Poor old Gerald Ford was derided for, apparently, being unable to walk and chew gum at the same time. But today’s front rank (sic) British politicians are open about their inability to do two things at once.
As momentum grew in the Conservative parliamentary party for a referendum on membership of the ailing European Union, David Cameron and Ed Miliband both said that to hold one would be a “distraction” from the more pressing business of saving the euro.
On Sunday night it became clear that what David Cameron couldn’t be distracted from was being told to sod off by Nicholas Sarkozy. Pressing business indeed.
Referendums are a very un-British way of doing things. We had them in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland over devolution, but UK-wide we have only had two since the Second World War; on membership of the then European Economic Community in 1975 and over the Alternative Vote this year. Edmund Burke’s notion of representative democracy reigns supreme.
But there is a growing feeling that it has been abused. Power in the United Kingdom resides with the people. At each general election we loan it to a political grouping for, at most, five years. But it remains ours. It is not theirs to give away.
And that is exactly what has happened. Despite being told after every EEC, EC or EU treaty that this represents the absolute limit of federalist expansion, within a couple of years the leaders of the European Project are always back asking for more. And they always get it.
The history of British dealings with Euro-federalists is that the Federalists ask for 100 percent, we give them 80 percent, and we call the 20 percent a victory for sovereignty.
This slow transfer of power over the British people to a foreign body has been either endorsed or permitted by successive British governments. And it has been endorsed or permitted by successive oppositions.
But it is not what the people, the owners of this power, want.
Predictably, plenty of Conservative Party members, 72 percent, support the motion. But it goes wider than that. Opinion poll after opinion poll, year after year, has shown the British people to be hostile to the European Union.
In July pollsters Angus Reid found that 49 percent would vote to leave it. Last month YouGov found that 47 percent wanted to leave. 67 percent support the motion for a referendum which goes before the Commons tonight.
But, barring a Parliamentary miracle, they won’t get one.
David Cameron has set his face against this vote wheeling out the heavy artillery of a three line whip and issuing threats about the career prospects of any rebels. In contrast to the kid gloves approach to the Liberal Democrats over the ludicrous Human Rights Act, Cameron has finally found an enemy and an issue worthy of some steely determination; his own back benchers and Europe.
This is an issue which goes wider than one arrogant, elitist politician. Gordon Brown famously called one of his own party’s voters who raised some perfectly valid if clumsily worded questions about immigration a “bigot”.
Lord Glasman, the ‘thinker’ behind ‘Blue Labour’, was excommunicated by the Party after saying “We have to put the people in this country first…We should be more generous and friendly in receiving those [few immigrants] who are needed. To be more generous, we have to draw the line.”
The Labour Party leadership is wedded to the idea of mass immigration but, like most voters, Labour voters aren’t. Research by Demos found that 28 percent of Labour voters think that “Britain should limit the number of people coming from other countries to live and work here because, on balance, they damage our economy and society”. And when these voters feel sufficiently ignored they go off and vote for the British National Party.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that both the Conservative and Labour parties are run by people who don’t like Conservative or Labour voters very much.
And more broadly, whether you are a working class white person in an ethnic area of Oldham who’s child is one of the few English speakers in their school or whether you’re a squire in the home counties with a £ lapel badge, our political class doesn’t like you very much. Your desires are inconvenient to its aims.
In his poem ‘The Solution’ Bertolt Brecht wrote
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
Who needs to dissolve the people when, as our leaders do, you can just ignore them?
This article originally apperared at The Commentator