Tonight is pre-election night. Tomorrow, county and Euro elections.
Which means not one person who has been implicated in MP expenses is standing. To be sure, MEPs have been questioned about their expenses in the past, most notably UKIP, whose value to the taxpayer in terms of cost for work done is lamentable.
Westminster must be reformed, but tomorrow’s vote will not have a direct bearing on it. We could, of course, vote to send a message, but, for once, it appears that all the major parties have got the message already — though, what they intend to do about it varies from the disingenous to the radical.
So, what are the issues for the European elections?
By number of parties standing, you would think the main issue is Europe — in or out. But it isn’t. Not one of the major parties suggests we should leave the European Union. UKIP may see itself as a major party on this issue, but, after a full term with members in the EU parliament, UKIP has yet to be able to show a single change to the European system which it can call its own. A vote for UKIP is, in every sense, a wasted vote.
The reason that the serious parties all agree on our membership of the EU is that, notwithstanding any number of pictures of Winston Churchill and British Bulldogs (now more commonly used for selling insurance), Britain needs to be at the head of an effective, negotiating Europe. No matter what we would love to believe, the USA, Russia, India, China, and the federations of South America and of Africa are much too big for us to negotiate with as a single player. Worse, climate change is much, much too big for us to deal with alone. And worse still, international crime has now successfully organised itself to slip by any single-government policing programme.
Of course, the serious parties disagree seriously on how we should be involved in Europe. To me, it seems clear that there is only one logically consistent position. If we accept at all that we should be in the EU, then we should be fully participating just as much as France and Germany. Otherwise, we will be second-class members paying the full membership fee. This means full co-operation on crime, a genuine collaboration to rebuild our economies, and a concerted approach to climate change. Pollution, drug and people trafficking, and the credit crunch are three things that will not stop at the white cliffs of Dover.
Various gradations of ‘not-really taking part’ seem to me to be more about being seen by the electorate to be just Euro-sceptic enough to vote for. But they will do us as a nation no good in the long run, nor in the short, as we have bitterly seen in the last years.
So what about the ‘consistent’ position not of Euro-scepticism, but of total Euro-phobia? I spent a bit of last Thursday handing out leaflets while the BBC filmed me as background material to vox-pops. It didn’t take long for us to spot which two people were (more or less) walking up and down, lingering, in order to get their chance on camera. And, of course, they launched a tirade against Europe, the Commission, MEPs, MPs expenses, etc, etc.
If you want to get really angry about something, Europe is always a good choice — after all, it’s not going to come round to your house later saying “what was all that about, then?”, nor is it likely to be on the committee of any club you might subsequently want to join. Europe is, in some ways, tailor-made for the English eccentric who wants to have a jolly good rant, and then get back to raking up the leaves or making cakes for a jumble sale.
But, in reality, the Euro-phobic parties do not go any further than that in terms of their real policies. Euro-phobia is just another manifestation of xenophobia. And, like xenophobia, the real problem is where you draw the line about who is ‘foreign’. In its extreme form, American survivalists end up drawing a line around themselves and their immediate family, and declaring cold-war on the rest of the world.
Neither UKIP nor any of the other fringe parties has ever put forward any kind of a credible process by which Britain could leave the EU, nor have they ever put forward figures that any independent commentator would accept about how much it would cost the British economy to do so. This is not simply because there is no credible process. It is because anyone who works to acquire sufficient knowledge to put together such a process learns quickly that the programme itself is nonsensical.
I used to know a lovely old lady who had (as anyone would confirm) a heart of complete gold. Occasionally, though, she would talk about Europe. “They should never have built the Channel Tunnel”, she used to tell me. “That was really the end of Britain as an island.” She never quite explained what the exact implications of the channel tunnel were. I’m not sure if she felt that European-ness — perhaps a fondness for olives, French bread and espresso coffee — would come wafting through the tunnel like a ground mist. I don’t think she knew herself. But I feel that her fears were of exactly the same kind as the Euro-phobic parties: ill-defined, unfaced, impossible to pin down to any specific threat that could be managed or mitigated.
Such is the way of fear. Fear, as we have seen too often in the 20th century, is the worst of all guides at the ballot box. Closely followed by fury.
Tomorrow, we must put aside both fear and fury, and face the issues. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to each other.