25th April 2016
Where are the Butter Mountains and Wine Lakes?
By Tim Carter
Firstly I will admit that I was never really in favour of a referendum on EU membership, partly because I am not a fan of referendums and partly because I thought that we wouldn’t have a proper debate on the merits or otherwise of membership. On the latter point so far I think my fear has been realised.
Let’s be clear – the only reason we are having this referendum was David Cameron’s attempt to placate the Eurosceptics in his party and now the threat of Brexit, he was seeking to head off, following the vote on 23 June is very real.
When the Labour Party won the 1997 general election we pledged to put Labour at the heart of Europe promising to bring about an end to the increasing drift under the Tories to being a voluble but sidelined member of the EU.
But nothing really changed and most European Parliament election campaigns have been fought on domestic issues with European issues barely being mentioned. From the shouty racism of Nick Griffin to the personal obsessions of Farage we have always found other things to campaign against. And that has been the problem.
For Labour arguing the pro-European case has always taken a backseat behind easier and perhaps less challenging issues. Almost all, if not all Labour voters can be relied on to turn out and defeat the BNP and there was a time when the same thinking applied to Farage.
From the Labour Party perspective, in this referendum debate, we are now seeing come home to roost Labour’s failure over many years to put a positive case for EU membership. We don’t have a base to build on and we haven’t returned a majority of Labour MEPs since the 1990s. I can’t help feel that we have never really taken Europe seriously.
It seems that the issue is so difficult we can’t even put the Leader of our MEPs at the front of the campaign (Dame Glenis Willmott, since you ask). Glenis is a very able politician but in years to come her name, much like that of Gary Titley, will be remembered by the few not the many.
The sad truth is that Labour IN, led by Alan Johnson, has been drowned out by the fear factor and as decision day looms the shouting will only get louder. But this article in The Sun suggests that he is at least up for a fight.
Away from the internal difficulties of the Labour Party, at this crucial stage in the campaign the electorate is being served up a diet of fear and hate. Fear of the unknown by the remainers and hate of all things European by the outers.
The left wing of the Brexit campaign have created a giant, mythical beast known as TTIP. For them this is the EU vehicle that will destroy our public services. Nothing else matters – we must leave to defeat TTIP.
Those on the right rely on the imagined threat to our sovereignty and they argue hysterically that the EU ‘project’ poses as big a threat as Hitler.
And gradually the debate is being dragged deeper and deeper into the sewers where only the lunatic fringes of political society lurk. Those who believe lizard-like aliens live in politicians’ bodies are now rubbing shoulders with those who wake up daily and run to the co-op to check that neither the bananas nor cucumbers have lost their curve.
Is it because the Daily Mail has corrupted our thoughts? Is it that we simply don’t understand or care much about anything until it happens? Is it because when we talk about our relationship with Europe we have to talk about ourselves and we aren’t very good at that?
Whatever it is, whatever the reason, it is ruining any chance of a proper debate or informed decision.
But we have always had difficulty discussing Europe and I can’t help thinking back to the heady days of the Butter Mountains and Wine Lakes of Screaming Lord Sutch wondering how and why we have reached this point. Is it because we view our MEPs as second rate parliamentarians? I would wager that most people, away from the activist bubble, would struggle to name their MEP. Very few MEPs have ever had a national profile, unless their name is Nigel.
I believe that it is in our interests to remain in the EU for jobs, workers’ and consumer rights. I think in the current, fragile global economic situation we are safer as part of a larger trading bloc. Surely it makes sense to be part of a group that gives access to 500m people? Add to this that the CEBR says that 3m jobs are linked to our EU membership and the argument to remain starts to become compelling.
Then look at the right to work throughout member states, the recently negotiated mobile phone roaming charges deal, maternity and paternity leave protected by EU laws and it is obvious that there are things that we need a real debate about. Perhaps a simple list of pros and cons would help and the BBC tried producing one back in 2013.
On balance I think our national security is best protected by staying in so we can continue to share intelligence and remain at the table where such intelligence is discussed.
I can’t help but think that some of the more extreme elements of the Leave campaign are salivating at the prospect of the bonfire of workers’ rights under the false flag of cutting red tape (whoops I slipped into fear mode there – sorry!)
The glimmer of hope offered by the visit of Barack Obama and his view that the USA thought that we, its special friend, would be better served by staying in, quickly followed by the Clinton team echoing his words has only served to up the fear & hate factor.
Instead of stepping back and examining the arguments we end up talking about a bust of Winston Churchill and Boris Johnson attempting to link Obama’s ancestry (more of a trumpet than a dog whistle) to a hatred of Britain.
But maybe something is about to change. Perhaps with his outburst Johnson has exposed the dirty secret that lurks hidden at the heart of the Brexit campaign. When pushed and prodded the veil slips and in an instant the race element is exposed. Maybe that is why we never have a proper debate and now that Boris, for so long the court jester, has been exposed as a reactionary fool, it is just possible that the debate can start.
Maybe we can reach the highs of once again having the chance to examine the benefits or otherwise of membership, even if they include turning those Butter Mountains into ski slopes and whether we are getting a fair share of the EU cake!
By Tim Carter (@forwardnotback)