EU Referendum

EU referendum: some personal observations


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The exact choice of words could be left to the reader but, to me, there seems to me to be an element of wilful stupidity in those journalists (and the editors) who take seriously the prospect of a 2016 EU referendum.

Yet, after the initial kite-flying by Andrew Marr in January, The Sunday Times in early February tried out the idea, and the Express made an utter fool of itself on the issue a few days later. But now, untarnished by reality, that paper is still clinging to the idea, despite David Cameron telling the Financial Times that a 2016 referendum isn't on the cards. He expects it will take longer "because there are quite a lot of moving parts".

That same message is repeated in the Guardian, thus reaffirming a truth which anyone with any understanding of the issues knows has to be the case.

But if advocating a 2016 referendum is wilful stupidity, advocating something that cannot – and therefore isn't going to - happen, how does one describe the proposal in Nigel Farage's poundshop Mein Kampf? There, he goes one step further and demands a referendum in 2015, as the price of his cooperation with the Conservatives after the election.

If serious, any such demand is beyond stupidity. If he is not serious, maybe he is setting the hurdle for political cooperation so high that Cameron will not deal. But why play such games? If Farage does not want cooperation, he should come out and say so.

But it then gets even worse, with a suggestion for a referendum question that is utterly bizarre:  "Do you wish to be a free, independent sovereign democracy?" Apart from being  so ambiguous that it would not stand a chance of getting adopted, he is seriously muddled about the nature of sovereignty. He should read last three paragraphs here, and then note who wrote them.

For me, though, this creates a serious personal issue here. Consistently, I am told by my critics that I should be reaching out to groups such as Ukip, assisting them in the fight, rather than constantly attacking them. Yet, I see Farage - not for the first time - making wholly unrealistic demands for early referendum, having blocked the development of a coherent exit plan, thus rendering his party woefully unprepared to fight any referendum, much less an early one.

Here, I am reminded of the old joke about Saul who for many weeks beseeched his God to let him win the lottery. One Friday, after yet another session of wailing, the skies darkened, and a bolt of lightning struck the ground in front of Saul's feet. Then, from the Heavens, a voice boomed out, "Saul! Saul! Meet me half way. Buy a f*****g ticket!".

And that, our course, is the essential requirement for any meaningful cooperation. Ukip members do not make up the majority of those who oppose UK membership of the EU, and nor is it the only group campaigning for an exit.

If Mr Farage was at all interested in cooperation, therefore, he needs to be talking to us, the majority, identifying common ground and coordinating action. He cannot launch an initiative or idea that no one else could possibly follow, then expect us all to fall in behind him, like children following some latter-day pied piper. 

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The evidence thus strongly suggests that Mr Farage isn't in the least interested in cooperating with other groups – or even talking to them. And it is not possible to work with people or groups who show no interest in working with others, and are not prepared to meet other groups half-way.

With that in mind, one wonders what to make of this in the New Statesman, which reminds us that there is potentially another game in town:
The Out campaign has all-but-decided on its best line-up for the battle to come, and already exists in utero in the shape of Business for Britain, a sharp-elbowed and media-savvy think tank headed by Matthew Elliott that has quietly put together a team of able advocates for a European exit. To make matters worse for pro-Europeans, it is likely that when the campaign moves out of cover it will be bolstered by veterans from the Taxpayers' Alliance and the No to AV campaign - a sort of right-wing, anti-European version of the Avengers.
From a "left wing" publication, this might be taken as hyperbole, except that Mr Elliott has made no secret of his ambition to take over the "out" campaign. This is simply confirmation of that which has been aired for some considerable time and openly admitted in private meetings.

In strict terms, however, this is not for the "out" campaign to decide. If Mr Elliott believes that he is equipped to lead the campaign, then he is entitled, like the rest of us, to apply to the Electoral Commission for designation as a lead campaigner. But that is all. The Electoral Commission decides - not a self-serving, London-based claque. 

Furthermore, to take the lead, says the Electoral Commission, the groups ("in" and "out") must "adequately represent those campaigning for each outcome". Because of this, it advises potential applicants "to consider forming an umbrella organisation with other groups who are campaigning for the outcome you support".

So far, Elliott has shown no sign of creating such a group and nor has he discussed with other campaigning groups the possibility of forming such a group. Nor has he responded to invitations from other groups. Now, the suggestion that he will be putting in his own people from the Taxpayers' Alliance and the No to AV campaign is confirming fears that he intends to exclude other organisations and players.

Most of all, though, it is Elliott's presumption which has sounded alarm bells amongst numerous groups and activists, who – on the basis of past experience - have good reason to fear exclusion. In legal and constitutional terms, he has no business in presenting himself as a putative leader.

Once again, though, we get suggestions that we should "work" with Elliott and his allies except that, as with Ukip, even more serious problems arise. In the first instance, Business for Britain is not committed to leaving the EU. Currently, it argues on a "negotiation and reform" platform, proposing a raft of changes that could not be achieved without major treaty change as its price for remaining in the EU.

Under no circumstances, therefore, can Mr Cameron deliver on BfB's agenda, in which event we are led to believe that Mr Elliott and his friends will turn round and campaign for withdrawal.

The obvious pitfall here is that the negotiations will probably not be concluded until well into the referendum campaign, which thus requires that campaigners sit on their hands (or soft-pedal) until Mr Cameron comes back from Brussels with his "piece of paper", and there has been an opportunity to evaluate the deal.

Apart from anything else, we end up fighting on detail rather than on principles, which is a sure-fire way of losing the campaign. Even Elliott agrees that both sides "will want to put a positive message at the heart of their campaigns". Yet all he has to offer is a completely unrealistic "reform" package and a "wait and see" strategy. In tactical terms, this is suicide. We need to be presenting our "positive vision" right now. 

Needless to say, this presents me personally - and anyone else, with a vested interest in winning the referendum - with a clear, unavoidable choice. Both high profile groups claiming some form of "ownership" of the debate are offering losing strategies. And since they are not interested in changing them and have rejected any input from outsiders, we cannot support them. 

Even if wanted to, they would not let us on any terms except their own, and that is unacceptable. None of us have come all this way to buy into a losing strategy. Sadly, therefore, logic dictates that we cannot even take a neutral stance. If Ukip and BfB are determined to lose the referendum (by act or default), conscience requires that, in addition to mounting our own campaign, we must oppose theirs.

That is the logical position. It might be personally damaging, because it is always easier to go with a flow. But I really cannot in all conscience take instruction or direction from a self-serving politician or a man who hadn't been born in 1975, during the last referendum, and has never yet held down a proper job.