Tuesday, March 15, 2011

And they're off

In one corner we have the EU Referendum Campaign, supported by various MPs and other personalities, particularly Jon Gaunt and promoted in the Express Newspapers; this one has been going for five months or so and is asking us to sign a pledge to .... well, to demand from our MPs that they should support an in/out referendum on the EU.

In the other corner we have The People's Pledge, a cross-party campaign, supported by various MPs and other personalities and promoted mostly by the Mail (and here), though mentioned in other newspapers such as the Express. Conservative Home has also got in on the act. This one is asking us all to sign a pledge that we vote only for politicians who agree to give us an in/out referendum on the EU.

This could become a battle between the Mail and the Express or it could turn into something that both newspapers will lose interest in. Who knows. I am inclined to add, who cares. As the Boss argued in his inimitable fashion on EUReferendum, one can feel nothing but annoyance at the sight of yet another ill-thought-out campaign taking up time, money and energy. Meanwhile, the Boy-King has assured us that there will be no in/out referendum because he seems to think that the result will be an out vote. As I wrote before, that is not a foregone conclusion, no matter what the highly inaccurate opinion polls say.

First of all, why two campaigns instead of one? Well, some say this and some say that but I fear that personal differences and people's inability to work with each other are at the bottom of this ridiculous split. It is all too tedious to go into and, in any case, that is not the problem. Not the real problem.

The real problem is that we have wasted a great deal of time on various campaigns that get us nowhere instead of doing what we ought to be: changing opinion both at the political and the popular level. Ah yes, but we have done that, I hear people cry. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.
Certainly, we have moved a long way from those days of the Maastricht debates when I became involved with the eurosceptic movement and realized why it kept losing. It is now possible and acceptable to talk of Britain pulling out of the EU and, even, of a European future beyond the EU. Partly that is our achievement, partly the EU's, which has also lost its way. But there is still no clear understanding of how the EU works, why it is a bad idea, what effects it has on Britain and its political life, how we can go about getting out and what should be done afterwards. If there is an in/out referendum the other side will use this vagueness to its advantage. Remember, the other side has not even started campaigning because it sees no need for it. So opinion polls are of little significance.

The Boss discusses one opinion poll in a posting today and there is little to add to what he says. Let us approach the problem from another angle: an opinion poll that says most people think we should have a referendum on our membership of the EU is a reflection of what people think about our politicians and their inability to keep their collective word under any circumstances. We had a similar comment almost a year ago when the Cameroonies failed to win an election against the least popular government in living memory.

People who agree that we should have a referendum will not necessarily tick the "out" box or even turn up at the polling booth. The fact that we consistently get a high percentage saying that yes, the EU is a bad idea and this is not what we voted for means little.

In 1975 the No side started with a large majority; by the time the referendum day came around a third of the electorate decided that they could not be bothered to vote and two thirds of the remaining two thirds voted "yes" to staying in the Common Market.

Ah but "we" were told that it was merely a Common Market; this is not what we voted for; blah, blah, blah. "We" were also told by a number of people who quoted the Treaty of Rome, which was available from HMSO, that the aim of the exercise is considerably more than a market, common or otherwise. It's just that "we" preferred not to listen or were scared by many of those who gave "us" the other side of the argument.

That happened when the No side had mostly well-honed arguments though their idea of organization was as daft as that of the present crop of eurosceptics. One of the causes of the defeat was the presence of the union bosses on that side. Look, said the Yes campaign, look who is arguing against the Common Market: the people who are reducing this country to complete shambles. Even those who were not especially in favour of the concept sighed and asked sorrowfully: what choice do we have, rule by Brussels or rule by Moscow. So whom do we see among the slightly moth-eaten supporters of the latest campaign? Why, none other than Bob Crow, the most hated man in the country, certainly in and around London, which accounts for a good many people.

Some 12 or 13 years ago (how time does fly, to be sure, when one is enjoying oneself) the Boss and I, together with other people looked at the situation in the country, its political class and the eurosceptic movement, which was very similar to the one now, and decided to try to do something about it. Our idea was to set up a think-tank along the lines of the IEA that would produce research and publications at various levels to discuss the various subjects that need to be discussed in order to fight the monster that is the European Union but also other bodies, such as our own state.

We laboured long and mightily but failed for reasons that are obvious: the money went elsewhere. In particular it went, as it continues to go, on various campaigns that are little more than make-work, as the Boss says. We have lost those 12 or 13 years; we have not used them to spread information or inform rational debate.

It is nothing short of tragic that the discussions today have not moved one iota beyond those we were having (or the media was having) ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. Those of us who have spent years on the common fisheries policy, for instance, unravelling its structure and development, understanding and describing its activity, building up alternative policies can only beat their heads against the wall when they see that once again, for the umpteenth time we are treated to shock-horror outbursts about discards. That's where we were 15 years ago; that's when I drafted questions and wrote briefing papers for members of the House of Lords and others on the subject. (Let us not forget the famous Conservative policy on fisheries that the Boy-King discarded the moment he became leader of the party.)

I could list many other issues where the same ignorance remains and the same feeling of just treading water pertains. For that is what the eurosceptic movement has been doing all these years: whipping up emotions and treading water as far as useful rational debate is concerned. We have wasted the years we ought to have used sensibly. We have not changed the political climate or even the terms of the debate. Why do we want a referendum? To lose it?

So we are back to that old question: what is to be done. As the Boss said to me, he has a blog and I have a blog and that is what we do. That means a return to the fray, much as I would like to abandon it. It also means having to up the game and to spread the message wider and more efficiently. So, over to my readers for ideas. And, please, do not suggest that this blog should support the EU referendum campaign(s). If you think that, you have not been paying attention.

We must make up for lost time.


  1. Correct me if I am wrong.There's been a lot of talk about the 1975 referendum,I know there was a strange mix on the 'NO' platform but,the question was; Do you agree with the Governments renegotiation of the Terms of the Common Market Treaty. Really there was only one way the vote could go and that was a 'yes'. It was a loaded question,so the next referendum that we have and,I think we will, sooner or later,must be a direct question,IN or OUT/YES or NO.

  2. Good blog Helen. From this day forth you should direct your energies on this blog to getting the UK out of the EU. It is time to go, Good God Almighty, it is time to go. Never has so much been so clear. It is time to go.

  3. Good blog Helen. From this day forth you should direct your energies on this blog to getting the UK out of the EU. It is time to go, Good God Almighty, it is time to go. Never has so much been so clear. It is time to go.

  4. Good blog Helen. From this day forth you should direct your energies on this blog to getting the UK out of the EU. It is time to go, Good God Almighty, it is time to go. Never has so much been so clear. It is time to go.

  5. How do you know that the People's Pledge is an "ill-thought-out campaign" .. have you spoken to the organisers? I would seem unreasonable to condemn it as such without establishing their full thinking.

    It seems one key difference between the two 'corners' is that the PP is neutral on the EU but the EURC is a 'same old' anti-EU campaign that hasn't got us that far thus far. Anti-EU activists should welcome the People's Pledge and, in response, redouble their efforts to ensure that if and when a referendum comes the 'out' lobby is in a position to win it.

    May I suggest that that would be the constructive response to the latest developments.

  6. But are these two calls for action from PP and EURC just stalking horses. It would be a welcome addition to have Helen and the good Doctor really opening up with the information that is still not in the public view. More power to you elbow Helen.

  7. Dear MikeH,
    What makes you think I do not know the organizers of both campaigns? Furthermore, both the Boss and I have explained why we think they are both ill-thought out campaigns. Exactly, what is the point of another campaign of people pledging that they will vote only for politicians who will offer an in/out referendum? What will it achieve? And if we do get that referendum, our side will lose because we have wasted our time on campaigns of that kind instead of shifting the debate. Now, would you like me to say that again in even simpler terms?

  8. Surely, much support for unintentionally divisive displacement activity comes from frustration. Every new idea is the next big thing that will make everyone see the light…There is often an expectation that because “we are right”, it must be very straightforward to make everyone else see the light and for things to change within months. And of course this does not happen, for a variety of reasons. So, on to the next idea without putting effort into the real slog, and then people peel away in frustration, usually criticizing individuals rather than systems and their own expectations. There is a painfully inadequate understanding of how media works (sadly, rather vital), and also the rules around elections/campaigns and coverage: much of our side is still na├»ve about the role of democracy and fairness in coverage (ie it doesn’t exist, but many seem to think it does even when they moan about the BBC or the newspapers). Your point about 1975 sums it up: my own memory is that we were faced with “Wedgie Benn” and Enoch on the No side (and headlines in those newspapers now saying Britain should leave the EU about the UK becoming ‘the next East Germany’) and a number of more steady and easy-on-the-eye-and-nerve people on the Yes side. Never mind what I think now about the two camps - then it felt a lot different because of the coverage. I watched a similar horrible shift among many friends in Ireland over Lisbon 2…“well they’re extremists on the No side…good old [fill in the name of an Irish Ken Clarke] says we’ll keep our sovereignty…isolated…etc”. Shedloads of cash on the Yes side, little on the No. Money is a key. It won’t guarantee anything but it really helps. And of course, in the right hands…

  9. Damian is right that frustration drives much of the demand for a referendum. I heard Jon Gaunt at a Bruges Group meeting getting quite emotional. He Said that he wanted a referendum so that he could have his say. He added that he did not mind what the result was! It even raised a cheer!

    Since August I have been asking various campaigners and advocates for an "in/out" referendum what their plans are to win it, if they get their wish. The answer is zilch, nada, nix, nothing. The answers I have received are "Public opinion is moving our way" and "That is an entirely separate question".

    None of the referendum campaigners bothered to consult the Irish experience of referenda but the other side will certainly have done so. Tony Coughlan of the Irish National Platform is of the opinion that an "out" majority vote is unobtainable without the support of at least one of the main parties, preferably the party in government at the time.

    This campaign is not only going to soak up a great deal of money (whose?) and effort, it could well end up as an invitation to join the Charge of the Light Brigade.

  10. Helen, I did not suggest you do not know those involved. I'm sure you do. If you read back, you will see that I did suggest, however, that you have condemned recent developments having not spoken to them about what they're up to with this new and apparently quite significant organisation. Am I correct? Perhaps this time you could answer that in nice simple terms for we hard-of-understanding?

    As a result I'm suggesting that you might not be getting the full picture, yet you already leap to condemn this new initiative. I'm not sure that's all that helpful and can't really see how that's doing justice to the situation.

    If you look at the features of the first referendum campaign and ask what that is likely to achieve, I expect, like me, you will see the reasons for the second. By all accounts it appears the second has achieved more in one week than the first one has done in nearly a year, which to me is an apparent potency to be welcomed.

    Finally, who says no-one is going to be 'shifting the debate' as well as pushing for a referendum? Isn't this your massive assumption, having made no enquiries? As far as I understand it, participating groups with which we are all familiar will also be focussing on this. You surely don't imagine you're the only person with the foresight to consider what might happen if the referendum campaign is successful?

    I feel it's a real pity to be discouraging people on such an ill-considered basis and, being a regular follower of your blog, would have expected better especially from you.

  11. Edward, did you also ask those who _don't_ advocate demanding a referendum exactly what their plan is to force Westminister to take Britain out of the EU? I think the answer to that would present us with the most useful comparison by which to discern the better of the two strategic approaches. By all means rubbish such ideas as demanding a referendum and refocussing our efforts in that context to ensuring that the 'out' campaign would win it, if there is a better strategy we should be following. Over to you, I believe!