The former Prime Minister is wrong to oppose a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, writes Ben Rochelle.
Tony Blair returned to his old constituency of Sedgefield earlier this month to warn that David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership would threaten the UK’s position as a “great global nation” and throw the UK into economic “chaos.”
Mr Blair said: “Jobs that are secure suddenly insecure; investment decisions postponed or cancelled; a pall of unpredictability hanging over the British economy. And for what? To satisfy the insistent Euro-phobia of a group who will never be satisfied.”
Blair’s idea that he knows what’s best for Britain and the British public should be deprived of a voice is deeply disdainful of ordinary voters. But such views are ingrained in the modern-day Labour party.
Last year during a debate on whether there should be an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU a host of Labour peers accused Cameron of putting our nation’s fate in the hands of a “lottery” in which much of the electorate, won over by “the daily war drums of the unyielding Europhobes”, would surely vote to leave the EU.
Lord Kinnock, former leader of the UK Labour Party and now a European Commissioner, remarked that an in/out referendum was a “lame” idea that could make Britain the hostage of “unyielding Europhobes”.
Lord Mandelson, also a former EU commissioner, noted: “We should be wary of putting our membership in the hands of a lottery in which we have no idea what factors, completely unrelated to Europe, will affect the outcome.”
But a referendum is not a lottery. It is about democracy. It is about giving the public, rather than the experts and elites, the choice to decide their own future.
The “Euro-phobia of a group” that Blair refers to may make up the majority of the British population who understandably see the EU of today as a very different institution to the quasi-trading arrangement Britain entered into 40 years ago. (In a referendum staged, incidentally, by a Labour government.)
The institutions of Europe have changed beyond imagination since the last referendum in 1975 and no one in this country under the age of 60 has had any say. Harold Macmillan negotiated our membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), and that is what people voted on at the time. The EEC was, in the words of the Earl of Stockton a “purely economic and trading negotiation and not a political and foreign policy negotiation”. But it has now morphed into the European Union, an entirely different animal.
Opinion polls make plain that Britain wants a referendum. Whether Eurosceptic or Euro-enthusiast the bulk of the British people feel that is an issue that must be decided by the whole nation.
Contrary to what Labour often asserts, two-thirds of British business owners favour a referendum according to a survey by Britain for Business. The survey of more than 1,000 business leaders found that 66% are explicitly in favour of a referendum. This is compared to just 26% who are actively against.
Most of the parties back a referendum, including anti-EU UKIP and pro-EU the Greens. Even the Lib Dems have now accepted the case.
A referendum on the EU is about giving the British people a choice on something that is fundamental to our constitutional arrangements and fundamental to our future. It will show that the political elites trust the people to consider the evidence and make a reasoned decision for the good of individuals and the country at large. It is sad that a party that was founded to enfranchise and empower working people cannot see that.