Amid fierce debate over Britain’s EU membership, an abiding belief in its benefits is a welcome sign


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The Independent Online

Something strange and possibly wonderful is happening to British public opinion. Even as the UK Independence Party is enjoying a disruptive moment not seen in politics since the launch of the Social Democratic Party in 1981, sentiment towards the UK’s membership of the European Union is growing warmer.

Two sets of opinion poll findings this week combine to paint a picture of Great British pragmatism on the subject of Europe. One was the report by Ipsos Mori that support for staying in the EU is at its highest level for 23 years. This is a finding that should be treated with some caution. It is just one poll.

The other poll this week was from YouGov and found a six-point majority in favour of leaving the EU. But YouGov has found that, on average, “In” has moved into the lead over “Out” this year. And its follow-up questions are perhaps the most telling. The pollster asked people about the Prime Minister’s proposed renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership, and how they would vote in the referendum that the Conservatives promise to hold in 2017. Even if David Cameron were to secure only a “modest renegotiation”, people say that, by 44 to 36 per cent, they would vote to stay in.

The question specifically asked voters to imagine that Mr Cameron had secured “guarantees over some key issues that he said protected British interests, but without any major change”. If on the other hand Mr Cameron secured “substantial changes”, including “British opt-outs in several different policy areas”, people say they would vote to stay in by a huge margin of 55 to 23 per cent. Stephan Shakespeare of YouGov commented: “My guess is that Britons only need the flimsiest excuse to keep the status quo, whatever their frustrations today.”

That is the nub of it. When the financial crisis began, and especially when, four years ago, it became a crisis of the eurozone, public opinion swung against the EU. Much of this was an expression of general discontent about hard economic times, rather than a considered weighing of the pros and cons of EU membership. It is no coincidence that the previous peak of anti-European sentiment recorded by Ipsos Mori was in 1979-83, when mass unemployment blighted the country.

Now that economic stringency is easing slightly, and the euro seems to have survived (for the time being), the Eurosceptic tide is receding. YouGov’s detailed findings suggest that the British people are looking for leadership: they are ready to be told that, though there are problems with the EU, they can be fixed. They are persuadable that free movement of workers, for example, is part of a deal that is fundamentally in Britain’s interest.

What is most striking, of course, is the possibility that, the more we hear of Ukip, the less we like what they want. Nigel Farage’s party has been a public-relations triumph. The old complaint that it was impossible to discuss immigration because of the liberal headlock on the British media was never true, but for the past year or two it has been impossible to avoid defensive hand-wringing about immigration.

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, provided a good example of precisely that with his plan to deport more foreigners. Just as Mr Miliband seeks to appease Ukip, it is possible that Mr Farage’s success has provoked a reaction from some of the better, more widely held, liberal instincts of the British people. Mr Miliband ought to remember that Ukip has failed to secure the consistent support of the vast majority of the electorate in opinion polls. Its main success was to win 27.5 per cent of the vote on a 34 per cent turnout in the European Parliament elections this year.

Whether it is a reaction against Ukip, or simply a return to a more normal alignment of public opinion, it cannot be denied that our attitude towards the EU is characteristically British. We like to grumble, but we accept that on balance we are better in than out.