Tag Archives: european-union

An American is trying to sell his car to recover the money lost in the Stock Exchange crash. New York, October 1929 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Brexit and the austerity paradox

Here’s a conundrum. I think it is widely understood now that at least one major factor for why the Remain side lost in the EU referendum campaign was that a significant number of people in the poorest parts of the country did not feel that they enjoyed any of the economic benefits of being a member of the EU and wanted to give the political establishment a bloody nose. There were certainly enough of those voters to make the difference between staying in and leaving the EU, given how close it turned out to be.

So if we’d spent the last decade investing in those parts of the UK and ensuring they saw greater economic renewal, more jobs and a higher standard of living instead of forcing austerity on them, driving up reliance on foodbanks and increasing human misery in the process, we wouldn’t now be seeing the sort of meltdown that we’re witnessing going on in the City right now.

Here’s the thing though. The City had made it perfectly clear that it wanted that austerity. Indeed, the City has quite a lot of form when it comes to threatening governments with economic hardship if it doesn’t get its way. During those infamous “5 days in May” in 2010 when we had no functioning government after the general election, the mood music coming from the Square Mile was grisly. The constant refrain, especially from the Lib Dems in the coalition, was that if we didn’t follow this path economic disaster would follow. I lost count the number of times that Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander over-egged the pudding and claim that we were on the brink of economic disaster on the scale that Greece has experienced over the last few years.

I can mock Clegg and Alexander, but the fact remains that there was some truth in this. The City was telling us to follow a course of action, and were threatening to punish us if we didn’t get in line. They had the whip hand, just two years after wrecking the global economy when you would have thought there would be a little more contrition.

In retrospect, I wonder: would the market have been able to cope with a little less austerity if what it got in return was the UK remaining in the EU? With the benefit of hindsight, I think the answer is yes. And yet here we are now, staring at economic disaster, with no political leadership in Westminster, and with the money men more in charge than ever. There is talk of sensibly abandoning austerity, but only because the economic case is pretty hard to dismiss (just as it was in 2007). And in the longer term, it looks like we’re going to be more dependent on the good will of the markets than ever. Far from having our sovereignty return from Brussels, it’s been punted a couple of miles down the Thames.

For several decades now, there has been an agenda to decouple politics from economics, with both politicians and business alike preferring to pretend that never the twain shall meet. There is only one economic model that works, and politics should focus on non-economic matters. So at the same time as we see all political parties becoming uncritical market capitalists, we see identity politics and nativism take hold. The reality is that the two are fundamentally intertwined. There are deep political consequences to economic decisions, which in turn can – and has – had fundamental economic consequences. Somehow, and I don’t know how, we need to create a greater awareness for how the decisions made on the floor of the stock exchange impacts daily life in Hartlepool. The alternative is a political system which continues to consume itself and drive itself increasingly to extremes, which in turn leads to economic ruin.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 12:  Jeremy Corbyn is announced as the new leader of the Labour Party at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre on September 12, 2015 in London, England. Mr Corbyn was announced as the new Labour leader today following three months of campaigning against fellow candidates ministers Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham and shadow minister Liz Kendall. The leadership contest comes after Ed Miliband's resignation following the general election defeat in May. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Brexit: if you think Corbyn is the problem, you haven’t been paying attention

I don’t think I’ve ever been as appalled by UK politics as I am at this point. That the Leave campaign won the referendum on a pack of lies is a fact in this post-fact world that even its own leaders have implicitly acknowledged by their equivocations, downcast faces and vanishing acts. We are in the midst of undoubtedly the worst financial crisis since 2008, and the level of racist attacks appears to have skyrocketed, but the political and media class have locked themselves into Westminster to focus on their intrigues and petty rivalries. The journalists I follow on Twitter have never been more delighted by the Tory and Labour leadership crises, pigs in shit blithely ignoring the outside world as if it was an unwelcome distraction from the main event. Only Nicola Sturgeon and Tim Farron have shown a shred of political leadership since Friday. It has been gobsmacking to watch, and utterly repugnant.

While acknowledging that it is part of the problem, I don’t feel I have much to add in terms of analysis of the current state of the Conservative Party. A bunch of overgrown schoolboys have played around in politics as if it were nothing more than a game, and now appear to be waking up to the fact that the stakes were in fact very real. I don’t know how it will all play out for the simple fact that I have consistently underestimated Boris Johnson’s ability to survive from political crises of his own making. I don’t have any analysis of why this is; I’ve never understood his charms I’m willing to accept at this point that there are supernatural forces at play here and that only a beheading, stuffing the corpse with garlic and burying it at a crossroads has any chance of stopping him being elected and remaining Prime Minister for the next 50 years. I mean, he survived that Boris Bus debacle – how bad does it have to get?

On Labour, I have a little more to say. It has become painfully apparent over the referendum campaign that Jeremy Corbyn simply isn’t up to the job. He is incapable of commanding respect amongst the PLP, incapable of thinking strategically, incapable of making a good speech and incapable of seizing a political opportunity when it lands on his plate. The problem is, leaving aside the facts that a) there is no guarantee that they will end up with someone more capable, and b) the party has demonstrated it is incapable of any degree of unity for years now, I don’t think you can look at those results last Thursday and conclude that Corbyn is even Labour’s biggest problem. What we witnessed was a party that was incapable of reaching out to its own core communities outside of the major metropolitan areas scattered across England and Wales.

I’m grateful to John Harris’s reportage from around the country, showing the depth of alienation and utter contempt that people in the poorest and most deprived communities across the country have for Westminster politics. What we saw on Thursday, was those people flicking Westminster a massive V-sign. Yes, a minority have fallen for the Brexiteers’ lies and even turned to outright racism. But for the most part, it appears to have been as prosaic as the fact that if large swathes of the country aren’t seeing the (very real, very significant) economic benefits that the UK enjoys from immigration, free movement of people and its membership of EU, they are likely to see very little downside to voting to get rid of it all. They’re wrong, and I guarantee they will come to regret it as the economy tanks and Westminster opts to force them to bear the brunt, but I can understand the feeling all to well.

That it has come to this ought to be a wake up call. To his credit, it seems pretty clear to me that Jeremy Corbyn understands this, and understands that without a significant and meaningful redistribution of wealth the mood in those communities is only going to turn uglier. But it is equally clear that a significant number of Labour MPs don’t and see the solution lying purely in triangulation. It is plain to see that for an awful lot of Labour politicians, the solution lies now in adopting a string of anti-immigration and anti-free movement policies regardless of the bad economic case – just as long as they don’t look as punitive and nasty as UKIP. We’re in the scary situation right now where it is becoming apparent that the Tories are now busily building the case for a Norwegian-style relationship with the EU – where we accept free movement, the imposition of EU regulation and pay roughly the same as we do now but get none of the democratic rights we’ve taken for granted – while what noises we have coming from Labour is that free movement is unacceptable to them. With UKIP now a very real threat in their heartlands, the triangulators are prepared to make the Tories look like wishy-washy liberals when it comes to immigration – presumably in the full knowledge that this will only encourage UKIP and the Tories to push even further to the right.

Triangulation is not a new thing – when it comes to economic policy, it’s got us in a lot of the mess that we now find ourselves after all. But when it comes to immigration, it takes on an all new terrifying dynamic. We’ve already seen that a scary number of racist individuals and groups have seen the referendum result as a starting gun for a campaign of terror and intimidation (again, to be clear, I’m not saying all Leave voters are racist – just that all racists are Leave voters who now believe 52% of the country agrees with them). Imagine how bad that will get if we start seeing the sort of Dutch auction on immigration policy being proposed belligerently by the likes of John Mann and in more velvet tones by the likes of Tom Watson.

And of course, it almost goes without saying that it is simply not the case that this is an automatic vote winner. The SNP haven’t hoovered up Labour support in Scotland by adopting an anti-immigrant position – quite the opposite. Where people do see the economic benefits of immigration, anti-immigrant sentiment is way down. It wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn who persuaded Islington, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, to support Remain by 75%; it was the daily experience of living in an area with high immigration.

If Jeremy Corbyn had spent the last two months going around the country calling for England’s more deprived communities to better reap the economic benefits of the EU and immigration than they do at present (which to be fair to him he did say, sotto voce), then there’s at least a chance he could have turned it around. But it wasn’t just him. It certainly wasn’t a position being championed by Labour In – dominated as it was by centrists in the party. And while Jeremy Corbyn voluntarily gave up his opportunity to share platforms with David Cameron and use it to press him on this matter, it was the position of all the candidates who stood in last year’s Labour leadership election to adopt the same self-defeating no-platform policy.

I’ve been talking about Labour, but to be frank, this is the Lib Dems’ failing as well. While they don’t have the same platform in deprived northern communities that Labour enjoys, they too should have made this case. And if Tim Farron’s welcome stance to stand in the next election on a position of remaining a member of the EU is to reach out beyond the party’s metropolitan base, he too needs to be making the case for redistribution of wealth. This policy will prove a mistake if it ultimately amounts to little more than a plea for business as usual; the City has to be made aware that there is a price that it needs to pay.

Where do we go now? I have no idea. The whole situation is a bloody mess and while I’m sceptical that the markets can wait as long as Labour and the Tories want to get their acts together, we at least have a period during which the rest of us can allow the referendum result to sink in. I don’t think the United Kingdom is going to survive this. I wouldn’t especially begrudge Scotland for leaving us, and the only thing stopping me from saying the same about Northern Ireland is the fear of what might happen if the unionist communities there feel they are being abandoned to their fate. My hope is that the political system of what country remains will be able to crawl out of the quagmire that it is in now, but I’m very scared that the situation is going to get much worse, and much more violent, before we finally turn a corner.

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Why I’ll be voting “remain”

I decided a few weeks ago to break my blogging silence in the run up to the referendum, and the events of yesterday have somewhat concentrated my mind. I had imagined this article would be a magnificent rant about the lies and hate-mongering of the Leave campaign, but as I come to write this, I’ve found myself rather angered out.

Like many people with a history working in politics, Jo Cox’s murder feels close to home. I was working in Lib Dem HQ in 2000 when Cllr Andrew Pennington was killed by a constituent in Nigel Jones MP’s constituency office. I’ve worked the political beat in West Yorkshire. I campaigned for one of my friends, also called Jo, who also went on to represent the community she grew up in in Parliament. So yeah, despite having walked away from party politics, there are plenty of parallels in my own life to have given me pause for thought over the last 24 hours.

The referendum itself has become an undignified, ghastly mess. As a survivor of a previous referendum campaign, this of course has not surprised me one bit. What has surprised me rather more by how, as we near the finish line, I’ve found myself feeling quite as strongly as I did.

Twelve, even six months ago, I was feeling distinctly ambivalent about the EU. The way Greece has been treated, essentially as the sin eater for Eurozone’s shortcomings, has been appalling. The refugee crisis has been met with moral cowardice and indifference. Regardless of the TTIP’s merits or flaws (I’m genuinely on the fence), its secrecy has been, to say the least, undignified. For quite a while now, it hasn’t felt like the EU I felt proud to be a member of at the turn of the millennium.

The one thing I can say about this referendum is that it has clarified my thinking on that. Because the question arises, again and again, what the alternative is. I’ve heard countless people talk about how the EU is “undemocratic” – and yet not a single supporter of leaving the EU seems interested in a system that would be more democratic.

I can think of a number of ways in which the EU could be made more democratic. Opening up Council meetings, for example; there’s even a debate to be had over directly electing the Commission president (regardless of the pros and cons of that particular one, I doubt Jean-Claude Juncker would have had an easy time winning a popular vote). None of them whatsoever involve negotiating EU legislation in the same way that we negotiate bilateral treaties – entirely in the hands of the executive, with most of the work and negotiating done by civil servants entirely behind closed doors.

If we’re serious about improving the democratic scrutiny of EU legislation however, the most crucial place to start is home. Why, for example, are the committees which do the lion’s share of scrutiny of draft EU legislation, seated in the entirely unelected House of Lords? Why doesn’t our parliament scrutinise legislation as closely as so many other countries take for granted, particularly Nordic countries such as Denmark? In turn, if Parliament really wanted to give people more say, there are plenty of models it could adopt. None of these reforms would require agreement in Brussels – we could adopt them tomorrow if there was the political will.

If the EU ceased to exist tomorrow, the need for it would continue. We need trans-national agreements on standards; you might bristle about having to meet EU standards, but believe me you would bristle a lot more if you had to comply with 27 national ones. We need trans-national agreements on social and employment rights, because otherwise employers will face a Dutch auction, with the companies with the worst records in looking after their employees free to price out those with the best. And yes, all too often the EU, far from being an exemplar of free and open trade, is a cosy club of wealthy nations. But scrapping an organisation with protectionist tendencies with a free-for-all in which nation states will be under even greater pressure to roll up the drawbridge, isn’t going to solve that.

Most of the EU’s failings can be put down to narrow national self-interest, something which the EU exists to mitigate. You don’t solve that problem by embracing narrow national self-interest; I’d have thought that was self-evident. I’m actually not convinced that its main problems are institutional; predominantly, they’re cultural. “Europe lacks a demos,” by which is meant a sense of common identity and purpose amongst the people, has become a cliché, but it is nonetheless true and I can’t see an easy solution. Put simply, the vast majority of people just don’t feel a sense of ownership of the European institutions, let alone control. People struggle to name their MEPs and our media does little to report their work. As such, we have a set of actually quite open and democratic bodies which effectively operate in secret because so few people are actually paying attention.

It gets worse though. I think you could equally argue that local government largely lacks a “demos”. It is increasingly becoming true of national parliaments as well. Since 2009 and the expenses scandal, closely followed by the coalition government’s utterly failed programme of reform, the feeling that Westminster is unreformable and irrelevant seems to have set in. Increasingly, political outsiders are being invoked to ride in and solve all our problems, regardless of how unrealistic and futile their positions are. And it’s a global phenomenon: for every Nigel Farage, there’s a Donald Trump; for every Jeremy Corbyn there’s a Bernie Sanders.

What I’m getting round to saying here is that the problem with the EU is not rooted in the fact that we look to our cosy nation-states to represent us and solve our problems, but that democracy itself is in crisis because it is reliant on a sense of identity and common cause that we are losing rapidly. It’s a loss the left is struggling with more than the right, but even though the right is finding itself the beneficiary, it is becoming something shrill and even more incapable of providing reforms that don’t simply make things worse. Moderates who indulge their right flanks are being replaced by demagogic parodies of the politicians they have supplanted.

Not even countries with the best democratic systems are proving immune to this problem, which is fundamentally technological at root and thus irreversible (unless you consider nuclear apocalypse to be an option). Our problems are increasingly global ones. Our communities are too, even if they’ve become narrower. Walking away from the EU won’t stop that; it will just make our problems harder to solve.

Nowhere is this more true than in the case of migration. Economically, we have benefited hugely from immigration and we simply can’t control our borders without international cooperation. There simply is no drawbridge to pull up. Where there is a clear failure in our immigration policy, it is our national failure to ensure that the wider public see those benefits – especially in the case of providing decent social housing for all.

The refugee crisis isn’t going to magically go away if we decide the leave the EU. The tight border controls at Calais aren’t magically going to be made impermeable if we go – and does anyone seriously believe that the price of French cooperation in that regard is not going to go up if we do? Laughably, the Leave campaign’s solution is a “points-based” system along the lines of Australia – a country with a higher number of immigrants per head of population than we do; and while they’re busy plastering brown faces on their billboards with an explicit aim to scare white people, they’re quietly telling Asian voters that they’d make it easier for their relatives to come to the UK.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more disreputable political enterprise in the UK, with the stakes as high as they are, yet it plugs into people’s fears and has proven effective. And does anyone seriously doubt that if they get their way on the 23rd, public dissatisfaction about immigration will get anything but worse?

I have no idea what the solution to any of this is. What I do know is that things will go downhill, much more quickly, if we vote to leave next Thursday. What I do know is that the EU, already under pressure as people across Europe increasingly vote for insular and and xenophobic parties, will struggle even more. And I know that those self-same xenophobes, whether they wrap themselves in Nazi flags or claim to be insulted at the suggestion that they have anything in common with fascists, will only lead us to more violence, death and bloodshed. Not a single one of these problems will go away if the UK votes to remain, but we might just get a little bit more time to breathe and come up with something that might work. And I can’t believe that close pan-European economic, political and social cooperation won’t be part of that solution.

This blog doesn’t make polling predictions, but if it did…

…they’d be pretty sucky. My roundup of polls on Wednesday turned out to be pretty flaky. I’d like to use the excuse that I was only reporting them, not endorsing them, but that’s for the birds.

First of all, turnout: Mat B correctly predicted that YouGov were probably over-estimating and he was spot on. This raises an interesting question: how can YouGov be so right on the polling figures themselves (Anthony Wells has hailed them as the closest pollsters) and yet so wrong on this statistic?

Secondly, the state of the parties in the North West. Here I’m on safer ground as I really wasn’t making a prediction and I didn’t turn out to be that wrong anyway. The Greens were quite close to beating the BNP (although technically, the “tactical” vote was to vote UKIP as they came closest to denying Griffin – the Green tactical vote message was indeed bogus as predicted by almost everyone) and the blanket media coverage of the latter compared with fact that the former were ignored was almost certainly a factor.

Does the European election result vindicate PR as I suggested? Yes it does. I’ve yet to see a council-by-council breakdown of the figures but it will almost certainly show pockets where the BNP were strong and which, under FPTP, they would have been able to target with impunity. They’ve got where they are today through their electoral success in local authorities around the country using the FPTP system to their advantage. It is disingenuous at best to suggest that if we didn’t have PR we wouldn’t now have BNP MEPs.

At the same time, it is incumbant on me to point out that if the election had been run under the STV system, the BNP probably would have been denied. 263,000 votes in the North West didn’t go to any winning candidate which would potentially have been counted if the voters had been able to rank candidates in order of preference. With the exception of the English Democrat voters, the majority of them would have gone to pretty much anyone but the BNP. And with less than one-ninth of the vote, the BNP would have needed those transfers to win. This is one of the great features of STV: it is anti-extremist but works by including more people into the process rather than less.

Regardless, it is clear that the public (at least the ones who voted) are starting to enjoy the flexibility that PR gives them. Almost exactly 2 in every 5 voters supported a party which is not represented in the House of Commons. It would be nice if in 2014 we didn’t have quite so many vanity projects running at once (Jury Team, Libertas, the Socialist Labour Party, NO2EU and the Christian Party all seemed to be living examples of what happens when you mix excessive quantities of self-importance and money together) but fundamentally there is no going back to bad old days of zero choice and foregone conclusions in European elections. What’s more, the appetite for genuinely competitive elections can only increase.

Ironically, the biggest losers in this election would have been Labour if it had been fought under FPTP. They’d have been wiped out (more precisely, their last vestiges would have been eliminated following their disastrous 2004 result). The Tories meanwhile would have won a massive majority of the seats despite only enjoying the support of 1-in-4 voters. That ought to chill any true democrat to the bone.

And what about the Liberal Democrats? Well, we did pretty indifferently. On the ground the party seemed to hold its own in target Westminster seats and ignore everywhere else. This is probably fair enough. What was missing was anything like a decent air war to rally our support in the rest of the country.

The party’s internet operation was stronger than in the past and the mealy-mouthed, look-both-ways stuff about Europe seemed to be less in evidence than during the past two elections. But the campaign was not wildly pro-Europe and failed to frame the debate in any way to our advantage. Much of that couldn’t be helped because of the tsunami that was the expenses scandal; we’ll never know how the campaign would have been different if that hadn’t got in the way. But there does seem little to suggest that Clegg was preparing to articulate a clear, provocative message about the Lib Dems’ attitude towards Europe in the way that he has been very good at doing of late (e.g. his position on the recall of MPs and expenses reform).

Some argued that what the party should have done is come out all guns blazing in calling for the UK to adopt the Euro as soon as possible. I’m a little ambivalent about the Euro (I’m not anti the Euro per se but I was sceptical of unbridled monetarism before it was fashionable and wonder how big the EU budget would have to be to ensure the Euro doesn’t unduly disadvantage whole swathes of its regions), but I can at least see the logic behind it. A core 30% of the UK population is consistently pro-EU and yet no party will engage with them for fear of alienating the other 70% who are either anti or (mostly) utterly indifferent. FPTP makes it difficult for us to engage with this constituency; PR makes it crucial if we are ever to break through this glass ceiling that we seem to be bouncing against.

Fundamentally, if no-one else is prepared to talk up the EU we are truly doomed. The UK cannot afford to leave the EU yet seems to be slowly arguing itself into a corner. Sooner or later this is going to come to a crunch; the quicker the Lib Dems find their voice on this issue the more manageable this situation will be in the longer term.

Ultimately though, we only ceded a little bit of popular support in this election in the most extraordinary of circumstances. It is hard to be too critical of the Lib Dem campaign when even the Tory, UKIP and Labour campaigns were being drowned out at the same time. Somehow however, we need to find a way of articulating a popular form of European integrationism by 2014. Any ideas?

Why are the Tories in such a mess over Europe?

Am I the only person to notice that the Tories were facing in both directions when it came to democracy yesterday? At the same time as condemning Tony Blair for ruling out a referendum on the next European treaty, they were launching a new policy paper which, among other things, called for directly elected mayors to be imposed – without referendum – on every UK city. As under the present system, these elected mayors would have near-unassailable powers and could only be overturned by the council by a two-thirds majority vote. To use Heseltine’s own words, this would be a form of “loose scrutiny”. Despite calling for a bonfire of the quangos, he would meanwhile give the Audit Commission much greater powers, backed by criminal law.

Now, I should keep some perspective here. These proposals are not official party policy, and in any case there is much in them that I have rather more sympathy with. At the same time, I’m grateful that the Conservatives played such a crucial role in forcing the Sustainable Communities Bill through its third reading yesterday, a law which has a real chance of substantially clawing back powers from the centre to local authorities and communities. But it does suggest that the Tories are still struggling to get to grips with this newfangled concept of democracy and people power, and that there is trouble brewing ahead.

On the EU “constitutional” treaty, I happen to broadly agree that a referendum would be desirable. But there are two problems here. Firstly, if the public was asked to vote for motherhood and apple pie, it would probably vote no if it the EU said it was a good idea. There is an EU-shaped boil on the UK’s bum that is in dire of lancing. The Tories know this which is partially why they spend all their time talking about what they are against at a European level and never engage positively in the debate. Secondly, we can’t have a referendum every time the Commission President wants to buy a new pencil. We need proper Parliamentary scrutiny of EU decision making, something the Tories always opposed when in power and continue to play down in favour of claiming weird conspiracy theories about Brussels. In fairness, both Ken Clarke’s Democracy Taskforce and Direct Democracy have now called for a more central Parliamentary role, but the latter certainly is still prone to swivel-eyed lunacy whenever the issue crops up.

Ironically, much of what was in the last proposed EU Constitutional Treaty strengthened the role of both national parliaments and individual citizens in EU decision making. It proposed a ‘yellow card’ system whereby the EU would be forced to reconsider legislation if enough national parliaments demanded it to. It proposed a Europe-wide system of Citizens’ Initiative whereby the Commission would have to formally consider any proposal backed by a million petition signatures. Yes, we could have gone further, and had a ‘red card’ system for instance where X number of national parliaments could block legislation outright, but when have you ever heard a Tory actually suggest such a thing?

There is also this strange confusion between democracy and national sovereignty. You would think, would you not, that a party which spouts rhetoric about the evils of the state and the need for small government would be suspicious of the capacity of the government to represent our best interests at a European or global level. When we look at possibly the EU’s two worst policies – the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy – both have failed because decisions are made at an intergovernmental level, not via the Council and Parliament. The CAP will never be reformed properly until France loses its veto, yet which party believes it should keep these powers? The Tories. The CFP will never lead to sustainable fishing policies until countries such as the UK stop revising its quota system upwards. Taking a short term hit would lead to long term benefits. Everyone knows this. Yet which party defends the existing annual pantomime? The Tories.

Another common complaint from Conservatives about the EU that I find mystifying is about the fact that it has gone beyond the free trade zone that it was sold to the UK as in the 70s. This appears to be rooted in a charmingly quaint view of economics that supposes you can neatly separate out free trade from public services and social issues as if they fitted neatly into their own little silos. Of course, back in the real world, we know that employment laws (for instance) directly affect our ability to compete in the global marketplace. We might disagree what those employment laws should be; we might question whether the EU is making itself uncompetitive worldwide, but if you believe that the EU should not guarantee employment rights, you are not saying that the EU should not have a policy on employment rights: you are saying that the policy should be that any country which has them will be at a distinct disadvantage (this goes to the heart of the French’s complaint about making the EU too “anglo-saxon”).

The bottom line is that these policies are a reflection of the will of the 500 million European people. We may well want to make that reflection more accurate, as I do, but if we want to change those policies, it is surely more democratic to change people’s minds than to deny them what they want?

Meanwhile of course, most of the Conservatives I speak to are all for bringing the marketplace into public services. When I was on 18 Doughty Street last week, all three Conservatives I was on with were enthusiastic about school vouchers. As I’ve said before, I’m open to the idea. But if you want the EU to be a free trade area, and you want to turn everything into a commodity that can be bought and sold in the market place, it follows that your vision of trans-national politics is just as all encompassing as the most pro-state socialist going. Either that, or you’re a protectionist (the default Tory position of course) and lose any veneer of economic respectability. Which is it?

Personally, I’m comparatively Euro-sceptic for a Lib Dem. I’m unconvinced by the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which reads too much like a wish list and lacks the elegance of the ECHR. I think that any future treaty ought to be focussed on bringing the EU closer to the people, which is desperately needed unfinished business, but am wary of rushing into any new grands projets any time soon, decades even. I’m in favour of abolishing the vetoes of member states, but would want to see decisions require a supermajority of some kind to ensure that there is meaningful consensus on such decisions and to keep the number of new directives down. I consider legislative deadlock to be a good thing, broadly speaking. I want an EU that is outward looking and less insular.

I know I won’t get much of that, but does that lead me to wanting to leave? Not at all, because that would mean we’d still have to implement EU decisions into our laws if we want to trade with them; we just wouldn’t have any say into what those decisions were. The EU is still comparatively young and needs time to bed down.

As for the Conservative position, it remains utterly confused. In some ways, a row over the EU now might actually be the worst thing that could happen to them. I’m quite sure that Cameron is praying that the General Election will be before the European Parliament elections in 2009 because he knows how batty his party gets on the issue and that while the population as a whole is sympathetic, it is utterly bored by the whole debate and associates it with Tory splits. Cameron, having been cautious even before getting his fingers burned over Grammar schools, won’t dare try facing down the lunatic wing of his party on Europe.

There is an authentic conservative view on Europe that doesn’t involve wild-eyed conspiracy theories and is about more than banging on about sovereignty, but don’t expect to hear it any time soon.