established 1828

Lord Lawson’s exit

Lord Lawson’s announcement that he intends to vote for Britain to leave the European Union has been interpreted by some as reinforcing demands that David Cameron holds his referendum this year or next, rather than 2017. But it does no such thing. Follow Lawson’s arguments and the logical conclusion is that the best chance of securing a British exit from the EU is for a vote to be held as planned, in four years’ time.

As the Prime Minister has said in a letter to MPs, he is powerless to bring in a vote while in coalition because the Liberal Democrats are so vehemently against it. Nick Clegg’s commitment to the Euro project is such that he would not allow it to be threatened by giving the public a say. But the Prime Minister’s strategy is a sound one anyway, and not only because he will need all the reasons he can muster to encourage people to vote Tory in 2015.

Even if it were politically possible to bring forward the date of the referendum, the fag-end of the current parliament would be a rotten time to hold it, giving little time to enact the legislation which would fulfil the demands of a public mandate to leave the EU. This momentous event ought not to be rushed. And the public’s mood is fairly settled: for some time now the European Commission’s own opinion polling has found the British the most reluctant members of the union. Just one in six of us have favourable impressions towards the EU; even the Greeks like it better.

There is a limit to the time any democracy can be kept in a union against the will of its people. David Cameron is simply trying to renegotiate membership terms to a position that the British public find acceptable. As Lawson argued, it is unlikely that we will be given concessions; the EU will prove every bit as intransigent and power-hungry as its detractors suspect.All Cameron is doing is asking Brussels to make its best offer — not to him, but to the people he works for. Four years is a generous amount of time for the EU to think of what those terms might be.

What Britain wants is what we voted for in 1975: a common market. But even this has proven far less beneficial than those who voted for it (including Margaret Thatcher) first envisaged.As it turns out, a customs union did not lead to a boost in continental prosperity. William Hague’s description of the eurozone — ‘a burning building with no exits’ — has proven closer to the mark.The policy of erecting barriers against those outside the continent has badly hurt Britain. Switzerland now sells more to China than the United Kingdom does. British exports to emerging markets are among the lowest in the continent.

Mrs Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore, reveals on page 11 that she came to believe that Britain’s best interests lay outside the European Union. This ought not to be a surprise; it is those who demur who are now in the minority. The British are a fairminded people, and want to give our troubled relationship with the EU one last go. If David Cameron is re-elected and sets off around Europe to begin his attempted renegotiation, we will see if the EU is similarly reasonable. After this discussion, we should be able to cast an informed vote in a referendum. Eurosceptics ought to be licking their lips at the prospect. It will be worth the wait.

Long may she reign

Queen Elizabeth looked in remarkable health as she read out the government’s list of legislation on Wednesday — some achievement, given the paucity of content. Even so, the talk of her possible abdication will dominate newspapers for months to come — not because there is any such plan, but because for royal correspondents her decision to skip November’s Commonwealth meeting is a gift.

These writers are unsurpassed in the dark art of making something out of almost nothing. A single glance between Elizabeth II and Prince Philip provides enough material for a double-page feature; one sharp word to a corgi and the self-appointed palace priests augur doom. So of course within a few hours of the announcement that Prince Charles would fly to Sri Lanka in his mother’s stead, royal-watchers were wondering what sort of a monarch King Charles III might be.

In America, where England is sometimes depicted as a semi-fictitious fairyland, the internet has hummed with rumours of an attempted coup by the Duchess of Cornwall, wicked stepmother to Kate’s Snow White. But ‘The Windsors’ is not a TV show, and the Queen’s sensible decision not to take long flights is not a cliffhanger. Although millions of words will be written in the coming days about her possible abdication, the most telling are those of the Queen herself. In 1947 the young Princess Elizabeth broadcast live to the Commonwealth: ‘My whole life,’ she said, ‘whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.’

the spectator | 11 may 2013 |