With polls showing around 75% supporting a referendum on the EU reform treaty, the Conservative party repeatedly using the referendum as a fresh stick with which to beat Gordon Brown, and newspapers like the Sun and the Telegraph campaigning for the people to be allowed to have their say, in recent weeks British eurosceptics have been getting really rather excited. It has long been assumed that the UK tends towards euroscepticism, and the growing support for a referendum seemed to confirm that anti-EU types are in the majority.
So with the battle not yet won and referendum calls still reverberating around the country to apparent popular accalim, it's entirely understandable that the organiser's of Saturday's Referendum Rally in Westminster were expecting attendance in the region of several thousand. After all, if pro-foxhunting rallies in Cardiff could draw 6-10,000 a few years back, when a majority of the population were against foxhunting, surely something where the majority are in favour taking place in more easily-accessible London would do even better?
Nope. The final turnout has been estimated at somewhere in the region of just 3-500. Yep - that's three to five hundred. I'm not missing a zero, and that hyphen is not meant to be a comma.
With a distinct lack of press coverage (as notes Conservative eurosceptic MEP Daniel Hannan), it is to the blogs that we must turn for reactions. Unsurprisingly, among the eurosceptic bloggers who attended the feeling is a combination of frustration and embarrassment (with more here, here and here) - in particular at the realisation that attendees of eurosceptic demonstrations seem to conform to all the stereotypes, from middle-aged women dressed as Britannia through to ranting maniacs unable to distinguish between current Conservative MPs and Edward "the traitor" Heath - and even the occasional member of the BNP doing Nazi salutes.
As UK Polling Report noted a few days ago, though three-quarters of the population may say they want a referendum, only 4% name the EU as one of the most important issues facing the country (while immigration gets 43%, crime 41%, health 33% and defence/terrorism 22%). It all tends to back up my recent assertions that no one is interested.
At this stage it would be all too easy for anyone pro-EU to point and laugh, as the demonstration designed to show the mass support for a referendum has done little more than show that turnout for such a plebiscite would likely be very low indeed, and that those who are strongly in favour of one have a tendency to be slightly unstable.
But the lack of interest and attendance is demonstrative of a rather deeper problem that affects those in favour of the EU just as much as those who oppose it. If people aren't intersted in the EU, and don't consider it an important issue, just what are the chances of it ever building up a healthy degree of democracy? If even those deeply convinced that the EU is fundamentally damaging and threatening this country fail to show up to rallies in favour of a referendum, what are the chances of getting people who don't really care that much to go to the polling booth?
It may also be worth noting at this point that while it's perfectly simple (and arguably valid) to play down the significance of the EU reform treaty as being not that important, really - as some opponents of a UK referendum (myself included) have done - it is far less easy to play down the significance of the EU to British politics. Yes, the relationship with America has dominated coverage of British international relations during the past six years. But it is the UK's relationship with the EU which is by far the more important, and events in Brussels far more significant for the average man on the street than those in Baghdad.
And yet still the EU receives very little press coverage, the people of Britain still care hardly at all. A protest against a war perceived as illegal (that will directly impact upon the lives of very few in the UK) drew a million people - a protest against a treaty perceived as transferring yet more power to the EU (that will directly impact upon the lives of everyone in the UK) draws barely a few hundred.
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