Conservative Party members often write to Europe Minister David Lidington, or to William Hague, or the Prime Minister, to express their concern about our continued membership of the EU. They are often taken aback by the almost surreally naïve responses that they get, and now and again they send the replies on to me, sometimes covered in red ink and exclamation marks.
Of course I know how difficult it is to get sensible replies from government ministers, hedged around as they are by all the pressures of office, and of Coalition, and the need to avoid saying anything that may be taken down and used in evidence against them. So I should not have taken the issue up with David Lidington. It was self-indulgent of me. But today, on the last day of the year, I got David Lidington’s reply (it was dated Dec 13th, but what with Christmas holidays and so on I only got it today).
I also know exactly what the government’s (and the Party’s) position is on the oft-repeated quote about “3½ million British jobs depend on the EU”, which is always used by Europhiles to mean “3½ million British jobs depend on our membership of the EU”. So I shouldn’t be surprised. But to see it written down in black and white, on FCO letterhead, over a Conservative Minister’s signature, really hit me between the eyes.
I think that David Lidington understands the verbal sleight-of-hand involved, because he carefully says “3½ million jobs are linked to our membership of the EU” (my italics). In fact of course even that isn’t strictly true. If we accept the 3½ million number (and I have no basis to dispute it), then the truth would be that 3½ million jobs depend on our trade with the EU. David attributes the figure to the BIS, though I believe it originated some years ago in a study by the NIESR, who of course understood immediately the way in which their numbers were being abused by the pro-Brussels tendency, and repudiated the claim (as expressed by the Europhiles) straight away and very robustly.
Two obvious responses. First, if 3½ million British jobs depend on our trade with the EU, then a larger number — perhaps 5 million — EU jobs depend on their trade with us. It is a mutual relationship, and one that actually offers them more benefits than it offers us.
The second point: David Lidington offers no evidence that the trade would be affected one way or the other by our ceasing to be members of the EU. On Independence Day, we will continue to be members of the European Economic Area, so we will have an immediate free trade deal with the EU. We may seek to renegotiate the terms of that EEA deal, but there is no question of us not having an FTA with the EU, and therefore no obvious reason for trade — or jobs — to suffer. It is often noted that both Norway and Switzerland (both non-members of the EU) do more trade with the EU per capita than the UK does.
David does argue that access to the single market is a key factor in the UK attracting inward investment, but again he offers no reason why this should be so. Indeed he falls into the trap of saying “They would locate elsewhere if we were not perceived as part of the EU”. No David. They would locate elsewhere if we were perceived as not having access to the single market. But that eventuality will not arise.
There are only two possible explanations why Lidington (and indeed Hague and Cameron) continue to insist that “3½ million British jobs depend on EU membership”, when this is manifestly not the case. Either they are deliberately mendacious, or they are guilty of the most outrageously sloppy thinking, of repeating a well-worn slogan without actually pausing to reflect on what they are saying.
I wouldn’t claim to be great mates with any of them, but of course I have met and spoken to them all, and I find it difficult to believe that they would be deliberately dishonest. So I am forced to the second conclusion: that they stick to the threadbare but convenient sound-bite without bothering to examine it too closely. Or at all.
I suspect that lurking in their minds just beyond the reach of consciousness is a deep unease with a proposition that is plainly and manifestly false, and I imagine that their subconscious minds deftly steer them away from the dangerous temptation to think again. Meantime one of the greatest political issues of our generation festers for lack of clear analysis and decisive policy.
I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies. It is good to see that our Europe Minister sits in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Plainly the EU is not in the Commonwealth, so at least they recognise that it’s foreign.