As our interview with the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, makes clear today, his Conservative coalition partners – if that is not too strong a term for the ministers Mr Cable cohabits with so uncomfortably – are indeed guilty of “serious irresponsibility”. The misdemeanour in question is economic: risking jobs and the living standards of everyone in Britain for what amounts to a political stunt. Even the Prime Minister and Chancellor don’t really believe that Britain would go so far as to leave the EU; indeed, they are not willing even to pretend. If they were, they might just extract some concession from our EU partners. Without such a realistic threat there is only downside – and for Britain much more than the rest of Europe.
Students of history will recognise the heavy echoes of three decades ago, when a Labour government led by Harold Wilson and James Callaghan also went through a similar charade of “renegotiation”. Then, as now, a governing party was badly divided on Europe, and a referendum was a political convenience for all sides of the internal party split. Then, as now, there was no real prospect of Britain leaving and the then (Social Democratic) German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, made it his business to help his political allies to keep Britain in without giving too much away, just as Angela Merkel is doing today.
In 1975, the referendum was held and the UK voted to retain its membership by a majority of two to one. Faced with the arguments and a stark choice the electorate did the sensible thing, as it surely will again. Mr Cable, then himself in the pro-European wing of the Labour Party, must remember that episode well.
It is true that Europe – or leastways southern Europe – is not the economic force it was. We should be redirecting our exports towards faster growing markets elsewhere, and we are. What is foolish is the notion that this is a zero-sum game, a choice between exporting to Greece rather than India, say, when we can do plenty of both. An EU referendum, on whatever marginally altered terms of membership Mr Cameron secures, will not change that fundamental economic truth.