It’s a little-known fact that, shortly before Moses staggered down Mount Sinai under the weight of those two stone tablets, he dropped and broke a third; and, rather than admit he was a clumsy oaf, pretended God only gave him two. You didn’t know? Well, don’t worry, neither did I until about thirty seconds ago, so it doesn’t reflect too badly on you. Anyway, written on the third tablet, and now forgotten in all but the most select of academic circles, were the words: ‘Thou shalt not appear sane whilst speaking of the European Union. (By ‘Thou,’ I mean Conservatives)’ – God’s words precisely!
And so, from that day to this, it’s been a dead cert that, whenever Conservatives start talking about the European Union, they also start frothing and writhing like lunatics. And, because we’re not as progressive and civilised and capable of rational debate as we like to think we are, the insults are never far behind: ‘God! They’re right loonies, aren’t they?’ – That sort of thing.
This will not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever seen the news, even if by mistake while searching for one of those life-affirming programmes like EastEnders or Big Brother. We don’t even need to know about the other commandments, it’s just a well-known fact that, when Conservatives come into contact with the EU, the ensuing tumult is a bit like when a little boy comes into contact with soap and water.
What may surprise you, however, is to hear Conservatives calling other Conservatives loonies. But, as this is only an allegation, and I believe the plaintiff is thinking about suing, I’m going to put it on record that I don’t believe a single libelous word of it – unless, that is, someone proves otherwise in a court of law.
Yet all this froth obscures the true divisions within the Conservative party. Some Conservatives say the EU is great and that we would be mad to leave, others say it’s pretty great but not perfect and just needs a bit of reform, and others say the EU is a leopard with unchangeable spots and we must leave it to munch away on its own carcass (starting at the peripheries).
Of course, a certain type of Tory critic loves all this. They really do think the argument makes the Conservatives look loony; that it proves how right they were about them all along; and that the public will conclude that they should never ever ever vote Tory ever ever again, because if they do, well, they’ll be loony, too – only they wouldn’t use such derogatory language.
In part, this implies that the EU is a significant issue only while Conservatives talk about it. Stop talking about it and the issue goes away, or better still solves itself. You can understand why Conservatives have been reluctant to open up old wounds, scarred as they were by Margaret Thatcher’s removal from office, Maastricht, ERM expulsion and being branded xenophobic for even mentioning the subject let alone discoursing on it in anything other than glowing terms.
But this is all nonsense, as I think I’ve said before. The reason the EU is such a messy issue is not because the Conservatives (and now Ukipers) bang on about it all the time (which they don’t), but because it’s an issue of existential importance, cutting across issues of sovereignty, democracy, economic prosperity and culture that are most certainly of pressing importance.
The irony is that this was all clear last time the issue became really messy, when John Major was negotiating with his friends over Maastricht. The weakening of democracy, the dangers of a single currency and the increase of EU political authority were all evident during those Maastricht negotiations. It’s just that the political establishment chose to ignore the dangers at the time.
The problem for the Conservatives is not so much that talking about the EU is always going to be difficult for them (although it probably is); the problem is that they are not yet prepared to admit that the EU is an issue they need to tackle head on rather than skirt around. Avoiding the fundamental implications of the project, as previously defined in the Maastricht Treaty and now the Lisbon Treaty, merely delayed the proper debate they needed to have.
Labour has more or less resolved its position: the party is for it, right or wrong; that is their united view, and the public knows it and can vote accordingly. The Conservatives have still to make up their minds. Some are for it, some are against it and some just want it reformed. The difficulty comes from not seeking to reconcile these differences. Until they do this, the party will continue to look confused, divided and untrustworthy, which is electoral kryptonite.