Trust the people to decide on Europe? Whatever next!

Boris Johnson — Telegraph.co.uk Jan 12, 2014

I don’t often get to read the entire transcript of debates in the House of Lords, but the other day I found myself mesmerised by the one on the EU referendum that was initiated last Friday by the thriller writer Michael Dobbs. I came to the juddering climax of the text, and put it down breathless and stunned – staring pop-eyed at the window as I grasped a new geopolitical reality. It is quite obvious that Labour is not going to give the public a vote on Europe. Miliband has plainly made up what passes for his mind.

The last doubt was removed in the course of the proceedings. Speaker after speaker stood up from the Labour side to protest at the very concept of this embarrassingly direct democracy. One by one their Labour lordships reminded each other of the wise words of Clement Attlee, that referendums were the devices of despots and dictators – and why? Because there was always the risk, don’t you know, that the poor benighted public would say or do the wrong thing.

Trust the people? Dear me, no, said the representatives of the so-called People’s Party. You couldn’t even trust the people to understand the question, let alone answer it, they said. These are difficult matters, they said, which are capable of being misrepresented by the Right-wing media. It is only we – the privileged oligarchic caste of experts – who are capable of adjudicating on issues like Europe, they said.

It was a positive orgy of nannying and finger-wagging, as if they were voting on the age limit at which children should be allowed to handle .22 air guns. The gist of the Labour view was that a referendum was a potentially lethal weapon, and that it was mad to place such a device in the hands of the dunderheaded British public.

I wonder whether they have any idea what has been happening in British politics over the past few years. It may have escaped the notice of the Labour Party, but there is a crisis of trust. Not since the beginning of the universal franchise have politicians generally been held in such low esteem. Political parties are continuing to haemorrhage members; voters are declining in droves to go to the polls.

his issue – Europe – is one on which they would genuinely like a say. All the polls say so. The British have not been consulted on this vital constitutional matter since 1975 – whereas it has apparently been all right to submit similar questions to the Danes, the French, the Irish and plenty of others.

Is there some difference in the cognitive faculties of the British people? Is Labour saying we are incapable of getting to the heart of the matter, and of coming up with an answer that is in the long-term interests of this country? If this is the position – and I defy Ed Miliband to say it isn’t – then it is not only patronising and condescending to the electorate. It is boneheadedly stupid.

As even Lord Mandelson silkily accepted at the beginning of his speech, the EU is in need of reform. It is not just the euro that is a disaster area: one of the reasons that the EU is a global microclimate of relative gloom is the ceaseless production of regulation, over the past 50 years, that is now starting to make the whole continent uncompetitive. The entire enterprise needs to be shaken up, and Britain could lead that effort.

There is a new model to be offered, in which there is plenty of scope for idealism. We should be completing the internal market in services – opening up opportunities for everyone from lawyers to hairdressers to ski instructors. And we should be offering the European public things they actually want – like cheaper roaming costs for mobiles. We should zap so much of the bureaucratic malarkey that is holding European business back. We don’t need the CAP, we don’t need the social chapter, we don’t need the European Court adjudicating in home affairs.

In fact – as almost all politicians, including Nick Clegg, now seem to be saying – we need to recover some control over our borders, and we certainly need to be able to insist on longer derogations before migrants from EU accession countries are entitled to our benefits.

That is a completely reasonable request, and reflects the immense changes we have seen in the EU. When we joined the Common Market, it was a small and relatively economically homogeneous group of nine. There are now 28 countries and a combined population of about 500 million. There is an appetite for reform around the table in Brussels, and I bet there is more than one country that might want to join us in leading the charge.

Instead, the attitude of Labour is resolutely defeatist. Oh, they will never agree to that, say people like Mandelson. You’ll never get your way in the renegotiation, they say, so you might as well not bother.

Well, you certainly won’t get anything if you have Miliband in charge; and you won’t get anything if you have Cleggers in charge, either. But you certainly will get a change if you have David Cameron in charge. And there is one simple way to fortify his position, one gigantic bazooka he could bring into the conference chamber.

Our friends and partners in Brussels need to understand that they are not just negotiating with the namby-pamby elites of this country. In offering new terms of membership, they must understand that they are dealing with the people – the British electorate, cussed and suspicious, who will pronounce in a referendum.

As it happens, I think the people will suck their teeth hard, squint into the future, and go for the kind of prospectus now being offered by the think tank Open Europe – stay in the single market, but axe much of the rest. They will want the best of both worlds. If they can, I think people will vote for staying in – on the right terms. But Britain won’t be offered the right terms unless the people are given the chance to vote. Get the EU to stare down the barrel of a British referendum – or forget about any chance of reform.

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