Should the UK Jump Ship from the EU?
Big majority say ‘Yes!’ after debateBy Tom Aitken in London
Each month the weekly magazine The Spectator stages a debate on some topic of current concern. This month’s motion proposed that it is now time for Britain to leave the European Union.
Why this debate now?
There are economic factors: collapsing economies in southern Europe and
ominous uncertainties about the future elsewhere within the EU.
There are socio-political factors: ongoing resentment in Britain over
perceived loss of independence and of Britishness, together with apparently uncontrollable levels of immigration from, especially, Eastern Europe.
‘Simmering pot comes to boil’
The simmering pot has come closer to the boil in recent months. Hence the packed-out, 600 strong house at the Royal Geographical Society in South Kensington a few days ago.
The laid-back, sharp-tongued Rod Liddle (associate editor of the Spectator and former editor of BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, chaired with admirable briskness.
Six speakers were given precisely nine minutes each and, with time for three minutes each of closing remarks by team leaders, ‘questions’ (inverted commas explained later) and the vote, the event clocked in at precisely 90 minutes.
Supporting the motion, Christopher Booker (the Sunday Telegraph,Private Eye) led off with mention of impending bailouts or collapse in Greece, Italy and Spain, obviously a divisive issue between northern and southern Europe at the moment.
He segued swiftly into a more fundamental and, in his view, more threatening problem.
The EU was not a benevolent cooperative organisation. Customs union was never its sole or final aim. That aim was, in stark terms, to take and keep all important political and economic powers.
No member state of the EU had retained any shred of independence. Britain could not modify, reform, or restrain it.
Frederick Forsyth arouses hostility
The second speaker for the motion, Frederick Forsyth, (author of The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File, among others) has an orotund manner and is always keen to impress listeners or readers with the truth that lies behind everything he writes or says: he has been there, seen that and done that.
Or, as Richard Laming, a speaker against the motion, later reported, he is
‘full of certainty about things that aren’t quite true.’ Very oddly, given
that the audience was, as a pre-vote taken as we arrived indicated, likely
to vote for his side in large numbers, it was Forsyth who aroused the most angrily hostile reactions.
One of his arguments in favour of sturdy independence was that no
independent nation had ever declared aggressive war. Declarations of war
were always down to ‘wicked tyrants,’
Yelled assertions that the German parliament had voted for war in 1914 left him surreally undiscomposed.
(And of course, it was obviously in many people¹s minds that Britain itself
had declared aggressive war when parliament, misled by Mr Blair over weapons of mass destruction, sanctioned the invasion of Iraq.)
Unbowed, Forsyth picked up another point. Britain was always in a minority in EU voting. ‘There is no one around the table whose position is more powerless than he who will inevitably be defeated.’
‘I am not a little-Englander,’ he went on, assertively. ‘I have travelled
too far, speak too many languages. It is a choice between a sovereign UK and what is openly called in Brussels ‘the United States of Europe.’
‘;Poorer, less democratic and less free’
The third supporter of the motion, Daniel Hannan (a lover of Europe who
nevertheless believes that the European Union is making its members poorer, less democratic and less free), adopted a more amusing and effective approach.
‘Imagine,’ he invited us, ‘that we had not joined the EU back in 1973, and
instead struck the sort of deal that Norway and Switzerlandthose poor
suffering nations out there scraping a living [audience mirth]achieved.
‘Had we not joined then, do you imagine anyone would propose we join now? We thought we were joining a free market, not a proto-state.
‘Our timing could not have been worse. In 1973 the western European economy had been growing for twenty years. In 1974 it stopped. We had shackled ourselves to a corpse.’
‘We should remember,’ he said,’that our membership had been advantageous for European trade. If we withdrew politically, no one need suppose that they will stop trading with us. We gain nothing by abasing ourselves before tyranny that we wouldn’t get anyway. The Swiss sell twice as much to the EU as we do.’
Meanwhile, during the nine minutes he had been speaking we had given
£180,000 to EU funds.
Gung Ho approach
Generally then, those supporting the motion adopted a gung ho tone: Britain had much to gain and little to lose by leaving.
Those opposing the motion were disposed to question both prongs of that approach. Had present-day Britain sufficient political and economic clout to stand alone? As for the economic arguments, had the pro-departure speakers got their sums right. (I’ll spare you the small print not that there was time for very much of that.)
It is also fair to say that none of the ‘let’s stay put’ speakers was averse
to criticising the EU. It was, they agreed, more illiberal in its attitudes
than was desirable.
Phillip Souta (a barrister who became an expert on food safety regulations, then Director of Business for New Europe in 2010) thought departure would entail serious economic risks. We were already in a major economic crisis. (Murmurs in the auditorium suggested perhaps that they were prepared to finger the EU as the cause.)
Politically, the EU case was accepted by Cameron, Clegg and Labour’s Miliband. We had extensive trade benefits. (More dissentient mutterings out front.)
What we had heard from Christopher Booker was a very competent exposition of the ‘old’ Franco-German conspiracy theory. But the EU gave us a level of economic and other power and influence we would not have on our own. In return we were able to push the EU to be more liberal than it was inclined to be.
The United States was very keen for us to stay in the EU, precisely in order to make Brussels less jingoistically European in its attitudes.
It was not true that we would not lose trade by leaving.
He listed various disadvantages of being in EFTA (the European Free Trade Association, attached to but not part of the EU) as opposed to being full members of the EU, mainly to do with losing both income and ability to influence developments affecting ourselves.
Both Norway (oil) & Switzerland (micro-technology, hi-tech,biotechnology
and pharmaceuticals) had valuable resources which we could not match.
EU supporter says trade up by 50%
Richard Laming (Chair of the Federal Union, which favours federal economic government and common fiscal policies across the EU), said that membership of the EU had given us a 50% growth in trade. There were numerous advantages in, say, cooperation between police forces.\
He instanced someone who had been caught within hours and charged on the spot by a European police force. (A later questioner countered with the case of an innocent Briton aged 20 who had been arrested and had, because of bureaucratic delays, lost two years of his life languishing in jail.)
Laming concluded with what he, at least, thought was a call for realism. ‘We are not a great power. We are very exposed to the world economy on our own.’ The EU gave us a smaller, better protected area in which to operate.
The final speaker against the motion was Denis MacShane, a former Labour Minister for Europe whose controversy-ridden career as politician and controversialist began with him being stripped naked and painted pink while taking a third class degree at Oxford.
He has been in and out of trouble for most of his career. He was entertaining and occasionally incisive, spending part of his time
commenting on points made by the other side and discussed above.
Much of what they had argued, he remarked, was a ‘reasonable fantasy.’
Exiled to Switzerland to escape from Thatcher
But he had, during the reign of Mrs Thatcher, spent some time in exile in Switzerland and it wasn’t the paradise Daniel Hanna had depicted.
During the short question and answer session following the final speeches
Rod Liddle found his patience sorely tested.
Despite his polite requests that people should ask questions rather than
make speeches, a certain amount of emotional ranting occurred.
Speaker from floor: I want to live and die in a country where dissent is
welcome. Liddle: I would particularly welcome questions.
Another speaker from the floor, still incensed by Frederick Forsyth¹s views: ‘I don’t want a divided Europe in which our grandchildren will be slain in nationalist wars! Liddle: ‘Freddie, would you like to reply as to whether you want your grandchildren to be killed?’ Freddie remained silent.
As we left we were given figures from counts taken before and after the
debate, as follows.
For Against Undecided
Pre-vote: 414 77 95
End vote: 470 116 0