This was originally written in October 2009, when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister.
Dateline: London, United Kingdom, May 2013.
Six months ago, the embattled British Conservative prime minister David Cameron announced plans for a plebiscite on membership of the European Union. This followed foriegn secretary William Hague’s informing of the House of Commons that it was impossible to negotiate a new treaty to transform the EU from a political union into a single market. Hague had spent the previous year in negotiations with other EU member states, and whilst the other member states had been willing to make minor concessions in line with Mr Cameron’s famous “Never Again” speech of November 2009, including the restoration of the British opt-out of the European Social Chapter negotiated by the Major government, Hague conceded that there was little will in the rest of Europe to engage in the radical dismantling of the union that hardline Tory MPs were demanding. Following the marathon process that was the ratification of the Lisbon treaty, there was no appetite for yet another treaty, and as one leader had pointed out to the British minister, “There is no guarantee that European voters would vote to strip themselves of the rights that the previous treaties had conferred upon them.” In fact, Hague had to inform his parliamentary party of new Socialist French President Francois Hollande’s opinion that if there was to be any new treaty, it would be to advance political union, not move it backwards.
This in turn caused a crisis within the Conservative Party, jeopardising the government’s majority. Unlike the previous time in government, the Conservative parliamentary party had few pro-Europeans left in it, and was instead dominated by members who either barely tolerated the EU or were openly hostile towards it. On top of that, the Tory grassroots, who were able to influence their party through the web to a degree unseen in other parties, vented their anger over Hague’s failure, despite the fact that he had pretty much delivered what he and Cameron had promised before the 2010 general election. Cameron and Hague were slated as “sellouts” for not bringing back a pure free trade area, and it wasn’t difficult to find over 80 Conservative MPs, terrified by their rabidly eurosceptic constituency associations, to sign a letter demanding that, in light of the failure to renegotiate better terms, the matter could not be let rest there, and the British people must be given an opportunity to decide the issue. Facing a potential vote of confidence over the EU from the newly reinvigorated Labour Party led by former foreign secretary David Milliband, the prime minister felt he had no choice other than to pledge a referendum on continued membership of the EU.
The irony was that both Cameron and Hague had been elected leaders of their party partially on their appeal as solid eurosceptics. Yet they now had a choice: Opinion polls said that 65% of British voters disapproved of British membership of the EU. But both also knew that although Britain could survive outside the EU, it would be an action which would reduce the right of Britain to participate in the global decision-making process. The world was shaped by the EU, US, Russia, India, Japan and China, a point made very clear to them by the newly elected President Romney. In addition, the chief executives of major British exporters, in meetings with the prime minister, chancellor of the exchequer, industry secretary and foriegnsecretary, were absolutely adamant. Their exports will be bound by EU regulations regardless of British membership, and it was therefore vital that their own government be inside the union to help shape those regulations. Cameron and Hague, to much anger within their own party, announced that they would be advocating a “Yes to Remain” vote in the referendum. The prime minister nevertheless accepted that no Tory MP would be bound to campaign for either a Yes or No vote, but could vote with their own conscience. In truth, he knew that to do otherwise would be to break up the Tory party.
Three months before polling day, It was taken as a statement of conventional fact that the British people would vote to leave the EU. But once the campaign started, and the television media moved to ensure balance in the debate, it became very apparent that there was a problem, as the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Green Party and Plaid Cymru all advocated a Yes vote. This forced the broadcasters to give pole position to UKIP’s Nigel Farage and the BNP’s Nick Griffin as defacto leaders of the No side. Eurosceptic Tory and Labour MPsprotested, but as their parties were officially represented on the Yes side, they found themselves being allocated into third place slots behind UKIP and the BNP. Within a month, the No vote had dropped to 57%.
One of the curious features of the campaign was that the referendum was the first occasion where the British public actually started to receive mainstream information about the EU and how it worked. It certainly didn’t make the voters love the EU, but it did make them fear it less, and that began to be reflected in the polls.
Within the media, a subtle campaign was also beginning to have an effect. Major British companies, including major supermarket chains, sat down with the main newspapers, and put it to them bluntly. It was all well and good playing the eurosceptic game and bashing Johnny Foriegner to sell newspapers, but this was too important. They needed a British voice in Brussels and were willing to put their advertising budgets where their mouths were. Rupert Murdoch, pragmatic to the last, looked across the table at men as wealthy as he was, men who unlike politicians, weren’t afraid to play hardball, and had hundreds of millions in advertising revenue on the table. Stunned eurosceptics nearly choked on their cornflakes to discover The Sun, and a number of other papers, admit that whilst the EU was flawed, Britain had to fight her corner at the table, and therefore should vote Yes.
With three weeks to go, the Yes campaign unveiled all of Britain’s former prime ministers bar one advocating a Yes vote at a press conference. It was a powerful image. Although a statement was issued in the name of Mrs Thatcher advocating a No vote, the manner in which it was issued, and the refusal of the No campaign to permit journalists interview her became a story in its own right. Some pro-European Tories questioned as to whether the elderly former leader was been taken advantage of by the No side. The fact that she did not appear in public during the campaign almost certainly negated her endorsement of the No side.
In the final week of the campaign, the No vote was leading by a mere 4%, as the No sidestruggled to focus its message. Whereas the Yes sidehad a solid group of eminent ministers and former ministers all advocating the same message, the No side struggled to maintain consistancy. One particular memorable edition of Question Time, where Arthur Scargill and Norman Tebbit both advocated a No vote for differing reasons, and then engaged in a furious on-air argument as all the Yes representatives remained on message, tended to highlight the challenges.
A similar event featuring Tony Benn and Nick Griffin did not add clarity. Whilst pro-No Tory cabinet ministers were permitted to campaign for a No vote, many of them were unwilling to debate in public against the top three cabinet officers, and so the No campaign tended to be dominated by extremists. A UKIP MEP, responding to a call by the Irish government to Irish voters in the UK to vote Yes, was quoted as saying that “What can we expect from the land of peasants, priests and pixies?” The remark did little to boost the No vote amongst Britain’s largest minority group.
Polling day surprised the pundits with a turnout of only 53%, confirming a suspicion amongst some that most British people were neither pro nor anti EU, but just did not really give a toss. Scotland voted 59% Yes, Northern Ireland split along broadly sectarian lines, with the formerly eurosceptic Sinn Fein uneasily advocating a Yes vote. In England, the south west voted No by 65%, a response to bitterness over the common fisheries policy, but right throughout the night, the Yes and No sides hopscotched over each other until the votes from middle class parts of London started to come in large numbers, dragging the Yes votes over the top to a modest 51.6% Yes 48.4% No conclusion.
The reaction in Yes campaign headquarters was ecstatic, with Lib Dem and Labour campaigners cheering. The Tories, who had refused to participate in the unified Yes campaign for fear of being photographed near EU flags, looked mildly embarressed at the result.
Over at the No campaign, a punch-up broke out between BNP and Respect members, with UKIP representatives darkly suggesting that the vote had been somehow rigged. A young eurosceptic Tory attempted to set fire to an EU flag, but accidentally ignited a union jack he was holding instead, and was beaten by a group of BNP activists. Some Tories suggested that, given the tightness of the result, that it would not be unreasonable to exercise “the Irish option” and began to call for a second referendum, and that they would begin advocating such a move in the parliamentary party.
At his desk in Downing Street, David Cameron sighed, sat down, and started highlighting passages from John Major’s autobiography.