Print Friendly and PDF
only search

Let's vote now!

About the author
Professor Richard Rose is director of the centre for Public Policy at the university of Strathclyde, Scotland. Since 1911 he has led extensive public opinion surveys in the ex-Soviet bloc. His latest book is The Prime Minister in a Shrinking World (Polity Press).
The debate on Britain’s role in Europe has been running for more than a quarter of a century. Eleven general elections have been held since Harold Macmillan first sought British membership in the European Community, and it is still nagging like a sore tooth.

As long as Britain remains a ‘Don’t Know’ about joining the European Monetary Union (EMU), the country has no European policy. Whatever the temporary boost that Britain gained in Washington from the aftermath of 11 September, its standing in the world depends heavily on good relations with European neighbours. Tony Blair has recognised that fact.

However, as long as there is uncertainty about whether Britain is going to adopt the euro or stay out, there will be no peace in Downing Street. Protestations of agreement between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor about tracking together are belied by spin doctors who promote their man by claiming that he and he alone will make the critical decision.

Only a referendum will end the uncertainty about whether Britain is a part of Europe or whether, in the words of Michael Portillo, it is “half way between the Continent and the United States geographically”. The sooner a referendum produces a clear-cut result – for or against joining EMU – the sooner other European countries can take Britain’s role seriously.

Both Tony Blair and Iain Duncan Smith agree that the debate about the European Monetary Union is a major issue of political principle. The Referendum question should reflect this: Are you for or against Britain joining the European Monetary Union?

A question of principle

The question puts in its place the secondary issue: ‘when the times are right’. It is a political rather than an economic judgment to argue that the times will never be right – and political judgments can change when Chancellors change.

Sceptics who back Business for Sterling’s argument that there is no ‘clear and unambiguous’ case for joining EMU in this Parliament can campaign for a ‘No’ vote, along with those against entry on principle. Pragmatists who believe that sooner or later the times will be right can campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote, along with those believing Britain ought to be part of an ever stronger European Union here and now.

If a Referendum favours joining EMU on principle, the debate can move on to the practical consideration of whether the Chancellor’s five tests for membership have been met. If a week in politics is a long time, then fifty-two weeks in the economy can seem like eternity. This means that there is a real risk that while the government was making plans to enter EMU economic fluctuations could change the balance of the economic arguments for and against. Only an ideologue would want to join EMU when economies are so out of harmony that Downing Street would be broken by a currency crisis, as has happened in the past.

A commitment to entry in principle could not eliminate vulnerability to changing economic conditions while the practicalities of currency union were being implemented – but if there is national endorsement of the principle this is a risk the government can accept.

If a Referendum goes against joining EMU, then British diplomats and British businesses will know where they stand for the rest of this Parliament and the next Parliament too. British policy can be directed at strengthening international rather than European ties. The war against terrorism is one example of the government already doing so.

Referendum timing

Opinion polls currently indicate that if a Referendum were held this week, the vote would go against joining EMU. But Downing Street’s endorsement of a Referendum gives pro-EMU campaigners up to twelve months to change attitudes. There is a large group of uninformed people whose opinions could be swayed. As long as the Blair government is popular and Liberal are in support, this should sway many partisans. The split in the Conservative Party over Europe will weaken the ‘No’ campaign, but the ‘No’ vote is certain to pick up support from non-partisan and sceptical voters.

A Referendum soon would be a gamble, but Downing Street can set things up so as to live with whatever the outcome is. If the vote is ‘Yes’, the Prime Minister can tell other governments that Britain is committed to Europe, while the Chancellor will still decide the timing. If the ‘No’ vote wins, the Prime Minister can announce “the British people have spoken” and go on to his next international crusade while the Chancellor continues to look after ‘his’ economy.

As long as the government replies ‘Don’t Know’ to questions about a Referendum, it has no European policy. In the absence of convincing evidence in the near future that conditions are right for entry, the government will go into the next general election without a European policy. It would be ironic if a Prime Minister prepared to respond instantly when there are bombs to drop allows a decade to pass without a European policy.

Whatever the outcome, an early Referendum will open the door to a British foreign policy based on realism rather than dithering.

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.