Blair is wrong. There should be a referendum on the EU – and pro-Europeans can win it

“Nationalism is a powerful sentiment” warned Tony Blair on Tuesday. “Let that genie out of the bottle and it is a Herculean task to put it back. Reason alone struggles.”

Thus, the great communicator joins a long line of patrician pro-Europeans in British politics who have baulked at the prospect of holding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, ever fearful of relying on the critical faculties of the British public in case they arrive at the ‘wrong’ answer and vote to leave.

It is a dispiriting and reductive view of the electorate’s judgment.

It is also the most glaring example of where a narrow political class has decided what is best for us and cannot – will not – brook further discussion.

But a debate needs to be had. Most obviously, the EU we have today is not the “common market” the public voted for forty years ago in our one and only referendum on the subject. It is not even the EU we had when Blair was Prime Minister.

More recently, the failings of the Eurozone and the unintended consequences from the uncontrolled free movement of people have poisoned the political debate across much of the continent and seen the flames of real nationalism rise amid endless economic gloom and the impact of low-skilled immigration.

In response, the battered consensus in British politics that our membership of the EU is A Good Thing needs refounding from first principles. Europe is still a cause worth fighting for and Blair was spot-on when he said “the objective case for Europe has actually never been stronger”.

Yet the geo-political reality of Britain’s diminished place in the world order doesn’t translate easily into a retail offer to sceptical voters who are not used to such frankness.

There is still a need to clear the air, put the question to voters, have the debate and win the argument. The prize is a chance to reboot British politics and finally move on from decades of dangerously indulgent introspection.

And while any referendum involves accepting a level of risk about the outcome, this does not inevitably lead to “chaos” as Blair warned. Other member states routinely vote on new treaties without their world coming to an end.

Moreover, the bogey of British nationalism that Blair inveighed against yesterday is the wrong target. Surely, the pall of anti-EU sentiment that has settled across the British public is as much a crisis of localism – or the lack of it?

After all, the fishermen of Grimsby are not wallowing in nationalism when they berate the EU. They are simply frustrated at perverse EU fishing quotas that robs them of the livelihoods.

The fork-lift truck driver who faces low-paid competition from EU migrants is more bothered about his pay-cheque rather than esoteric points of national sovereignty.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” as WB Yeats put it. The lack of élan among the lofty pro-Europeans of British politics in selling the case for Europe properly, over so many decades, has left the strong and enduring arguments for remaining a member sound alien to British ears.

Yet theirs is the classic centre-ground argument and can still call upon the mainstreams of the three main parties, the nationalists, the trade unions and a huge swathe of business, which, if not avowedly supportive of the single market still recognise that pulling out would be leap into the unknown.

Indeed, what little evidence there is – specifically the result of the 1975 referendum – suggests this pro-European consensus can prevail. Then, as now, defeat was predicted, only for voters to back our continued membership by two-to-one.

The British public are pragmatic when it counts. They are biddable, but only if they see their politicians stretching every sinew to convince them.

This used to be Blair’s stock-in-trade. That he now reckons the case for persuading the British public to stay inside the EU is unwinnable is a counsel of despair.

Of course, the cause of EU membership has never won over sceptical British hearts, but there’s no need to when a powerful appeal to the public’s mind is going begging.

Reason may indeed struggle, but that’s no argument for not appealing to it.

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4 Responses to “Blair is wrong. There should be a referendum on the EU – and pro-Europeans can win it”

  1. John P Reid says:

    Yes well said, Ed Miliband has built his campaign, around not Being Blair “we’ve got our party back,”etc, he should argue for a referendum

  2. Andrew says:

    It’s precisely because the pro-Europeans will win a referendum that there is no point having it. In the end people will stick to the devil they know. All a referendum will achieve is to damage the economy and distract us from dealing with the many real problems we face . And If you think a vote to stay in will at least clear the air and see off the euro-sceptics then I suggest you take a look at Scotland.

  3. John P Reid says:

    Andrew, the Scotland vote was settled , with England promising concessions, if there was a EU referendum to stay In, The pro camping, would have to promise concessions too.
    The SNP look like doing well at the election, if a 2017 referendum, returned a stay in vote, don’t you think that Ukip, would do well at the 2020election?

  4. Tafia says:

    The referendum should be held to bury the issue. Otherwise it will drag on. And on. And on. And on. And on.

    Personally I’d hold it this year, within months of the Election and have done with it.

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