There are two common, and incorrect, justifications for not acting in politics.
The first is that now is not the right time, because at the moment everything else is more important. That is the justification most often used by opponents of an In-Out EU referendum in the UK, and is the same reasoning that has prevented the House of Lords from being reformed for the last few decades.
The second reason is that ‘people’ do not care about some issue or other, and as a result politicians should not focus on the issue. That is the argument that, rather predictably, was wheeled out by Andy Burnham as a critique of David Cameron’s speech.
The problem is that, as I see it, is that the UK-EU debate is a sort of proxy for three larger issues that, due to the structure of UK politics and government, and the relationship between the media and politics, we never actually get to properly talk about. Perhaps some of these issue could be opened up now.
The first major issue is that the UK lacks a proper and nuanced debate about the economic future of the country. The very essence of New Labour was to emphasise the value of the private sector (and to bring the private sector into provision of public services), and this process has been continued by the current government. The whole repatriation-from-the-EU debate pushed by David Cameron, and rumblings about loosening EU social policy from him and the Fresh Start campaign, are proxies for the push for a further free market, deregulated vision for the UK. Labour would sooner seek solace in the Burnham ‘people do not care’ line, or continue to defend the line that Cameron’s approach is bad for British business (the Emma Reynolds line), than defend the fundamentals of the Single Market – that freedom to trade within the EU has to be accompanied by high social standards. Thankfully the TUC seems to have understood this debate, but we are still a long way away from debating the economic future of the UK sensibly, and drawing every party with an interest into this discussion.
The second issue is the geopolitical future of the UK. As Mark Mardell rightly points out, US politicians “simply don’t see Britain – especially with a declining defence budget – as anything more than a medium-sized power in its own right”. How should the UK react to this? To try to carve out a new role as a medium sized power, with the ability to pick and choose its interventions? Or to collaborate in the EU first and foremost, and with close EU allies seek to forge a European vision for how peace and prosperity worldwide can be fostered? The former would seem to be the Cameron line, the latter is more the Timothy Garton Ash approach. But here too the fixation must not be with the EU as such, but to discuss the EU and its foreign policy, and what role the UK should have within that.
The third issue is that the shape of the UK’s democratic future is rather unclear. The issue of whether to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU once again raises the issue of what role direct democracy should play in a country that, until the late 1990s, had held only one referendum of note. If the people are to decide about the EU, why not about membership of the UN or NATO? Or reform of the House of Lords or, if it is so important to people like Andy Burnham, the ‘important’ issues like schools and hospitals? The UK is suffering from plunging trust in its political institutions and has low and declining party political membership, and with the rise of the anti-party party UKIP, anti-EU feeling is somehow part of anti-establishment feeling. These questions are valid at EU level too – what is the best way to achieve democratic accountability at EU level? Or is it, as Cameron seems to imply, impossible and should not really be attempted? Whichever way, the integrity of UK democracy is not altogether assured, and how the future of democracy will look is worthy of serious consideration and debate.
So, in conclusion, the correct response to David Cameron’s call for a referendum is not to say ‘not now’, and not to say ‘this doesn’t matter to people’. For while the EU in and of itself may not seem to matter much, the deeper questions – about Britain’s economic, geopolitical and democratic future – are vital to each and every UK citizen, and the debate about each of them must not be ducked.