By MARCUS STEAD
Make no mistake. This referendum was never in David Cameron’s plan. It’s only taking place at all because he’s run out of ways of escaping from it.
Here’s what actually happened: David Cameron didn’t think the Conservatives could win an outright majority at last year’s general election. He thought his best hope was a repeat of 2010, namely a coalition deal with another party, probably the Liberal Democrats.
Therefore, he put policies into the Conservative Party manifesto that could be negotiated away in coalition talks. The two main policies to be surrendered were the EU referendum and deep cuts to public spending to reduce the deficit.
Mr Cameron’s plan was to sacrifice these two policies in coalition negotiations, then, when asked why he couldn’t give us a referendum on EU membership, he would blame those terrible Lib Dems he was forced to share power with.
But it didn’t work out as he hoped. At last year’s general election, the Lib Dem vote was squeezed. Voters in Lib Dem seats who approved of what the coalition did rewarded the Conservatives. Those who disapproved punished the Lib Dems. As a result, they lost all but eight of the 57 seats they held, including most of their most senior and high-profile figures, including Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, Simon Hughes and the late Charles Kennedy.
The phenomenal rise of the SNP, who won the vast majority of seats in Scotland, took away seats Labour and the Lib Dems could once have taken for granted, even on a bad election.
The Conservatives themselves won just 24 seats more than in 2010, partly as a result of the Lib Dems being squeezed, and partly due to intense campaigning in key constituencies, giving them an outright House of Commons majority of 12. This majority is tiny, but it was enough for Mr Cameron not to require a coalition partner.
This can in no way be described as a substantial victory for the Conservatives. Just 11.3 million people voted for them, compared to the 14.1 million who voted for the party under John Major in 1992.
Some of those nearly three million missing Tory voters will have died or emigrated, but the majority will still be around. Where have they gone? Why did Mr Cameron fail to earn their votes? And what about the millions of younger people who have come onto the electoral register in the years since?
This result was hardly a ringing endorsement for Mr Cameron by the British people, but nevertheless, it was enough to return him to Downing St with an outright majority.
And so his problems began. He had run out of excuses not to give the British people a referendum on EU membership. He couldn’t blame those awful Lib Dems for holding him back.
How can we be so sure that David Cameron didn’t want to give us a referendum? In his 11 years as party leader, he made the right noises to appease the rank-and-file eurosceptics in his party when he needed to, but at other times his words, and especially his actions, have been those of an arch europhile.
In April 2006, showing his usual arrogance, he described UKIP supporters as ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’. This is hardly the language of a Prime Minister in waiting, and is certainly not the way to speak of a party that consists largely of former and potentially future Conservative members and voters.
Then there was Mr Cameron’s betrayal over the proposed EU Constitution in the year before he became Prime Minister. When the constitution failed, a few cosmetic changes were made and it was repackaged as the Lisbon Treaty, but it amounted to more-or-less the same thing, and Mr Cameron wriggled out of his commitment to a referendum on the issue.
Actually, the Lisbon Treaty may have inadvertently done those of us who wish to leave the EU a favour, as, for the first time, the process by which a member state can leave the union is explained.
Then, just two years ago, Mr Cameron tried to block the appointment of the arch-federalist Jean-Claude Junker as president of the European Commission. Shortly after this failed, Mr Cameron greeted Mr Junker with a ‘high-five’, and the pair appear to have enjoyed warm relations ever since.
But the most striking aspect of Mr Cameron’s europhile instincts came when he was forced to act on his manifesto pledges, first for a ‘renegotiation’ on the terms of the United Kingdom’s membership, which was to be followed by a referendum.
We can allow ourselves a little chuckle that Mr Cameron was forced into this situation because of a general election he never intended to win outright. He does, after all, have far more in common ideologically with his former Liberal Democrat coalition partners than he does with most grass roots Conservatives, but was forced to act on the manifesto pledge he hoped to negotiate away.
The ‘renegotiations’ didn’t amount to much. Mr Cameron’s demands were, to put it politely, mild, and what he actually got was of little consequence.
Yes, he got a pledge that excludes the United Kingdom from the principle of ‘ever closer union’ and this will apparently be enshrined in future EU treaties. There are two problems with this: 1. It could all fall apart as soon as it faces a ratification process, as soon as later this year and 2. One of the purposes of the Lisbon Treaty was that there should be no more treaties. In other words, in future, EU laws, rules and reforms will take place in a piecemeal way rather than as part of a major treaty. Whether this actually happens or not remains to be seen, but it’s entirely possible there will never be a future treaty in any case.
Mr Cameron failed to get the concessions he wanted on EU citizens claiming in-work benefits. All he got was a complicated, vague concept of an ‘emergency brake’ where a member state could apply to the Commission for permission to suspend benefit payments if they were placing too much of a burden on the social services of a member state.
On the Eurozone, Mr Cameron wanted new rules to protect countries outside the zone against regulation made by those inside the group that could disadvantage them. The main purpose of this was to protect the City from an attempt by the Eurozone to challenge its dominance as Europe’s main financial centre.
What Mr Cameron got was a concession that only one country outside the zone would be needed to ‘force a debate among EU leaders’ about problem Eurozone laws. These protections will be written into EU treaties (see above) so Britain could challenge a decision in the European Court if it felt it necessary.
These are weak demands, and weak concessions. Mr Cameron’s ‘renegotiations’ offer absolutely nothing on the things that actually matter: The sovereignty of our nation and the Westminster Parliament, the supremacy of British courts over European ones, border controls, the ability to set our own foreign policy, and our ability to set trade deals with countries outside the EU on our own terms.
These are the things that define the existence of a sovereign nation. The purpose of the EU, since its inception at the Treaty of Rome (the European Coal and Steel Community as it then was), was the principle of ‘ever closer union’ and to create a superstate with one flag, one anthem, one parliament, one court of justice and one currency.
This continues to be the aim of the EU project. Trade and financial co-operation, the thing that gets most talked about in Britain, is just one aspect of it as far as the rest of the EU is concerned. Other EU member states talk much more openly about their aims of on-going political integration and erosion of sovereignty.
We are faced with a clear choice in this referendum: To restore our national independence as a sovereign nation, with a democratically-elected Parliament, and independent judiciary and proper border controls, or, to cease to exist as a nation forever, and become a province of an undemocratic European superstate, with all that it entails.