Sholto Byrnes: It's not just the Right that's Eurosceptic

Above all, it is the EU's attitude to towards democracy itself that we should question

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:09

The horizon for Labour supporters may currently appear more dismal than Gordon Brown's visage, but party strategists spot a golden ray bursting through the firmament. Having once rejected what everyone else considers to be the EU Constitution by another name, Ireland has graciously been granted a chance to have a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty; and this time tomorrow's vote seems likely to produce a "yes".

This has been portrayed as a disaster for David Cameron's new, moderate, Conservatives. How so? Well, it's "Tory right-wingers", you see, who feel that the pledge Tony Blair and Jack Straw made to hold a referendum on the EU Constitution should be honoured.

The difficulty for David Cameron, who long ago committed himself to a plebiscite on Lisbon, is that he was counting on the Irish to vote "no" again. If he, as prime minister, holds a referendum and we give it the thumbs down, then he gets the blame for the treaty failing; every country must ratify Lisbon or it does not pass. This is not a prospect that pleases him. Hence the possibility of disarray, and Labour's delight.

The party's propagandists are salivating at the opportunity to paint the Tories as divided once again on Europe, with "hardline" – code for near-lunatic extremist – right-wingers cast as the pantomime villains. "Behind you, Dave!" they call, less to warn him than to make the public aware of the grotesques with whom he chooses to associate.

And there it is, that old calumny that to be Eurosceptic is to be right-wing, not just in a free-market sort of way, but in a hang 'em, flog 'em, and – whisper it behind closed doors – a "wogs begin at Calais" sort of way. Cameron can't be trusted, is the message, not when he is in hock to these mad Eurosceptics, a label which is now used to imply opposition to virtually every piece of progressive legislation from Catholic Emancipation onwards.

This is a cynical and false elision, and it should not stand. It has stifled real debate on this issue for too long, and is a stain on the undoubted idealism of the many Europhiles who fail to acknowledge it.

For all it takes to have a profound suspicion of the EU and its greedy accretion of powers is this: to believe in transparency and accountability; to feel in your bones that sovereignty should not be passed from nation state to international body without the voters being consulted; and to desire that those voters should be as close as possible to the representatives they elect. To be, in other words, a democrat.

Now it may very well be that many Eurosceptics are right-wing. I remember making this point to Dan Hannan when he was trying to persuade me to join a Eurosceptic group he set up when we were students. "Look," said Dan, now of course a rather well-known Tory MEP, pointing to our dining companion and fellow sceptic, "he's a member of the Labour Party. You can be our first Liberal." By the time we left university our Labour-supporting friend had become president of the student Tory association, which I couldn't help feel slightly dented the cross-party carapace of Dan's Eurosceptic group.

Nevertheless it remains the instinct of a democrat, not of a right-winger in particular, to wonder why a group of unelected civil servants, which is all the EU Commission is, should act as though they had the mandate of a government.

It is natural for anyone who cherishes the democratic process to lament that their chances of having any contact with their MEP – or even knowing who he or she is – is about as great as winning the National Lottery. And it says little for the incorruptibility of this great European institution that its reaction to having the whistle blown on its own finances was to sack the brave woman – its own chief accountant – who exposed the malpractice. Neither would a true democrat rely on that tired old line that Euroenthusiasts still trot out: that we had a referendum on Europe, and we voted "yes". That vote was in 1975, which means that no one under the age of 52 had the chance to participate; and it was, in any case, on membership of the European Economic Community, whose name alone should be sufficient to suggest that we are talking about a very different body to that European Union whose advances we seem powerless to resist.

But above all, it is the EU's attitude towards democracy itself that we should question. Why is Ireland having a second referendum? The answer is that like the Danes before them, at the time of Maastricht, they voted on a treaty: and they gave the wrong answer.

Try again, says the EU, more willing to bend the rules than Chris Tarrant on Celebrity Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, when at least he has the excuse of steering the winnings to charity. Do you want to ask the audience? Call a friend? It is the most astonishingly unprincipled response, more outrageous than that given by the US Democrat Dick Tuck on losing an election in 1964: "The people have spoken, the bastards." At least he accepted his defeat. These "bastards" are told to think again.

In arguing that Euroscepticism is not the preserve of the right, one could point to all the great figures in the Labour Party pantheon, from Hugh Gaitskell and Peter Shore to Michael Foot and Tony Benn, who held that view. One could argue that the true internationalist wishes to engage with the world, at the UN, the G20 or the Commonwealth, rather than with a protectionist, inward-looking EU, which is still so prey to antique fears of the Asiatic hordes that it cannot stomach admitting Turkey, the one country that could be a much-needed bridge of understanding between the continents.

Or one could simply remember the words of our last Prime Minister. Arch-Europhile that he was, even Tony Blair declared in 2004 that when it came to the EU Constitution, and to the EU in general, it was time to "let the people have the final say". Perhaps his Labour successors can put me right, but I find nothing particularly right-wing about that.

The author is a contributing editor of the New Statesman

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