Guardian Comment is Free 5th May 2015
The political conspiracy of silence over British exit from Europe
David Cameron does not see his referendum pledge on as an election winner and Ed Miliband will not remind voters he is
he dog that hasn’t barked so far in this election is Europe. The hopes, on one side, and fears, on the other, that the 2015 election would be a High Noon showdown on the European Union have just not happened.
Arguably there is a bigger divide between the Conservatives and Labour on Europe than on any other issue. In contrast to David Cameron, Ed Miliband, against the urging of Labour shadow ministers and senior MPs, flatly ruled out a referendum that might risk a British exit.
Ukip exists for two reasons – to obtain a referendum and then to vote Britain out of Europe. David Cameron conceded half the Ukip demand in January 2013. Logically, Ukip voters who want to power forward to a Brexit vote with the help of the Europhobe offshore-owned press should vote Tory to get their plebiscite. But neither the prime minister nor his Labour challenger have made the Brexit referendum question central to their campaign.
The Liberal Democrats have hummed and hawed but quietly parked their once proudly proclaimed Europhile principles. Nick Clegg now makes clear he would accept a plebiscite with the risk of an out vote if that were the price of continuing the coalition. The lure of a red box trumps a red-line principle against risking Brexit.
Labour tried to launch its campaign by highlighting its opposition to a referendum on the grounds that it would cause business and investor uncertainty. Miliband chose an extremely expensive advertisement in the Financial Times to make his pitch, but it came unstuck as business leaders who were quoted in the advert protested that their names should not be used for party political ends.
Tony Blair got stuck in a week later with a powerful speech in favour of staying in the EU and against the in-out referendum. Two hours later, Labour announced its dramatic policy of ending non-dom status and Blair’s intervention was wiped off the news agenda.
Since then nothing. Candidates from both main parties report that neither the referendum nor the EU are much raised on the doorstep. The idea that the referendum promise would be an election winner for Cameron or cost Miliband votes does not seem to have materialised. The Conservatives have reduced the volume about the referendum because they know that the fears of leaving the EU are real and that business, while it has no love for EU regulation and Brussels, will not take kindly to Britain leaving a market of 500 million consumers.
Labour does not want to remind voters that a Miliband government is not going to give people a specific say on EU membership via an in-out plebiscite. So, starting from different ends, both parties meet in the middle with an unspoken concordat to keep Europe out of the election.
Across the Channel, however, there is fear and anger that Britain may be heading towards a vote that will tear Europe apart. Le Monde’s headline on Sunday was “Europe: the crucial issue in the British election”. Its editorial argued: “Everything is in place for a catastrophic scenario – the UK slipping out of the EU, perhaps even by accident.” Der Spiegel on Sunday wrote: “Rarely was so much at stake in Europe as in the British election with, in the worst case, a withdrawal from Europe.” Similar headlines are all over the continental press, but in the UK there is a conspiracy of silence to make Europe and Brexit a non-issue.
I should declare an interest: I wrote a book published two months ago analysing pro-Brexit forces. If Miliband becomes prime minister, it will have to be remaindered, if not pulped, on 8 May. As a pro-European, that’s just fine. If Cameron and Clegg stay in charge, we should prepare for two ugly years as populist anti-EU forces are marshalled by Rupert Murdoch. It will be his last great fight against the Europe he loathes. The 60th anniversary of the 1957 Treaty of Rome may be celebrated by the isolation of Britain from Europe.
The EU should focus on jobs, its projects for infrastructure investment, capital markets and energy union, sorting out Greece and facing down Putin’s aggression. Instead it may be la question anglaise that dominates the European agenda until 2017. The self-regarding vanity of eurosceptics that only their point of view matters will be tested on Thursday. If they get their Brexit plebiscite, the Disunited Kingdom will become more centrifugal and the potential damage to Europe will be immense.
But it is too late to insert these worries and arguments into an election that has avoided discussing Europe with a determination that our friends across the Channel, the Irish Sea and even the Atlantic find disturbing, indeed shocking.