The content went further than had been foreseen by many – not least because in talking in clear terms about an ‘in/out’ vote, it was a change from what Cameron himself seemed to have been saying previously. The much-vaunted referendum is predicated, of course, on the increasingly unlikely assumption of a Tory victory in the 2015 General Election. Indeed, even those who aren’t particularly cynical can see that the whole speech had more to do with trying to reduce the improbability of that election result that with the question of EU membership per se. Not exactly the best basis on which to make such a fundamental decision.
It’s also predicated on another assumption – that the other members of the UK will be willing to allow one member to negotiate a new and unique category of membership applying only to itself. Whether that is more, or less, probable than a Conservative election victory is a matter of opinion. I rather suspect that the other members will do their very best to kick the issue into the long grass until after that General Election. Why bother negotiating something you don’t want with what looks like a lame-duck Prime Minister?
The reaction of one of our local Tory MPs to the unlikelihood of the EU’s other members welcoming a renegotiation confirmed, yet again, the attitude of many in his party to the EU. “If that makes the Europeans squeal a bit, so be it,” said Simon Hart. It’s perfectly clear from that use of language that ‘European’ is not a word which applies to ‘us’; it is something ‘other’, something external.
I don’t for one moment disagree with Plaid’s call for the vote in Wales – if this referendum is ever actually held – to be separately declared. I suspect, however, that both Plaid and Labour are deluding themselves if they believe that the result of any vote in Wales would be significantly different from that in England. The fact that the Welsh and English political establishments take very different views does not mean that those differences are reflected in the electorate at large. I see no hard – or even soft – evidence of that.
Pouring scorn on Cameron for a piece of shifty political manoeuvring which is all about his own party’s political advantage is easy. It’s a lot harder to argue against the principle of holding a referendum at some point on an issue of such major constitutional importance as this. After all, if there is no case for a referendum on a significant constitutional issue on which both the public at large and the politicians are clearly divided, then what is the case for ever holding a referendum on anything?
To argue that there should be no referendum, ever, appears to be saying either that the issue is not important enough, or else that the politicians don’t trust the electorate to make the right decision. (Actually, most of them probably don’t, but they can hardly stand up and say that.) And arguing that the issue or the timing is wrong look like fudge. Cameron has let the genie out of the bottle; whilst he might have been trying to distract attention from an issue on which his party is rather badly split, I rather suspect that he has actually ensured that the issue will dominate much of what his own side are saying for the next four or five years.
The problem – and the danger – is that, if such a referendum actually happens, the debate will revolve around jingoism, insularity, immigration, and perceptions about bent cucumbers and euro-sausages, rather than being a serious debate about the future position of Wales. However, if we can turn it into the latter, then it could also become – probably would also become – a debate about Wales’ position in both unions. That’s a big ‘if’; but Cameron might just possibly have done nationalists something of a favour here, albeit entirely unintentionally.