In or out

After 6 months of preparation, the Prime Minister has finally made his long awaited Europe speech.  I will admit now that I caught a mere 20 minutes of the speech this morning, but enough to grasp the main point of what David Cameron was saying: he wants us to remain in the EU but will put forth a referendum anyway.  In 2017.

There is no love lost between me and DC.  I say that like we have some kind of personal relationship, which we don’t.  But despite my feelings of general hatred towards most things Conservative, I feel a bit sorry for him.  Regardless of how much money he earns or how posh his background is, imagine being faced with that many people sharpening their knives.  He’s got knives out in front of him from the Opposition, there’s knives to the side from his own coalition partners, and his own Eurosceptic backbenchers have got a few knives of their own.  Yet what he did this morning was a shrewd, albeit cynical, political manoeuvre.

The PM committed us to a referendum, but only in 2017, which basically means that we will have to reelect this man in 2015 to have any hope of participating in said referendum.  He believes in the public “having their say” – but not for another 4 years.  Because of course it’ll take 4 years to organise this referendum.  Of course.  Let’s disregard the fact we were able to get the referendum on the electoral system up and running in 12 months.  No no!  The EU referendum – a simple choice between in or out – will take 4 whole months.

The AV referendum is perhaps a bad comparison.  It was a shambles.  Not because of its organisation as a whole, but because of a lack of awareness and education among the electorate on what they were even voting for.  That was not their fault – the powers that be did not make it clear what we were voting for.  But four years?  Four years to educate, to inform, to give both sides?  Four years to send out some ballot slips?  In my view, a cynical ploy to buy the government 5 more years.

I understand it will take time for the Prime Minister to “renegotiate” our powers, but he can’t even tell us what powers he plans to reform.  In a club of 27 member states, many of whom share in one currency, and the rest who don’t – this is going to be a long, complex process.  But in giving us a choice between his vague notion of a proposed reformed relationship and withdrawing altogether, he has left another open goal for the likes of UKIP and the tabloids.  All too often the media has been left to set the terms of this debate.  It is easy to drum up some rage when you splash a few sensationalist headlines across your front pages about how the EU is demanding we rename Bombay Mix (they aren’t, it’s a myth) or that we get rid of “Made in Britain” labels (also a myth).

I hope today’s speech will set in motion a real, honest debate about the EU that is devoid of lies, propaganda and paranoia.  My personal feelings about the EU remain the same as always – I believe it to be a mixed bag of fatcats, fascists and good men and women who desperately want to help the people of Europe without the need for more centralisation.  Like the membership of the EU itself, the PM is trying a balancing act between national interest, party interest, and the benefits the UK receives from being a major player in the Union.  For large parts, he has failed, but despite my feelings towards him and his party, I do not wish my country to be thrown into the economic gutter, either through complete withdrawal or more federalism and centralisation.  Therefore, I hope he is able to get some bottle, wrestle this debate away from the naysayers and doom mongering media, and use this opportunity to set us on a path to a reformed, and better, relationship with the EU.

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Whipped in more ways than one

Yesterday’s controversial debate on whether we should hold a referendum on EU membership brought to light a whole range of problems within our political system.  Whilst many would like to discuss the Conservative party splits, or the credibility of the coalition government’s “e-petitions” which prompted this debate, I think it necessary to look at the whip system.

Both the Prime Minister and Ed Miliband issued ‘three-line whips’ to their respective parties ahead of this vote.  In basic terms, this required each MP to attend, vote, and toe the party line.  Or in Dave and Ed’s terms, vote no, and if you don’t, there’ll be serious repercussions.  Stewart Jackson, Conservative MP for Peterborough, rebelled against the three-line whip and has now lost his job as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Owen Paterson MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.  Adam Holloway, Conservative MP for Gravesham, resigned his position as PPS to David Lidington MP, Minister of State for Europe and NATO, in light of his rebellion against the three-line whip.  It remains to be seen how the other 79 Conservative rebels will be punished.

Arguments for adhering to three-line whips usually focus on loyalty to the party.  I watched an hour or so of the Europe debate yesterday, and I think it was Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall, and a famous party rebel, who said that she understands the rationale behind whips.  After all, it is your party who select you as a parliamentary candidate, support your campaign and give you the resources and tools to win an election.  But should this rationale elevate loyalty to party above the loyalty to your constituents?  Kate Hoey disagreed, and I disagree too.

The foundation of representative democracy is, well, representation.  Whilst Members of Parliament will ultimately make their own voting decisions based on a number of factors, one of the most important of these factors must be constituent opinion.  Your party may have made your candidacy possible, but it is your constituents who queued at the ballot boxes and put a cross next to your name.  This is not to say that all Members who voted with their party are careerists or disloyal to their constituents; I believe many of them simply did not support the motion.  But it is downright wrong for party leaders to coerce their Members into voting a certain way simply to make a political point, especially on an issue as salient as European Union membership.

Regardless of my own opinions on the EU – for what it’s worth, I am largely pro-EU – when opinion polls are stating that 70 per cent of voters want a referendum on Britain’s EU membership (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/24/eu-referendum-poll-uk-withdrawal?newsfeed=true), it is against the very core of democracy to quash dissent and enable a three-line whip.  How can we ignore these polls?  How can Dave and Ed look at these polls and do the very thing that would make sure this motion would not pass?

But perhaps this is yet another problem of representative democracy.  We have handed over our consent for this system, and created a monster.  We have sat back for too long and remained largely ignorant to some of the more nuanced political engineering that goes on within the halls of Westminster.  If any good can come of this protracted debate, I hope it is this: that we can take another long look at our political system and say ‘no, this is not right’.  We will hand over our votes and our consent to be governed, but there are some issues – such as membership of the EU and its wider impact on British sovereignty – that are simply too big, too important, for us to let our representatives kowtow to the party leadership.

Never was a truer word spoken than when Churchill said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”