives were in opposition in the mid-1970s (and Lord Hailsham warned bleakly of an “elective dictatorship”) they campaigned vigorously for Britain’s membership of what was then known as the Common Market: Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative leader at the time, held photo opportunities wearing a pullover covered with the flags of all the other member states – not a fashion she ever embraced again.
Yet when Thatcher seemed politically unchallengeable via the ballot box, after her party’s third and most crushing victory in the 1987 General Election, Labour suddenly switched to a policy of full and unconditional support for the European Union. To be more precise, this followed a dramatic address in 1988 to the Trade Union Congress by the then President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors. Delors told them that Brussels would bring about laws to protect workers’ rights, which at the time seemed likely never to be enacted by the Parliament in Westminster.
The point here is not whether Delors or Thatcher was right about the interests of the British people, but who had the mandate. It wasn’t Jacques Delors. This was the point I tried to put to Gordon Brown when Labour were in opposition to the Conservative Government of John Major; Major had gained Britain exemption from the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, but Labour had pledged to make Britain subject to its provisions. My question was why Labour didn’t just promise to bring in employment protection for workers in Britain via its majority in an elected Parliament once it had won the next general election, regardless of what might be decided in the European Council. I don’t recall getting much of answer.
Fast-forward to the present, and we can see the long-term consequence of the way both the established parties of Left and Right at different times have seen the EU as a way of producing legislative outcomes not available via a popular mandate – a public which to a dangerous degree sees its own political institutions as unrepresentative and even pointless. Result: the Farage effect – and pure panic in certain quarters at the prospect of a plebiscite.