Published by Daily Mail
The House of Commons has inched closer toward legislation that will, at long last, give the British people an In-Out referendum on our troubled membership of the European Union.
The whipped private member’s bill proposed by Conservative MP James Wharton may be an irregular use of a technical parliamentary process; it may not have much cross-party support; it may be a cynical device to stem the rising tide of Ukip; and it may not be binding on a future parliament. But there is no doubt that if this Bill were to become law and the Conservatives were to win an outright Commons majority at the next General Election, it would be political suicide for David Cameron (or any Conservative leader) to repeal this particular sovereign Act of Parliament.
If they were to renege on their pledge to hold a referendum by the end of 2017, the Conservative Party would quite simply never be trusted again. The Parliamentary Party would certainly fracture, and the wider party membership, already falling away year-on-year, would fragment in disgust.
Division and distrust would damn this once-great national party to another generation in the wilderness. The Repeal of the Corn Laws would seem like a relative walk in the park; Tariff Reform would seem like a Sunday picnic. These great schisms kept the party of Disraeli and Peel out of office for 28 years and 18 years respectively. But they would seem like fleeting moments of cursory inconvenience compared to the interminable decades of cynicism, disdain and contempt which would follow another Tory betrayal about ‘Britain’s future in Europe’.
We know that the referendum is to follow what is likely to be a protracted renegotiation of the UK’s precise terms of EU membership. And we may not all agree with the Prime Minister’s red lines (I personally object strongly to the proposed retention of the European Arrest Warrant – reformed or otherwise – which subverts democracy and negates justice). But for the first time since the EEC referendum of 1975 we will all be free to accept or reject the proposed terms of that membership.
This is seismic.
Established Eurosceptic groups, individuals and ad hoc gatherings are all falling over themselves to grasp a crumb of credit for getting this far. Some, of course, deserve enormous praise and admiration for their decades of tenacity and principled commitment to a cause which, at times, seemed exasperatingly hopeless; not to mention appreciation for the years of personal slander and defamation suffered as they were (and, in some cases, still are) cast as ‘right-wing xenophobes’, ‘eccentric little-Englanders’, ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’, ‘clowns’ and, most recently, ‘swivel-eyed loons’.
There have been a number of published lists of the leading players whose contributions over the years merit acknowledgment. Some are organisations with modest backroom operators; others are self-promoting egos or loud-mouthed careerists with gangs of raucous cheer-leaders. Whatever their motives, they have all played some part leading to the EU Referendum Bill now before Parliament.
They include (in no particular order):
The ‘Maastricht Rebels’ of 1992 (specifically those who had the whip withdrawn: Michael Carttiss; Nicholas Budgen, Tony Marlow, John Wilkinson, Richard Shepherd, Teresa Gorman, Christopher Gill and Sir Teddy Taylor).
The 81 Conservative ‘rebels’ who voted for a referendum in 2011 (in particular David Nuttall MP, who secured the debate).
Daniel Hannan MEP; Douglas Carswell MP; Mark Reckless MP.
The ‘Fresh Start’ group of MPs.
The ECR group in the European Parliament.
The Express newspaper.
Nigel Farage and UKIP.
The Bruges Group
Better Off Out
The Democracy Movement
The Freedom Association (in particular the late Norris McWhirter)
The European Foundation (Bill Cash MP)
The Campaign for Conservative Democracy (John Strafford)
The Harrogate Agenda (Dr Richard North)
The People’s Pledge
Conservatives Against a Federal Europe
The Campaign for an Independent Britain…
I’m sure there are others: this is merely a summary compilation of those who have agitated for an In-Out EEC/EC/EU referendum over the years, with communication strategies ranging from megaphone contempt, through derision and threats, to a repetitive but courteous campaign of attrition. No doubt those on extreme wings of the EU-sceptic spectrum will balk at the inclusion of both: some refuse to break bread or drink tea with each other, let alone speak or cooperate on objectives and strategy. They prefer instead to remain principled, pure and right, dedicating streams of column inches and blog posts to tearing shreds off one another.
If they don’t start collaborating and cooperating very soon on the primary objective, the UK will be forever bound on the EU’s wheel of fire by virtue of two decisive plebiscites. Because 2017 is by no means won: the disparate and divided ‘Outers’ will be ranged against the unified voices of all three main political parties, the Foreign Office machine, the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, the BBC and most of the mainstream media. If the EU-sceptics don’t get their acts together, 2017 may well simply confirm the decision of 1975, and our fate will be sealed.
That the EEC morphed into the EU by stealth and subterfuge will no long matter: the people will have spoken – twice. And both times they voted ‘Yes’ to stay ‘In’.
I have voted Conservative all my life, with the exception of just one year – the General Election of 1997 – when I voted for myself in Stratford-upon-Avon as the Parliamentary Candidate for the Referendum Party. I stood against John Maples (who never forgave me when he became the Conservative Party’s Head of Candidates). I obviously didn’t win in a safe Tory seat, but I was one of the few Referendum Party candidates to garner more than 2000 votes in the righteous cause of democracy.
With James Wharton’s EU Referendum Bill now before Parliament, I feel vindicated.
And so undoubtedly is Sir James Goldsmith, the businessman and financier who cared enough about democracy and liberty to pour millions of pounds into funding a political movement which caused consternation among political elites back then and whose personal impact resonates along the corridors of power even now.
The Referendum Party was established to contest every seat in the 1997 general election, except where the incumbent was an established Eurosceptic of impeccable democratic credentials. The strategy was quite straightforward: we would win the election, legislate for an instant referendum and hold it as soon as possible. Whatever the outcome, a sovereign people would have spoken and either voted to restore their sovereignty or voluntarily surrender it. Sir James would then have gone to Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament and a further general election.
This was not about the acquisition of power, but the restoration of the people’s sovereignty.
Over those campaigning months I had a number of lunches with the great man at his house in Wilton Place, SW1. We chatted and plotted, laughed and devised. Edward Fox and other celebs were frequent guests. We had objective, enthusiasm, energy and hope.
Jimmy was campaign leader: he became my political mentor and a friend. I recall once asking him rather impertinently: “What gives a grocer the right to intervene in a British general election?”
And back came the swift riposte: “Because I can.”
It was his democratic mission to restore our democratic rights: it was the stirring of revolution – the ‘Rabble Army’, he called us. Jimmy Goldsmith and his Referendum Party were marching for freedom and singing ‘Let The People Decide’ while John Major and Tony Blair and their respective parties were still umming and ahhing over whether or not the people should get a referendum on the euro, let alone on the whole supranational, anti-democratic project.
Jimmy was a patriot who cared about the fate of the United Kingdom much more than the political class which has conspired for 40 years in its decline and fall. As he lay dying of pancreatic cancer at his home in France, I recall sending him a letter thanking him for his friendship, inspiration and audacious political intervention. He was kind enough to acknowledge it just a few weeks before he died. He was thoughtful like that.
But he not only secured the British people a referendum on the matter of the single currency: it is to him we owe the final conversion of the Tories to the Conservative-Referendum Party – a coalition of undoubted philosophical coherence with clear political intent. What, after all, is the Conservative Party for if it is not to conserve our constitutional heritage of national sovereignty, parliamentary supremacy and tradition of common law?
Irrespective of whatever David Cameron manages to negotiate in Brussels, surely we can unite on the democratic imperative of a referendum. The question of ‘In’ or ‘Out’ is the most profound political question the UK faces, and it must necessarily precede the statutory repeal of the European Communities Act 1972. Following that, we must move intelligently and strategically toward dialogue and negotiated cooperation between all interested parties – even those who loathe one another – because the BBC will need to know who to phone when they want a representative from the ‘Out’ campaign.
And that joint collaboration of ephemeral chancers, careerists and principled egos requires the patient leadership of an experienced operator, skilful diplomat and inspirational charmer.
With respect to James Wharton, I don’t think, at 29, that he is the man for the job. Nor do I see this person in any of the established groups represented above.
Sir James Goldsmith built his Rabble Army from the bottom up, so that it became a popular movement which resonated throughout the whole country over a very short space of time. It even attracted the distinguished support of Lord Tonypandy, former Speaker of the House of Commons. The Goldsmith wealth and charisma merely facilitated an organic campaigning machine. This is a strategy the Conservatives must adopt to move beyond the Westminster bubble of procedural technicalities and interminable party politicking.
The country needs another Jimmy Goldsmith.