At long last the Great Speech, the speech to end all speeches, has been delivered. In it the Prime Minister has bought hook, line and sinker into the belief – peddled by his own eurosceptics – that putting Europe centre stage at the next General Election will deliver his party the outright victory that has eluded them for the past four General Elections. It is a testament to his ability to fly headlong into the face of reality and betrays a disturbing faith in his own abilities that very few people actually share.
It is a Fantasy Land in which Cameron is in total control of his party, where he has the unwavering backing of a grateful British public and where other world leaders gaze in awe at his ability to capture the zeitgeist so uncannily. In Fantasy Land there is no need for proper ideas or specific reforms; the evils of the EU that must be slain are clear: it is too slow, too focused on the welfare of its citizens and needs to be stripped right back in order to fulfil its purpose of a trading bloc where countries compete with emerging economies on the basis of low-cost, unproductive and unprotected labour.
In Fantasy Land opinion poll after opinion poll has respondents screaming their frustrations at being a member of the European Union before adding, as a footnote when pressed, their concerns about jobs, the NHS and the cost of living. Fantasy Land is inhabited by gleeful Tories who have somehow, despite leaving the mainstream European People’s Party to join the hostile fringe, finally persuaded the centre-right in Europe to realise the folly of their ways, do an about turn and accept the worldview of Liam Fox.
The danger of Fantasy Land is that proponents soon start to ignore any semblance of reality around them and press on regardless. In so doing the facts become lost in dogma. And those of us grounded in reality can become complacent about the need to inject some common sense in the mistaken belief that reality and fantasy never cross over. Now that the entire fate of the country has seemingly been hinged on the Tories’ chief neurosis, as Labour activists we must make our position clear. We should use this moment as an opportunity to put an alternative view of what Europe should be to the British people, referendum or no.
Our record is a good one. As constructive members of a coalition of sister parties Labour has successfully secured protection for workers in the form of anti-discrimination and paid leave rights as well as initiatives such as the European Youth Guarantee, which give young people a real and achievable pathway into work. Our countryside, cities and beaches are cleaner now than ever before. The days of criminals and fugitives escaping justice by fleeing to other European countries are over. We compete with emerging economic superpowers not in a race to the bottom but as members of the largest single economic bloc in the world where the freedom and protection of an employment market of 500 million citizens is assured. All of this achieved through constructive engagement, and none of it by accident.
Now it’s up to us to start our own reality-driven discussion on reform. We cannot afford to ignore Cameron’s Fantasy Land, hoping it will fizzle away. Without developing and making the case for our alternative, Fantasy Land is all the British public will hear or know about Europe. Once we have begun that discussion here is my prediction for how reality will play out: when the real choice on offer is made clear at the next General Election it will be obvious which party is on the side of the British people.