“We’re ready to walk out on Europe” was the message last week from the Prime Minister’s close ally Education Secretary Michael Gove, views apparently supported later by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond who said that Gove was merely reflecting “what many of us (ie Tories) feel” in warning that the UK could leave the EU.
These are just the most recent contributions in an unseemly and unsightly brawl within the Tory Party about Britain and the European Union. It’s a struggle that is about internal divisions on the right wing of British politics; the interests of the country don’t get a look in.
Conservative splits on Europe brought down John Major’s government, ensured Tory defeats in subsequent elections, and the wounds have festered over the years, with defections to UKIP, and untold amounts of sniping and plotting from the sidelines.
Now, many Tories, seeing Cameron’s weak and inconsistent handling of Europe – including flouncing out of discussions with his EU counterparts – think they really can achieve what they’ve always wanted. Calls for a referendum grow in volume.
And this is why Labour must once again make the patriotic case for Britain’s place in the EU. We have to point out exactly why it is in our national interest to be fully engaged with our partners in Europe. Above all we have to make it perfectly clear that those advocating withdrawal are guilty of betraying their country.
Labour MEPs launched a new booklet at party conference the other week as a contribution to making this case.
Entitled “With or without the EU – five reasons why it’s better for Britain”, it points out that we are living through “a period of unprecedented change in global power and influence. To ensure a prosperous future for Britain we must face up to the new global realities in the way that is best for Britain.”
On these issues, standing alone, Britain’s voice and influence are limited. “But as a leading voice, shaping the direction of the European Union of 27 countries, the British voice can be heard and our national interests can be protected.”
Already, Shadow Ministers Douglas Alexander (Foreign Secretary), Jim Murphy (Defence) and Emma Reynolds (Europe) have praised the publication. At my own European Regional Forum last Saturday the booklets disappeared like hot cakes, with requests for more copies.
It won’t reach the bestseller list (after all it’s free) but there’s no doubt that it is already fulfilling an important need in a debate which will unfold over the coming months.
And it must be a debate which includes everyone; the businesses who depend on the single market, the employee who relies on the rights at work guaranteed by EU laws, the shopper whose consumer rights are protected, and many more.
The debate must not be the monopoly of the Tory right-wing and their narrow self-interests. They cannot be allowed to hijack an issue of such national importance.