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20 April 2015

Europe: in or out? The Cambridge Literary Festival New Statesman Debate

The Ukip and Lib Dem candidates for Cambridge clash over Europe in a packed debating chamber.

By Tom Gatti

In a packed Cambridge Union Debating Chamber on 18 April, Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, clashed with the Ukip candidate standing for his seat, Patrick O’Flynn. The motion of the Cambridge Literary Festival New Statesman Debate was “This house believes that Britain should leave the European Union,” anticipating the referendum that may or may not be on the cards depending on who forms a government after 7 May. O’Flynn, Ukip MEP and the party’s economic spokesman, distanced himself from hardline eurscepticism and libertarianism but described Britain’s membership of the EU as an “epic wrong turn”, citing the lack of a shared European patriotism (only visible among golf fans at the Ryder Cup) and the lack of economic benefit, Europe being the only continent not experiencing economic growth. The Eurozone crisis has shown, he argued, that the EU has lead “not to harmony but to old enmities arising”. In stark contrast to his party’s leader Nigel Farage, O’Flynn did not once mention immigration, perhaps guessing that migrant-bashing might not go down well with the largely middle-class, liberal-leaning audience (a show of hands at the beginning showed that the room was overwhelmingly pro-EU).

Huppert, confident in a room of natural Europhiles – and in an election race in which Lord Ashcroft’s polls have indicated that he has a clear lead – alluded to xenophobic scaremongering in a thinly veiled dig at Ukip and mentioned shared resources on climate change, policing and, above all, the benefits to British business: the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which has recently been given the green light to build a £330m global headquarters in Cambridge, would have left Britain had it not been a member of the EU. Huppert and O’Flynn quibbled over financial statistics: Huppert’s claim that EU membership benefits the UK to the tune of £70bn per year was dismissed by O’Flynn. In round terms, he said, we put £20bn in and get £10bn out – an arrangement akin to “someone in the street asking you for a £20 note only to hand you back £10 and tell you what to spend it on – and you’re expected to be grateful”.

Elsewhere, more unusual proposals were laid out. Joining O’Flynn in speaking for the motion, Ralph Buckle, director and co-founder of the Commonwealth Exchange thinktank, suggested that the UK needs more immigration, but that by opening borders within Europe we are shackling ourselves to an ageing, economically stagnant population: we should be seeking higher-quality migrants from elsewhere in the world. Also for the motion, Brendan Simms, a Cambridge historian, argued that the Eurozone “urgently needs to establish a full political union, transcending all national sovereignties”. This would solve the EU’s problems with the common currency, the destabilising dominance of Germany, and its inability to respond to external threats from, for example, Putin’s Russia. Britain, strong enough to stand on its own feet, would probably choose not to join such a super-state, but would instead form a new confederation with the Eurozone. The all-round stability of this arrangement, Simms argued, would be very much in Britain’s interest. Joining Huppert on the pro-EU side were Mark Leonard, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century, and Frances Robinson, New Statesman columnist and former Brussels correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

The Cambridge Literary Festival was relaunched last year, with a media partnership with the New Statesman. Last week 11,000 audience members attended events featuring autors including Robert Macfarlane, Ali Smith, Eimear McBride, Judith Kerr, Graham Swift, Michael Rosen, Roy Hattersley, Shirley Williams and Will Hutton. The festival has a second annual one-day edition in the winter: this year it falls on Sunday 29 Novemeber.

Photo by Chris Boland

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