Official pamphlets from the 1975 referendum campaign. Photo: Getty
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In denying people a say on Europe, Labour disgraces its own history

Labour's refusal to even consider a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union is a betrayal of its history and an embarrasment to its radical tradition.

The left in British politics has a proud heritage of enfranchising working class voters and ensuring that working people have a say in how their country is run. It’s a radical tradition that stretches back to the Levellers, through the Chartists, the Suffragettes and the founders of the Labour Party at the turn of the century.

In rejecting a referendum on the EU, Labour have defied this heritage. They are saying that working people cannot be trusted to make a big decision about how the country should be run in the future. They are saying that the elites, the man in Whitehall or the crown placemen know better than the people.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. In the 1970s, it was Labour who were making a principled case that the people should have their say. Michael Foot, a man steeped in the radical tradition said in 1975 that, “this question… will never be settled until the people of this country have had the right to pass judgement on it… we insist that, on a matter of such consequence, only the British people can settle it.”

That is now the polar opposite of where Ed Miliband’s party stand. Since that referendum in 1975, the EU has changed utterly. Both Conservative and Labour governments have handed over power from Parliament to people in Brussels who we do not elect and cannot remove. And the British people haven’t had a chance to give our judgement on any of those transfers of power.

We haven’t had the chance to have a say on our membership of the EU in my lifetime and in that time Brussels has become more and more powerful. It’s clear that Miliband is wrong in refusing the people the chance to have a say on Europe. But what is particularly perplexing is the fact that he’s decided to make his opposition to a popular policy the centrepiece of his campaign.

Miliband has talked about engaging working people in politics, but is utterly unprepared to give people a say on Europe. He has made his concern about vested interests in big business one of the hallmarks of his leadership. His reason for not giving the people a say on the EU? Apparently the very same big businesses he’s been complaining about think it’s a bad idea and they don’t like the uncertainty.

There are a few problems with this uncertainty argument. The so-called uncertainty since David Cameron made his referendum pledge hasn’t stopped the British economy becoming one of the most successful in Europe and creating 2 million new jobs.

And business isn’t as opposed as Miliband makes out. Indeed, most businesses are actually in favour. Of course, there are a select band of businesses who are very comfortable in the corridors of Brussels and made apocalyptic threats about what would happen if we didn’t join the Euro. But polling for ‘Business for Britain’ shows that two-thirds of businesses, large, small and medium-sized, are in favour of a referendum.

The truth is that Ed Miliband has been forced to grab on to the life raft of opposing a referendum in the hope that it will change his anti-enterprise image. In doing so, he’s saying that he’s prepared to offer big business a veto when it comes to giving the people a say. And he’s ignoring the views of those insurgent small and medium sized businesses and those entrepreneurs who are the engines of growth in this country.

The case for a referendum is clear and unarguable. And it was succinctly made by Jon Cruddas, undoubtedly one of the most interesting figures in politics. In 2011, Cruddas said, “this is about democracy. This is about respecting the people. Successive generations have not had a say on the European debate… That is not right and undermines trust in the political process. This will fester until a proper open discussion is allowed. If we do not have a real referendum then anger and resentment will grow. We have to be bold and let the people into this conversation.” Cruddas was right. It’s just a shame that his leader doesn’t share this desire to trust the people. 

David Skelton is the director of Renewal, a new campaign group aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters. @djskelton

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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