One of the consequences of the outright Conservative majority at this month’s General Election is that it makes an in/out referendum on the European Union almost inevitable, most likely in May 2017.
Proposing a referendum was a political tactic. It is not, in fact, something many Conservatives particularly wanted. Many are keenly aware of the damage it would cause the businesses, particularly in London, which create the wealth in the UK on which the Government’s tax revenue (and, thus, public services and welfare payments) depend; others also recognise fully that an exit from the European Union would almost certainly be followed by a second Scottish independence referendum; a few no doubt will have noted that absolutely no one else in the world, least of all the United States, wants the UK to marginalise itself in such a way.
Nevertheless, the huge UKIP vote (even if it delivered just a single seat) cannot reasonably be ignored. It is not, primarily, to do with the European Union; it is more a reflection of disenchantment with politics. In England and Wales, the evidence is that UKIP picked up the Liberal Democrats’ mantle as the party of the protest vote, while Conservative and Labour vote shares remained largely stable (in fact, they marginally increased). There is a genuine fear of rapid social change, re-emphasised by a terrible economic crash at the end of the last decade, which needs to be addressed in some way.
The likelihood is that the UK will vote to remain in the EU when it comes to it. The risk, however, is that the campaign for remaining in will be run by Europhiles with Europhiles for Europhiles. In fact, most of the population are neither Europhile nor Europhobe – they may in fact be put off by alarmist campaigns, in the same way that many moderate voters were put off by the Labour Party’s tribalism.
It is simply not the case that the Conservatives will “dismantle the welfare system” or “destroy the NHS” – Labour has campaigned on this many times since the War, but it has never happened. Nor is it the case that, in the words of the Swedish Prime Minister, leaving the EU would be a “catastrophe”.
It would, however, damage the UK economy in the long run because, outside the world’s largest free trading bloc, it would discourage investment; it would harm UK public services by limited educational and information exchanges with an inward-looking country; and it would reduce the UK’s global influence, not least by restricting sharing of intelligence to tackle international crime and global security threats. These types of argument, calmly made and properly targeted, will secure our future within the EU and improve prospects for our jobs, our services and our general security.