Are we going to let David Cameron be Harold Wilson?

January 16, 2013 3:16 pm

Even though we aren’t yet privy to any exact details – which has become something of a theme under this government – we can be pretty confident in what David Cameron will say in his speech on Friday.

Demands for changes to various laws and treaties, all in the name of securing “a better deal” for Britain, followed by the promise of a referendum. By turning any future referendum into a discussion not of EU membership more broadly, but toward the merits and demerits of the outcomes of such a deal, not only does Cameron make it more likely that people would vote to stay in the EU, but he is also is likely to placate many of the more Eurosceptic members of his party for the time being.

Of course, we’ve been here before. Labour’s referendum in 1975 centred less around the issue of European membership more generally, but more around the “better deal” achieved by Wilson in his own negotiations. This “better deal” essentially boiled down to the creation of the European Regional Development Fund; you can make your own minds up on whether we can call that a “better deal”. In reality though, it didn’t matter. What was important was that people felt that such a deal had been achieved and rewarded Wilson for it. Cameron appears to be positioning himself in the same way, and this is set to dominate debate about the EU in the near-future.

People may also remember how, just a few months ago, it seemed a likelihood that Labour would seize the initiative on this subject and offer a referendum on the EU based on improved terms. Nigel Farage referred to this as “the Jon Cruddas approach”, but you could call it “what Cameron is going to announce on Friday”. While Douglas Alexander now has a European speech scheduled for tomorrow, what he says has already become almost irrelevant. So known are the rough outlines of what will be in Cameron’s speech that trying to say we would do essentially the same will not work. He could announce that we will oppose what Cameron wants to renegotiate, or commit to an in-out referendum regardless of any negotiation outcomes, but I fear neither would make up for the missed opportunity of last year.

Having baulked at the chance to genuinely set the agenda, we are now in a position where we might not even be seriously afforded a hearing as an opposition. It is a tragedy that Labour did not do as many then suggested, and as a result have granted Cameron the initiative. The idea that Cameron appears most likely to lay claim to Wilson’s legacy is incredibly depressing, but it is worse still that this has left Labour with so few options. Cameron is often said to have many similarities to Edward Heath, but on this he is more like Wilson. Let us hope that this is not the policy that spurs Cameron to a majority.

  • http://twitter.com/youngian67 Ian Young

    Cameron as Wilson on Europe? Strategically he’s more somewhere between John Major and Michael Foot.

    As for his main target for repatriation of powers-to deny British workers some fairly uncontroversial minimum common labour and social rights, puts Cameron politically nearer to Friedrich Hayek than Harold Wilson.

    And if the Labour Party can’t win the argument on that woeful agenda we should all pack up and go home.

    On the subject of Wilson, he may not of been a heartfelt European like Heath, but as a technocrat he realised the UK was no longer an imperial power with the economy of scale to go it alone against the might of huge economies like the US- an argument that is more relevant now than in the 1960s.

  • Daniel Speight

    A lack of courage on Ed Miliband’s part not to take the Cruddas approach I suspect.

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