referendum on the eu

Last Monday was the first revolt I have seen in Parliament. It broke almost without warning. Things had seemed calm until then: three and a half years to the election, the conference tranquil, the Prime Minister popular, Gaddafi dead, the Foreign Secretary on his way to the  Commonwealth meeting in Australia. Then the back-bench business committee proposed a referendum for leaving the European Union.

This committee has been newly created to give more power to Parliament. I had used it in the summer to challenge government policy on mobile phone coverage. It hadn’t been easy: I had to justify myself repeatedly to whips and ministers – a three-line whip was threatened before being dropped, and it had been hard to persuade colleagues to vote. But when we won the vote, policy seemed to change. The regulator reconsidered their coverage obligation – particularly in rural areas – and the Chancellor found over £100 million for mobile masts. But the government could see the benefits of enhanced mobile coverage. A referendum on Europe was different.

100,000 people had signed a petition calling for a debate, and the back-bench business committee introduced a motion to force the government to hold a referendum in the next session, asking whether to leave the European Union, stay, or renegotiate powers. The government fought back with a three-line whip. And, almost immediately, dozens of MPs rebelled. Ten telephoned me to discuss the vote: I spent almost the entire train-ride from Penrith to London talking to them from the gap between the carriages. Many would only stay in the Union if Britain could opt-out of all the terms of the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties, or become a version of Norway or Switzerland, engaged with nothing except free trade.

I spent three days preparing my speech for the debate. We didn’t need a referendum to know that many people had been uncomfortable with the European Union for forty years. Britain had joined a club whose fees it came to dislike, and whose rules and restrictions it resented.  Many continental Europeans say that the EU has made it unthinkable for Germany or France to go to war again. Few in the United Kingdom seem even aware that anyone could see the EU in that way. Continental Europeans feel that Europe has increased their pride and reputation; the British fear it has diminished ours. They feel it has saved them from a troubling history; the British that it has taken us away from a distinguished history.  They feel economically prosperous because of Europe; the British feel economically prosperous despite Europe.

I wanted to argue that the government should acknowledge this discomfort, tell people what it planned to do about it, and act. But I felt the motion was wrong. Europe is immersed in the greatest crisis that they have faced, and in the middle of the Greek bail-out negotiations. We were choosing the moment of their greatest fragility to shout ‘I know you have a lot on your plate, but by the way we’re considering leaving you.’ We needed to recognize these were our closest trading partners, and would always be our closest neighbours. If we are about to rip up a forty-year relationship, we need to do so with dignity.

But I wasn’t sure how this speech would go down in the chamber. The green benches were dominated by almost a hundred rebels against the government. Many had just entered Parliament. They attacked the government position openly, talking sentimentally about their pride in having been elected, about sacrificing their careers for the truth, putting their constituents in front of their party, and their country in front of everything, and were met with continual cheers. Almost no speech passed without a couple of long interventions. When a few MPs tried, towards the end of the evening, to support the government, they were drowned by a chorus of mocking voices accusing them of cowardice and careerism.

I wanted to defend the government but although I got to my feet again and again, the speaker never called me. When the house voted at ten, I had been in my seat for six and a half hours, and the three days of speech-writing was scattered all over the bench beside me. The result was one of the largest rebellions in recorded history. 81 of my Conservative colleagues voted against the government, another 15 publicly abstained: almost precisely half the back-bench party, pitted against the other half.

The tone of the debate and its timing – so aggressively indifferent to everything that was happening outside the chamber – reflected more than simply genuine concerns about European regulations. It suggested anger, frustration, and insecurity. I did not sleep well that night. Something is broken. It is in part our relationship to Europe: we can no longer avoid clarifying what changes we want, and whether we are prepared to leave if we don’t get them. But there was something unsettling and fractured also in the way the motion was pressed, the way the government responded, and the way those tensions were exposed in that chamber. Despite all our references to the economy and Europe, I did not feel we were engaging responsibly with either. Despite all the claims about democracy and patriotism, I did not feel we knew anymore quite how to balance our loyalties to voters or nation; or quite what we expected our Parliament or government to be.

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