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Continental drift

The Tories will offer a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union and Labour should too. That’s the opinion of a senior member of the last administration.

In time-honoured fashion my source did not want to be identified, but I thought I would share the prospect with you at a time when Euroscepticism is rampant in the UK and the eurozone remains in danger of imploding.

The demand to let the people speak on this issue has been a running sore in British politics since the bitter debates around our entry to the Common Market in 1973.

It split the Labour and Tory parties then and threatens to do so again. Many believe the decision of the then Labour leader Harold Wilson to allow his shadow cabinet to openly oppose each other led to years of division on other issues.

Pro-marketeers like Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins eventually went off to form the Social Democratic Party, leaving behind opponents of Europe like Tony Benn and Michael Foot.

Now it is the Tory Party that is most threatened by the divisive issue of Europe. The majority of the large intake of Tory MPs in 2010 is very Eurosceptic. Many openly contemplate a future for the UK outside the EU and believe that David Cameron will follow most British Prime Ministers in being sucked into the European embrace.

That explains why the Prime Minister used his veto over a new treaty in December, although that has merely whet the appetite of the sceptics for more.

So why does the political establishment not put the issue to the British people?

It’s because they think that a rabidly anti-EU press campaign combined with our traditional scepticism about “the continent” will lead to a vote to come out. They fear that whilst big business in Britain would fear withdrawal, SMEs irritated by EU red tape might see short-term advantage in withdrawal.

So isn’t this an outrageous example of politicians denying the people their right to decide how they are governed? Up to a point, yes, but our leaders do have a duty to pay attention to the long-term welfare of the country. They fear that the substantial risk this country would be taking would be drowned out by populist calls to withdraw.

So let me rehearse the pro- EU argument here in case it is overwhelmed by stories about Brussels bureaucrats and the shape of bananas should the referendum take place.

Let’s begin with Norway, a country governed by faxes from Brussels. Not in the EU, they are nevertheless 100 per cent compliant with every rule governing trade with the EU in order to export their goods. No say, just obey.

How would our interests be served by putting ourselves outside the largest economic bloc in the world? Eurosceptics often talk wistfully about our tradition of looking at the “blue seas”, by which they mean the Empire (gone) and the United States.

The USA wants us in the EU because it values our influence with countries like France, which has often had an uneasy relationship with America.

Of course we would still trade with the EU, but we are an old economy compared with China, India and Brazil. The 26 remaining members might well see the emerging economies as more attractive propositions compared to the curmudgeonly British.

At the moment we can work, travel and retire in any EU country with the minimum of bureaucracy. Do we imagine that would continue?

We will have to wait and see if my source’s prophecy comes true. But if the Tories are going to offer a referendum, he wants Labour to do the same, possibly getting in first. The Lib Dems are the most pro-Europe of the three main parties, but have offered a referendum in the past. He doesn’t want Labour to be the only party refusing to consult the people.

Whether a referendum does take place will partly depend on how the eurozone crisis unravels in the next couple of years, but we face the possibility that the UK will be out of the EU by 2017, for better or probably worse.

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