Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Thinking about the unthinkable

Fifty years ago saw the start of the Cuban missile crisis. It was a frightening time if you were fifteen years old, as I was, and whatever else one says about Jack Kennedy, one has to admire the way he managed the crisis and resisted the calls of the hawks for early military action. Now it's all old history and it was announced today that two of the Cold War missile sites have been given listed status.

Nuclear war strategy was referred to then as 'thinking about the unthinkable'. Perhaps we also now need to start thinking about another kind of unthinkable, Britain leaving the European Union and what sort of domestic agricultural policy might replace the CAP. Whatever one thinks of British membership of the EU, few would mourn leaving the CAP, but British farmers would be worried about what would take its place. No doubt some contingency thinking is already being undertaken.

My hunch is that if there was a straight yes-no choice, the majority of British voters (although perhaps not in Scotland) would vote to leave. There is some evidence to support this. Peter Kellner of YouGov has written an interesting contribution on underlying attitudes for the LSE European Politics blog: Kellner

In essence the message is that there are three attitude clusters in the electorate in terms of attitudes to the outside world and only one of those could be largely relied on to vote in favour. Kellner thinks that fear would shape a lot of decisions. Of course, that could be fear of the consequences of staying in or fear of the consequences of leaving. Much would depend on the campaign.

Of course, we may never get to a yes-no vote. Dave Cameron does not like the EU, but he does not want to withdraw. His favoured scenario is to 'renegotiate' after the next election when the Conservatives might have an overall majority. He would then put the renegotiated deal to the electorate. Harold Wilson took the stance of 'no entry on Tory terms' before the 1975 referendum and got a few goodies out of the EU, but essentially we stayed in on the terms agreed by Ted Heath. Dave would probably get some concessions out of the EU, but they would fall short of what Eurosceptics wanted.

Hence some Eurosceptics are calling for a yes-no referendum at the time of the next election. Conservatives are worried about a UKIP victory in the 2014 European Parliament elections, a more than likely scenario, and then losing votes to them in the following general election.

How this will all play out depends on a wide range of different factors affecting Conservative Party politics. If Labour wins, there is a different scenario (although if they were dependent on Lib Dem support, there would be another one again). Ed Miliband always jumps on any bandwagon that comes along, although usually what he does is call for a public inquiry rather than a referendum. There wouldn't be any judges left to staff the courts if all his requests were granted. However, Miliband could promise some sort of referendum, although its timing and nature would probably be left vague.

Anyway, the point is that Britain leaving the EU is a sufficiently serious possibility to start thinking what we would do then and that is what I plan to do over the next few months, starting with the nature of agricultural policy betweeen the end of the Second World War and our accession to the EU.

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