The EU referendum was never about the EU

In January 2013, David Cameron told Britain it needed to re-evaluate its EU membership. Perhaps surprisingly, the referendum has less to do with the EU than you might think.

Our national interest is to be in the EU, helping to determine the rules governing the single market – our biggest export market, which consumes more that 50% of our exports and which drives much of the investment into the UK. That is not an abstract, theoretical argument: it matters for millions of jobs and millions of families in our country.

Believe it or not this is an actual David Cameron quote. Faced with a motion to vote on the EU, the prime minister told parliament an EU referendum was out of the question.

But that quote was from October 2011.

A little over a year after that, in January 2013, Cameron told the country it does need to re-evaluate its EU membership.

What brought about this complete U-turn?

Perhaps surprisingly, the referendum has less to do with the EU than you might think.

You see, the way a referendum usually comes into being is by people putting pressure on the political elite demanding a say in a hot political issue. It’s essentially a bottom-up process.

The EU referendum doesn’t fit that description. It’s a diktat from the governing party proposed at a time it was in turmoil.

The swivel-eyed

Let’s journey back in time to January 2013. Back then, the prime minister had a hard time controlling his own party. Persistent rumours of backbenchers plotting to topple Cameron circulated in the media.

Most problematic was a group of around 60 hard-line Eurosceptic Tory MPs. Given that Europe wasn’t an issue people felt particularly strong about, proposing a referendum on the EU seemed like an easy way to close ranks.

There was just one problem. In the words of Alex Salmond, then leader of the Scottish National Party: “You can never out swivel-eye the swivel-eyed.”

The Eurosceptics weren’t impressed with a referendum. Their minds were set on a British exit from the EU, or ‘Brexit’. That’s why we’ve seen Tory MPs defect to Ukip even after this ‘compromise’.

Aren’t the Brits dying to vote on the EU then?

Err, not really. At the time the referendum was announced only 17% of the British people considered Britain’s relation with the EU a priority. At this year’s election, Europe ranked ninth in terms of important issues to voters.

It’s a nice decoy, though. With the media focusing on the Europe question, they might pay less attention to issues that matter more to Brits. Things like the state of the NHS and the housing crisis have been bumped from the front pages and replaced by something the people don’t feel strongly about.

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No leadership

But, surely, Cameron changed his mind about the importance of the vote?

I personally don’t think so. I think he still doesn’t want Britain to leave the EU and he still doesn’t believe in a popular vote on the matter.

Why? Because he hasn’t shown any leadership on his big renegotiation.

You’d expect someone who is deeply concerned about Britain’s place in Europe and passionate about reform to put forward concrete proposals. Maybe he could’ve addressed the European parliament to get political backing. We’ve seen none of that yet.

What started out as bad party management has oil-slicked into a popular vote the PM doesn’t want on an issue he himself is unambiguous about.

Martin Luther King once said that ‘a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a moulder of consensus.’ Instead of sticking to his guns Cameron tried to appease the unappeasable, and inevitably failed. If anything, his party is now more divided than it was at the start.

So we’re left with the prospect of two opposing sides of big business telling us why we should vote a certain way and why we should care for the next two years. Great fun.

Still, I hope you will do three things in the years ahead.

One: try to read up on the issue with an open mind so you can make an informed decision.

Two: keep remembering that there are more important matters that require your attention.

Neither you nor Cameron asked for this referendum. Let’s not let the issue become bigger than it is.

And three: try to still care enough about the issue to cast a ballot after having been battered by in and out campaigns for years on end.

That last one might just be the biggest challenge of all.

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