Moses, the EU, the Labour Party and Conservative loonies

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.

The EU is like all other great political issues: at some point it must be discussed properly

Commentators are already disputing the Prime Minister’s wisdom in saying what he’s just said about the EU. But at least he has spoken. For too long Conservatives seem to have been in thrall to the idea that the EU is only a problem because they keep talking about it. Peter Oborne says the sensible and wise policy until now has been to ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’ There is another refrain much loved by some: ‘Banging on about Europe.’ If the Conservatives could just avoid the issue or kick it into the long grass then the problem would disappear.

This view established itself around the time of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. So harrowing was the experience for John Major that the party leadership took away this one salutary (so they thought) lesson – that the best way to deal with the European issue was to ignore it. A score of ‘rebels’ voted against the government and from then on the party was caught in a fear of being split.

The scars of Maastricht are still evident. It is one of the reasons David Cameron has been so reluctant to talk about it. Focus-group ninjas told us the public was turned off by the issue, mostly because it made politicians look a bit frothy around the mouth. Had it not been for the growing distress of the eurozone, the advent of a new generation of Conservatives unashamed of their scepticism, and worries over UKIP, it’s not clear that the PM would have given his speech at all. Circumstances, perhaps, rather than inclination forced his hand.

But what if the real problem is something else – something opposite to be precise? What if the real source of Conservative stress over Europe is that they spend too much time trying not to talk about it or trying to pretend it isn’t one of the most pressing and significant issues of the age. One can see the attraction – a problem avoided is a problem solved. But this is simply burying one’s head in the sand in the hope that danger can’t see you.

Such thinking is not new. Politicians frequently pretend problems don’t really exist. Take mass immigration. If there is a problem with mass immigration, so the intimation goes, it is in talking about it, because its mere discussion is inflammatory. Nothing to do with numbers or pressure on resources or anything like that. The irony is that because politicians are afraid of the issue, certain elements of the press dominate the discussion with their own distorting views, from all wings of the media. Same with the deficit. Admittedly, the Conservatives spend a lot of time talking about Labour’s economic mess, but on this one it’s Labour who is guilty of pretending an issue is not an issue even though they know full well it is.

Europe is a headache for the Conservatives because too many seem to believe they can ignore the central question, which is whether they are for it or against it. John Major’s Maastricht opt out on the Social Chapter was seen as a victory, but it was nothing of the sort. All it took was an incoming Labour government and a wave of a pen and all that negotiation was made defunct. He ended up displeasing both the europhiles and the sceptics. Lancing a boil is messy whenever you do it, but at least it’s been dealt with.

His mistake was to pretend there was a pain-free solution to the split in opinion. There was none. Issues have to be dealt with, not fudged. That is the point of them. The debate in the Conservative party should have taken place there and then. Either the party was in favour of UK participation in the EU, accepting its desire for monetary and political union, or it was not. If for it, all demands, once we’d had our say, should have been accepted; if against it, we should have blocked the treaty or withdrawn ourselves from the club and negotiated our future relationship in the manner of all other countries of the world.

This, I’m afraid, is a battle still to be played out and David Cameron has set the thing in motion. Either the growing ranks of sceptical Conservatives must mellow and accept the EU, or the PM must change his mind and put the Conservative party at the forefront of rejection of the EU.

The issue must be faced and a decision made, in or out. The chances of the PM negotiating a new relationship for the UK from within the EU are extremely low, and that’s assuming he will win the next election and be in a position to negotiate. Even if he does get something, it will simply have the effect of making the EU even more of an organisational mess than it already is, what with current moves to create some sort of fiscal union to go with the monetary and the foreign and everything else.

There will also remain the little matter of diminishing democracy, which the PM has already identified. Slowly but steadily, despite protestations that the project is enhancing democracy, it is being diminished, and we really don’t know what the fall out will be when the divergent peoples of Europe finally realise that they are not in charge of their countries or their lives as they thought they were after the Second World War and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.