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Leader: The Owen referendum plan on Europe is the right one

Britain's place in Europe needs to be resolved.

The eurozone that emerges from the crisis will be unrecognisable from its present configuration. Whether or not Greece, Spain and Portugal relinquish their membership of the single currency, the likelihood is that it will survive, accompanied by a fiscal union of euro countries. In the form of the German-scripted “fiscal compact”, which would impose stringent limits on Keynesian deficit spending by member states, the process is already under way. As Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, told her party earlier this year, “Step by step, European politics is merging with domestic politics.” Eurosceptics, too, acknowledge that “ever-closer union” is Europe’s destiny. David Cameron and George Osborne are fond of referring to the “remorseless logic” of monetary union leading to fiscal union. On that, they are correct.

The implications for British politics are profound. The UK has long had a semi-detached relationship with the EU by virtue of its non-membership of the single currency and the Schengen Area. The risk now is that British influence will be diluted as the core members use the pan-European institutions to alter the terms of the single market, something Mr Cameron is powerless to prevent. Should this happen, the arguments in favour of withdrawal from the European Union would  gather force.

In a column in this week's New Statesman, David Owen, the former Labour foreign secretary and leader of the Social Democratic Party,  says that a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU is “inevitable”. The Conservatives, mindful of the poll bounce they enjoyed following Mr Cameron’s “veto” of the revised Lisbon Treaty last December in Brussels, are expected to commit to one in their 2015 manifesto. Tory strategists are keen to neutralise the increasing electoral threat from the populist UK Independence Party (Ukip), which cost the party as many as 21 seats at the last general election (there were 21 constituencies in which the Ukip vote exceeded the Labour majority). Should a second-term Conservative-led government fail to extract sufficient concessions from Brussels, it is no longer inconceivable that it could stage a Yes/No referendum on EU membership. The Liberal Democrats have previously pledged to hold such a vote “the next time the British government signs up for a fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU”.

Yet, as Lord Owen writes, there is another option to “federalism or bust” – “restructuring” Europe. If the argument in favour of pragmatic reform is to prevail, it is vital for the Labour Party to make its intentions clear now. The alternative, Lord Owen writes, is that it will trail “behind public opinion close to the 2015 general election and will be forced to make a desperate bid to halt the Conservative Party”. Jon Cruddas, who is now leading Labour’s policy review, has argued for a referendum on full withdrawal from the EU. “At certain stages, the political classes should invite the people into the discussion that affects their everyday lives,” he said.

Yet it is probable that such a vote would be lost, with disastrous consequences for Britain’s international standing. In spite of its present woes, the EU has been largely a force for good. It has brought peace to a continent once ravaged by war, transformed eastern Europe and the former Mediterranean dictatorships, and vastly expanded trade and prosperity.

The onus is, therefore, on Ed Miliband to identify a compromise acceptable to both his party and the British electorate. The greatest danger is that the debate remains polarised between federalists and hard sceptics, with the sceptics emerging triumphant each time. There is a patriotic and hard-headed case to be made for sustained British engagement with Europe. It is time for Labour to make it.

Read David Owen's article in New Statesman on Britain and Europe here

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

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The players make their mistakes on the pitch – I make mine on the page

I find that if I watch three live games in a weekend, which often happens, I have totally forgotten the first two by the time the third comes up.

I was a bit humiliated and ashamed and mortified last week because of letters in this magazine about one of my recent columns. Wait till I see the Correspondence editor: there must be loads of nice letters, yet he or she goes and prints not just one, but two picking me up on my mistakes. By the left.

But mainly, my reaction was to laugh. Typical, huh, I’ve gone through life spelling things wrong, with dates dodgy, facts fictional – will I ever learn?

John Lennon did not use a watch. He maintained that he had people on the staff who would tell the time. I don’t wear a watch, either, but for different reasons. I want to get my wrists brown and I hate carrying anything.

By the same milk token, I don’t worry about my spelling. Like Lennon, I expect others to clear up after me. Surely the subs should have spotted it was a typo, that it is 64 years since 1951, not 54 as I wrote? What do they do all day? The other mistake was about replays in the League Cup: too boring to repeat, you would only yawn.

I usually try to get the spelling right the first time I use a word, then bash on, letting it come out any old way, intending to correct it later. Is it Middlesbrough or Middlesborough? Who cares? I’ll check later. Then I forget.

I was so pleased when Patrick Vieira left Arsenal. I found those ten seasons a nightmare, whenever I realised his surname was lumbering into vieiw (I mean “view”). Why couldn’t I memorise it? Mental laziness. The same reason that I don’t know the phone numbers of any of my children, or the correct spelling of my grandchildren’s names, Amarisse and Siena. I have to ask my wife how many Ss and how many Ns. She knows everything. The birthday of every member of the royal family? Go on, ask her.

I might be lazy on piddling stuff such as spelling but I like to think my old brain is still agile. I have three books on the go which are hellishly complicated. I have the frameworks straight in my head but I don’t want to cram anything else in.

It can be a bit embarrassing when writing about football, though. Since sport was invented, fans have been making lists, trotting out facts, showing off their information. As a boy, I was a whizz on the grounds of all 92 League clubs, knew the nicknames of all the clubs. It’s what you did. Comics like Adventure produced pretty colour charts full of such facts. I don’t remember sitting down and learning it all. It just went in, because I wanted it to go in.

Today, the world of football is even madder on stats than it ever was. I blame computers and clever graduates who get taken on by the back pages with nothing else to do but create stats. And TV, with its obsession with possession, as if it meant anything.

I find that if I watch three live games in a weekend, which often happens, I have totally forgotten the first two by the time the third comes up. Not just the score but who was playing. When Wayne Rooney or whoever is breaking records, or not, my eyes go glazed, refusing to take in the figures. When I read that Newcastle are again winless in their first seven League games now, I start turning the pages. If I get asked who won the Cup in 1923, my immediate answer is HowthefeckdoIknow. Hold on, I do know that. It was the first Cup final at Wembley, won by Bolton Wanderers. I remember that, having been there. I don’t know the dates of any other Cup final winners. England’s World Cup win? That was 1966 and I really was there.

I love football history (I’ve written three books about it) but it’s the players and the history of the clubs, the boots and strips, development in the laws, that’s what I enjoy knowing. Spellings and dates – hmm, I do always have to think. Did the Football League begin in 1888 or 1885? If I pause for half a second, I can work it out. Professional football came in first, which must have been 1885, so the Football League came later. Thus the answer is 1888. Bingo. Got it.

But more often than not, I guess, or leave it out. So, sorry about those mistakes. And if you’ve spotted any today, do keep it to yourself. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide