Showing my age: back in 1975, we had a referendum on membership of the mendaciously-named “Common Market”, and to my eternal shame I voted Yes. After all (they told us) it was all about trade and jobs, and who could be against trade and jobs? All the media, more or less, said yes, and it was only old extremists like Enoch Powell and Tony Benn who were against. Clearly they’d failed to grab the zeitgeist of the modern world, they were left behind by the tide of history. Sad old men with old ideas, turning their backs on the future.
I recently re-read a book of Enoch Powell’s speeches on Europe from around that time. They were extraordinarily prescient. He told us what was going to happen, but it seemed so bizarre and improbable at the time that we ignored him. But he was overwhelmingly, utterly right.
Then around 1999 (the year I was first elected to the European parliament), we had a similar picture. All the starry-eyed europhiles, all the soft centre, were for joining the €uro. Exactly the same arguments. It was the wave of the future. We would miss the train and be left behind on the platform. Washed up by the tide of history. The future was inevitable, and the future was Europe. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Only a few curmudgeons were against (myself included, thank heaven, this time).
But there was a change. Some sections of the media had come round to a more sceptic view (though the BBC and the FT kept on beating the Brussels drum). Certainly the sceptics were less isolated than in 1975. And courtesy of Sir James Goldsmith, all the main parties were at least signed up to a €uro referendum — and then realised, to their horror, that such a referendum could simply not be won.
In recent years, sceptics like me were frequently reminded that in opinion polls, the issue of Europe came well down the list, behind health and education and jobs and pensions and immigration and many other issues. The public just don’t care, they said — although when asked, the public were generally hostile to Brussels.
My, how things have changed. Now that that the travails of the €uro have become nightly news, now that the crisis refuses to go away, now that EU leaders are blowing in the wind and unable to get a grip on the problem (unable even to understand it, blinkered as they are by their ideological obsessions), the public mind has been focussed on the EU as never before. And they don’t like what they see. The warnings of Powell and Benn, and the host of sceptics who came after, are abundantly justified. Dire predictions are coming to pass as we speak.
And in a stunning example of the new mood, senior figures from pro-European parties are speaking out. Lord Owen, of all people, has spoken of a two-speed Europe. Fiscal Union in a central core, with Britain and the rest of this particular “coalition of the unwilling” in a much looser outer zone. He doesn’t quite say so, but the outer zone could be simply a free trade area. I don’t know why we didn’t think of it years ago. We could call it EFTA.
Then Jack Straw, that Labour elder statesman, came up with a stunner. The European parliament, he said, had failed to resonate with EU citizens, and did not deliver the democratic legitimacy craved by the Eurocrats. It should be abolished. Right on, Jack. I’ll drink to that (and vote for it, if I ever get the chance).
Sadly, though, the leadership of all three main parties remain wedded to EU membership. David Cameron has told me face-to-face that he wants no referendum on the EU because Britain is “Better Off In”. All three major parties are guilty on this one. In fact on this vital issue for the future of our country, only UKIP is ahead of the curve. Conservatives should be very worried indeed.