Lord Howe, Chancellor and Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, said today in an article in the Daily Telegraph Mr Cameron had ‘opened a Pandora's box politically and seems to be losing control of his party in the process’, over his plan to renegotiate the UK's relationship with the European Union. Whether a leading Conservative actually referred to grassroots Conservative activists as ‘swivel-eyed loons’, it reminiscent of John Major’s apocryphal statement about ‘bastards’ in his cabinet. David Cameron, who in 2011 said there was no case for a referendum, has shifted his position this year first with the promise of a referendum in 2017 after a renegotiation of Britain’s position and then, this week, issuing a draft referendum bill as well as having 116 members of his party voting against the Queen’s Speech in the ‘regret’ debate. The problem the Prime Minister faces is that if you make concessions to the disparate group of euro-sceptics, they will just come back, like Oliver, and ask for more.
There is, and arguably has been since the 1990s , a three-way split in Conservative ranks over Europe. There are those who want to remain within the EU but who now support the Prime Minister’s stance on renegotiation. There are euro-sceptics who want to leave Europe but are also supportive of the Prime Minister’s position hoping that a referendum in 2017 will go in their favour. Finally, there are those Conservatives who want to leave Europe and want to leave it now after winning an immediate referendum that recent polls suggest they might do. This division is also evident among the Tory old guard such as Lords Howe, Lawson and Tebbit who were already active in politics in the 1970s when the last referendum took place. This raises what I think is an important issue, that of the referendum being a generational issue. The youngest of us who campaigned in the referendum campaign in 1975 (ironically given the present situation it was supported by the majority of the Conservative Party with the Labour Party riven by division on the issue) and who voted are in our mid-50s. The result was unequivocal with two-thirds of those who voted in favour, some 17.38 million people (67.2 per cent) with only 8.47 million voting against (32.8 per cent) . Support for EEC membership was positively correlated with support for the Conservative Party and with average income. In contrast, poorer areas that supported Labour gave less support to the question. Campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote, I remember the enthusiasm of the many young activists from all three major political parties extolling the virtues of a ‘Common Market’ while opponents such as Tony Benn were claiming that ‘half a million jobs would be lost in Britain as a direct result of our entry into the Common Market’. I am reminded of Nick Clegg’s outrageous statement that three million jobs depend on the EU though he provided no justification for his claims…political assertion to engender fear much as Benn did in 1975. What was not recognised in 1975 was that the Common Market represented one element of a much broader European project for great political union as well as creating a massive free trading market. And therein lies the problem. In 1975 people did not vote for political union, a federal state of Europe. It never came up on the doorstep.
If there is a referendum in 2017, it could be those who voted in 1975 who determine its outcome. Not only are those over sixty more likely to vote but there is evidence to suggest that they could vote against continued membership. In part this reflects the conservatism that comes to many with age but it also reflects what many see as a distortion of the mandate that they gave in 1975. Talking to my contemporaries who campaigned for entry in 1975, I’m struck by how many of them would now vote for exit unless David Cameron can return the UK to the Common market position of the 1970s, reduce immigration from the EU as many believe that uncontrolled immigration is not longer acceptable (for them not a racist argument but a pragmatic way of maintaining Britain’s long reputation as a safe haven for those fleeing persecution in their own countries) and give Britain back control over key areas of people’s lives though they disagree about which areas. Most don’t want to leave the EU as such but want Britain’s relationship with it restored to one of economic not political union. It is therefore essential that the debate about Europe enthuses those below 50 and especially those between 20 and 40 as they will be the people who have to live with the consequences of a referendum whatever the result and this will prove difficult. If you’re say 25, you are concerned with your job (if you have one), your wages, your ability to purchase a flat or house and, if you’re a graduate with paying off your student debt, you are not concerned with a possible referendum in four years. Yet without their support, it is highly probable that a referendum will be lost as the UK will leave the EU.
There has long been pressure for a referendum that has been denied by politicians but this is an increasingly unsustainable political option for them. Politicians can’t say that they are taking what the public says into account and then ignore their calls for a vote. There is a generational opportunity to re-commit Britain to at least the economic principles of the EU but this will only occur if younger voters are engaged with the issue. At present many, I would suggest most, are not and unless they are we are on the road leading to exit.