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Can the EU Referendum Campaign catch a spark?

A bold new campaign has been launched to secure a referendum on our membership of the European Union. Can it succeed?
Guy Aitchison
9 September 2010

As Gerry Hassan notes below, in the context of Britain’s decomposing constitutional myths and structures, a bold new campaign has been launched to secure a referendum on our membership of the European Union.

The campaign is the brainchild of firebrand MEP Daniel Hannan, who resigned from his frontbench role in the European Parliament after David Cameron went back on his “cast-iron” guarantee of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and has since dedicated himself to building populist right-wing campaigns modelled on the US Tea Party movement.

So far these attempts have been notably unsuccessful, but could Europe be the catalyst to mobilise people?

The EU Referendum Campaign hopes to build a groundswell of cross-party support by encouraging people to sign up to a Pledge in support of a “referendum on who governs Britain: the EU or our elected parliament.”

This will be used to put pressure on sitting MPs :

As the number of people taking The Pledge increases we will inform the government, sitting MPs, as well as the prospective candidates of rival parties in their constituencies, of the running total of voters in each seat demanding our Referendum. We will be naming and shaming MPs and candidates who refuse to commit as well as publicising and praising the names of those who have themselves signed The Pledge.

The campaign has a slick website, a Westminster office and a core team led by James Pryor, a veteran Euro-sceptic  who was responsible for UKIP’s 2010 election campaign.

The campaign website has no information on sources of funding, but Campaign Director Marc Glendening told me that the group is being bank-rolled by Toby Blackwell’s, the President of Blackwell’s bookshops who has previous involvement in Euro-Sceptic groups such as Open Europe. (Interestingly, although one might expect to find a conventional free market capitalist behind such trenchant Euro-scepticism, Blackwell has been in the news this week over his plans to emulate John Lewis and hand control of his company to staff.)

The EU Referendum Campaign will certainly need all the funding it can get if it to achieve its ambitious goals of harnessing the electoral power of voters across the country:

We will go into marginal constituencies and challenge the local politicians and prospective candidates at public meetings to account for their respective positions on this key issue. Leaflets will be distributed door to door keeping constituents informed about where the local politicians stand.

Much of the initial momentum for the campaign comes from the view that this is the “real” referendum people want to have rather than the “meaningless” one we are being offered on electoral reform.

Unsurprisingly, most of the those involved are people who have been in and out of the Tories and UKIP,  but the campaign aspires to be cross-party, appealing to Euro-sceptics on the left, and even supporters of the EU who take the position (which was effectively Lib Dem policy in 2008 at the time of the Lisbon Treaty) that there should be a public debate and vote on our membership of the EU in order to resolve the issue once and for all.

Currently, John Mills of the little-known Labour Euro Safeguard Committee is on the Council, but if the campaign wants to convince people it’s not just a front for UKIP and the Tory right, then it will have to succeed in its efforts to attract euro-sceptic Labour MPs such as Austin Mitchell and Kelvin Hopkins.  

If the campaign can position itself as authentically grassroots and non-partisan, and not just a campaign by fringe Europhobic hacks, then I think it has the potential to catch a spark and ignite popular anger at politicians and our hollowed out shell of a Parliament.

Even those on the left, such as myself, who are broadly supportive of the EU and its goals, can recognise the injustice in the fact the electorate is repeatedly denied the opportunity to have a say on the question of where power should lie. This fundamental lack of democracy has fed into distrust and paranoia at our dealings with the EU. As Hannan notes, “No one under the age of 54 has been asked about Britain's relationship with the EU.” 

Yet at the same time this also has the potential to be a very worrying development. If ever a right-wing movement emerged in Britain that approximated Hannan’s beloved Tea Party, in its fear, bigotry, and sheer contempt for truth and reason, then it would almost certainly have a strong anti-European component.

Although the UK has nothing comparable to the US’s tradition of anti-government individualism or religious fanaticism, a movement that rails against “elites” and provides populist xenophobic answers to people’s problems at a time of economic distress could win widespread support.

Not that the EU Referendum Campaign has got to that point yet, mind you. But it has the potential to feed in to broader anti-politics currents which are likely to be stirred by the AV referendum campaign. 

Not least, perhaps, as it looks unlikely that Clegg’s modest reform will capture the deep-swell of popular contempt for politicians - and satisfy demands for a more accountable and representative democracy. A campaign for a referendum on the EU, on the other hand, just might. 

For democrats the lesson may be this: that those who fail to make the best of an opportunity like the disenchantment with old-style Westminster politics may find that opportunity becomes a threat.

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