A Nation Divided: The United Kingdom and The European Union
You’d think that after watching the last two conservative prime ministers crumble under the weight of the E.U. Conundrum, that David Cameron would have chosen a more delicate path than the one he took on Wednesday. In a much heralded speech, the Torrie prime minister laid out his plan to renegotiate British membership conditions in the European Union pending his re-election sometime after 2015. Cameron would then take the new U.K.-E.U. Membership proposal directly to the British people via referendum.
In the immediate aftermath of Cameron’s proclamation, the response from all sides has been a chaotic and bewildered one. Leaders and politicians on the continent have by and large professed a scathing critique of what they see as a British attempt to “cherry pick” economic benefits without “committing to the broader E.U. Project”. Within the U.K. the Euro-sceptic wing of Cameron’s own conservative party leapt to his defence while the opposition were as one would expect, generally critical. Perhaps the most foreboding sign however is the opposition from within Cameron’s own party. In the recent political history of the U.K., no single major party has had a unified policy platform on the issue of the E.U. While the general cacophony in the aftermath of Cameron’s announcement will dominate headlines in the ensuing days, it is even more interesting to analyse what the referendum might actually do.
First and foremost, the assumption of a continued conservative majority must be made. Considering Cameron’s party is trailing labour in the polls, a conservative victory is by no means certain. If it does occur however, Cameron will then find himself in the awkward position of having to first negotiate with the European Commission, and then with the people of Britain. There is a convenient recent historical example, that of 70s labour prime minister Harold Wilson, that serves as a near exact blueprint for how such a situation might turn out. Back in the early 70s, Wilson made nearly the same identical promise as Cameron on the issue of Europe. Wilson was unable to negotiate any significant compromises on the core U.K.-E.U. Issue but was nonetheless obligated to present and defend his proposal to the British people in referendum form. The labour party was torn in two in the ensuing electoral contest with multiple members of Wilson’s cabinet campaigning against his platform! If Cameron were to push a similar proposal, more than half a dozen ministers including those of health, education and a former secretary of defence have pledged their vocal opposition.
Unfortunately for Cameron, both the Labour party and the Euro-sceptic wing of the conservative party have painted the prime minister into a corner by framing the next election as one of the E.U. issue. As a result, Cameron will have to campaign on his referendum proposal and face the grim alternatives of losing power or seeing an inevitable fractioning of his party when he is forced to push the E.U. issue post-electoral victory. There is a reason that the U.K.-E.U. relationship has so long been considered the bane of conservative politicians. Cameron would have done well to ignore the discontent of pro-European MPs and not pushed for such a drastic course of action.