Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Europe Question

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Europe Question

Article excerpt

The European Union referendum will submerge the old left-right divide in British politics. Even the newer fractures--open v closed, cosmopolitan v communitarian--will become less pertinent until the referendum is held, at some point before the end of 2017. It is In v Out that will predominate. The chimera of Conservative unity created by David Cameron's general election victory did not last long. As his commitment to keeping Britain in the EU becomes increasingly clear, the Prime Minister is already facing pressure from his party on the issue: Downing Street has backtracked from the suggestion that ministers might be denied the right to campaign against EU membership. As in 1975, members of the government will be pitted against each other in a referendum driven by crude party management.

Yet the vote also presents significant difficulties for Labour. The party leadership is engaged in a conspiracy of silence about its honourable tradition of Eurosceptic leftism. Tony Benn, Barbara Castle and Peter Shore all opposed the EU, as do current MPs such as Kate Hoey.

Both the Conservatives and Labour are haunted by painful recent experience. Mr Cameron's wish to enforce cabinet collective responsibility during the referendum campaign is driven by memories of the damage inflicted on John Major's government by the Eurosceptic "bastards". Labour is similarly desperate to fight the campaign as a united force; yet unity is worth little when, as the party found during last month's general election, frontbenchers campaign on a programme in which they have little belief. …

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