Once again, Conservatives put party before country


INSIDE POLITICS:David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on British membership of the EU in 2017, if he wins the next election, has caused more puzzlement than outrage among leaders of the other member states. The generally pro-EU tone of the speech was at odds with the conclusion that Britain will leave if it doesn’t get what it wants, while the lengthy five-year time frame for the process raises all sorts of questions about his motives.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Cameron is engaged in a cynical political ploy to try to salvage victory at the next British election by trumping Ukip and wrong-footing the Labour Party into an unpopular stance on Europe.

The potentially damaging consequences for the British economy from five years of uncertainty have taken second place to political expediency, but it wouldn’t be the first time that the Conservative Party has put party before country.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny responded calmly, saying that much of what the British prime minister apparently wants could be agreed without a new EU treaty. He also noted wryly that “five years is an eternity in politics”. Not everybody took it as serenely. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said Britain could not expect Europe to be an “a la carte” menu, or expect to change the rules of membership just for itself.

“Imagine we are a football club. You join the football club, but once you are in, you cannot say ‘Let’s play rugby’,” he said on French radio.

In Dublin yesterday Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones blamed “corrosive English nationalism” for driving the debate on Britain’s future relationship with the EU and asked why it was taking five years to resolve the question.

Five years of uncertainty

While Cameron’s approach may buy him time politically, the five years of uncertainty he has created can’t be good for the British economy. The former Labour minister and EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson called the speech “schizophrenic” and said Europe would not respond positively to being treated as a “cafeteria service where you bring your own tray and leave with what you want”.

Mandelson’s reaction may have had something to do with the fact that Cameron’s speech appeared primarily designed to create problems for Labour, which is now leading in the opinion polls.

The prime minister was clearly trying both to protect himself from Ukip and the right wing of his own party as well as putting Labour leader Ed Miliband in a bit of a spot. Anti-EU hysteria in England, promoted and fanned by the repulsive British media, is a potent force but Cameron has actually given it respectability by his decision.

To his credit, Miliband has so far kept his nerve and not allowed himself to be bullied into accepting the need for a referendum on Cameron’s terms. He will find it hard to stick to that line, however, when the accusations of not wanting to listen to the democratic will of the people are thrown at him.

Cameron’s decision to play politics with something so important to Britain’s vital national interests should come as no surprise. The British Conservatives have a long history of political cynicism, as we in Ireland know only too well. They opposed the first Home Rule Bill in Ireland in 1886 and played the Orange card with as much of an eye on splitting the Liberal Party as on preserving the union.

They repeated the process in 1912 by bringing the United Kingdom to the brink of civil war over the third Home Rule Bill. That flirtation with treason achieved its objective in the strange death of liberal England. With that accomplished, a Tory-dominated cabinet in 1922 signed the Treaty establishing the Free State that went far beyond Home Rule.

There are numerous other episodes from history that demonstrate how the British Conservative Party made itself the most successful political party in the world by putting party before country at frequent intervals in order to destroy their political opponents.

Pragmatism, as it is politely termed, has served the party well but this time there is a possibility the process could work in reverse and Cameron could even destroy his party by the manner in which he has let the genie of little Englander nationalism out of the bottle.

Instead of drawing the fangs of Ukip and the Tory right, the decision is likely to encourage them to believe they can get what they want if they keep up the pressure. He could also find his authority as party leader eroding if he does not manage to get serious concessions from his EU partners – and most of them will be in no mood to make such concessions. In that scenario, he may find it impossible to campaign for a Yes vote.

Shift in opinion

Cameron may also have misjudged the British public. The most recent YouGov opinion poll conducted a week ago has shown a big shift in sentiment on the EU, with a majority now in favour of remaining in as the prospect of an exit has become more real. The shift in opinion is particularly strong among Labour supporters, so it may well be that Ed Miliband and Labour are actually more in touch with British opinion on the issue than the Conservative Party or the media.

One thing Cameron may have achieved with his demand for a new EU treaty involving concessions for the UK is to put an end to talk of any kind of new treaty.

The Germans have been pressing for the past year or more for a treaty designed to deepen EU integration at every level. That could have posed some difficulties for Ireland, and the last thing this country needs is another referendum on the EU, at least until all the difficulties associated with the bank bailout are sorted out. Tory cynicism may have a silver lining for us after all.

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