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We can still win this euro referendum- but Mr Blair must get his act together

Article by Roy Jenkins

September 15, 2006

We can still win the euro referendum – but Mr Blair must get his act together
By Roy Jenkins
06 June 2000
This season is marked by three anniversaries of great importance in the mostly unhappy history of Britain’s relations with western Europe. The first of course is Dunkirk, of which nobody can have remained unreminded. But it is less central to the argument than the other two because, according to taste, it can be mobilised by either side. The antis can say that in some perverse way we were happier when we were driven out of Europe and on our own. The pros can say that once we had allowed ourselves to be extruded, it took us four very difficult years to get back.
The second, and 50th, anniversary is that of the launch of the Schuman Plan for the European Coal and Steel Community, which was the beginning of post-war European integration. Britain in its unwisdom stood aside, and I regret to say that I, as a very young and new member of Parliament, followed my party whips and voted against. I can since point to 45 years of consistent Europeanism, but it was a bad beginning, both for Britain and for me. It was bad for Britain because by that act of standing back we renounced the leadership of Europe, which in the early post-war years had been ours for the asking. We threw it to France and Germany, who not only overcame a hundred and more years of destructive enmity to come together and jointly seize it , but prospered far more than we did in the ensuring 25 years.
Since that 1950 mistake we have made a national habit of always joining every European enterprise late. It is not that we successfully and defiantly plough a lonely furrow on our own. (We have now been in the Coal and Steel community for the past 27 years). It is rather that we always join late and reluctantly, and consequently with less influence and on worse terms. That has been the dismal pattern with the Economic Community, with the European Monetary System and now with the Euro. We never seem to learn that there are considerable advantages to being in on the ground floor, as opposed to having to struggle up many flights of difficult stairs.
One consequence has been that nearly every British prime minister of this period has had his or her reputation besmirched by hesitation or equivocation on Europe. It began with Anthony Eden, whose refusal to go to the Massina Conference of 1955 which led to the Treaty of Rome did more harm than even his ill-fated Suez adventure and it has continued through to Mrs Thatcher, whose long reign ended in chagrin on the issue, and to Mr Major, whose whole premiership was rendered almost a nullity by it.
Harold Wilson, whose reversal of position in 1971/2 destroyed his own self-confidence and zeal in politics even more than it damaged his reputation, and James Callaghan, who kept us out of the European Monetary system, did not do much better. The exception was Edward Heath. There were many faults to his leadership and his premiership, but like the hedgehog he had one big idea and he stuck to it.Any true friend of Mr Blair would want him to avoid joining this dismal procession which extends. He has the most genuine and instinctive European feeling of any Prime Minister since Heath, and much greater political skills. The question is whether he can combine the two to make the political weather in Europe, and not just be tossed about by it like a forlorn rower in a small boat. That, and not first winning another election, will be his test of statesmanship over the next two years.
The third anniversary is that of what is still the only national referendum that has ever been held in Britain. Twenty-five years today the votes were being counted – and there were a lot of them to count for the turnout was the rough equivalent of that in a general election – which came out by two-to-one in favour of Britain’s commitment to the European Community. This was despite the fact that six months before that referendum theopinion polls were approximately as unfavourable to the “Yes” case as they are today to our joining the Euro.
The lessons I draw from this experience, in which I was President of the Britain in Europe “yes” campaign, and from the other pieces of history I have cited, are the following: First, it is the most idle dream to think that Britain can be a leading player in Europe so long as it does not participate in Europe’s main thrust at the moment, which is the euro. Eleven of the 15 member states are already in. One (Greece) is about to join. Two (Sweden and, a little more doubtfully, Denmark) are moving hard and ahead of us in this direction. To imagine that in a community where 14 countries could be in and one is out, the 14 will look to the one for leadership is manifest nonsense
Second, a Euro referendum must not be long delayed after the coming general election. If it is, Germany, France and the other core members will conclude that we will always hover on the brink, and will settle their minds firmly on going ahead without us, which indeed they are already showing signs of doing.
Third, a successful pro Euro referendum campaign must be fought on a cross-party basis , as was that of 1975. But, more than this, it must be more than an opportunistic alliance of suspicion and manoeuvre. It must be done with mutual confidence and even a little love. That again was achieved in 1975. I have never enjoyed a campaign more. I, and many others, felt liberated us from a lot of the claptrap of political party politics. My mind retains a particularly vivid memory of one of the more satisfactory meetings in which I have ever participated. It was in Norwich on the penultimate evening of the campaign. I shared the platform with Willie Whitelaw and David Steel. The British public showed every sign of liking the spectacle of politicians co-operating for a cause in which they believed rather than hurling routine insults at each other across the floor of the Commons.
Fourth, a successful campaign requires a sustained build-up The Government cannot convince the British public in a fortnight, after previously taking the view that the Euro is a subject which must not be discussed, rather like the Victorian attitude to piano legs or Harold Wilson’s Sixties aversion to devaluation, which became known in Whitehall as the “unmentionable” and which, as a result, was done nearly two years too late.With a properly conducted campaign, a referendum in 2001 can be won. But the Government is leaving it dangerously late to start throwing its weight behind a strong, positive case.

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