Questions of process should not obscure the need for leadership over Britain’s future in Europe.
Over the past week, the debate over the forthcoming European referendum has been dominated by questions of process, when far bigger issues should inform consideration of our future.
First the Electoral Commission recommended a change in the question on the ballot paper from a simple yes/no question to asking people to choosing between two statements – one asking people whether they want the UK to remain a member of the EU and the other to leave the EU. This is not consistent with the approach taken in other recent referenda in the UK where in both the Scottish independence referendum and the referendum on AV, yes/no questions were asked. In both those cases yes or no was not judged unfair. But No 10 has said it will accept the new wording and the change will be accepted by parliament when the EU referendum Bill is debated next week.
Much more attention next week will be devoted to the issue of purdah or the rules by which the Government and civil servants operate in the few weeks running up to the poll. This has the feel of an accidental fight about it. It does not look like the Government expected the reaction which took place when it sought to suspend the usual purdah arrangements to allow the Government to express its view in the run up to the poll. A lot of heat will be generated next week on this issue and the Government will in all likelihood have to retreat, but that should not tempt us into endless battles about the rules. Labour has put forward amendments on the purdah issue but we should remember that there will be some who will never accept a position where Britain could remain in the EU and they will want to cry foul about every part of the referendum process.
Far more important than the civil service rules is the substance of the debate itself. In the Labour leadership contest three candidates have said unequivocally that they will campaign for Britain to stay in the EU, but the favourite, Jeremy Corbyn, has fudged. Asked to state his view, beyond the rhetoric there is no clear answer. Yet those who seek the mantle of leadership have to exercise leadership. Whatever changes the Electoral Commission has recommended to the wording of the question, the word “maybe” is not going to be on the ballot paper. To lead is to choose and all the speeches in the world about a workers Europe will not absolve anyone of the responsibility of answering the basic question of whether Britain should be in or out. This cannot be ducked because the country’s economic future, how we see ourselves and how we see the rest of the world depend on it.
The refugee crisis has exposed the smallness of the Conservatives’ view of the world. While Mr Cameron tours Europe talking about the rules on tax credits, other countries are trying to cope with the greatest refugee crisis in decades. It raises big issues for Europe. Are we going to see a future of razor wire, border guards and detention centres or is there the leadership capacity to realise that the movement of people is not going to stop anytime soon and that this issue has to be managed and dealt with rather than running away from it? Our Government has appeared both heartless and powerless in its response and has been caught behind the curve of public opinion.
Sorting out both the immediate crisis and our longer term relationship with Europe requires leadership. There has been far too little shown so far. Britain should be playing a leading voice in shaping the future of Europe and how it deals with crises like the one which has been unfolding in recent weeks. We should not proceed with a quiet retreat from the world because its challenges are too difficult or because for ideological reasons we reject the notion of a Britain with global reach. We can be better than that.