This issue – Europe – is one on which they would genuinely like a say. All the polls say so. The British have not been consulted on this vital constitutional matter since 1975 – whereas it has apparently been all right to submit similar questions to the Danes, the French, the Irish and plenty of others.
Is there some difference in the cognitive faculties of the British people? Is Labour saying we are incapable of getting to the heart of the matter, and of coming up with an answer that is in the long-term interests of this country? If this is the position – and I defy Ed Miliband to say it isn’t – then it is not only patronising and condescending to the electorate. It is boneheadedly stupid.
As even Lord Mandelson silkily accepted at the beginning of his speech, the EU is in need of reform. It is not just the euro that is a disaster area: one of the reasons that the EU is a global microclimate of relative gloom is the ceaseless production of regulation, over the past 50 years, that is now starting to make the whole continent uncompetitive. The entire enterprise needs to be shaken up, and Britain could lead that effort.
There is a new model to be offered, in which there is plenty of scope for idealism. We should be completing the internal market in services – opening up opportunities for everyone from lawyers to hairdressers to ski instructors. And we should be offering the European public things they actually want – like cheaper roaming costs for mobiles. We should zap so much of the bureaucratic malarkey that is holding European business back. We don’t need the CAP, we don’t need the social chapter, we don’t need the European Court adjudicating in home affairs.
In fact – as almost all politicians, including Nick Clegg, now seem to be saying – we need to recover some control over our borders, and we certainly need to be able to insist on longer derogations before migrants from EU accession countries are entitled to our benefits.
That is a completely reasonable request, and reflects the immense changes we have seen in the EU. When we joined the Common Market, it was a small and relatively economically homogeneous group of nine. There are now 28 countries and a combined population of about 500 million. There is an appetite for reform around the table in Brussels, and I bet there is more than one country that might want to join us in leading the charge.
Instead, the attitude of Labour is resolutely defeatist. Oh, they will never agree to that, say people like Mandelson. You’ll never get your way in the renegotiation, they say, so you might as well not bother.
Well, you certainly won’t get anything if you have Miliband in charge; and you won’t get anything if you have Cleggers in charge, either. But you certainly will get a change if you have David Cameron in charge. And there is one simple way to fortify his position, one gigantic bazooka he could bring into the conference chamber.
Our friends and partners in Brussels need to understand that they are not just negotiating with the namby-pamby elites of this country. In offering new terms of membership, they must understand that they are dealing with the people – the British electorate, cussed and suspicious, who will pronounce in a referendum.
As it happens, I think the people will suck their teeth hard, squint into the future, and go for the kind of prospectus now being offered by the think tank Open Europe – stay in the single market, but axe much of the rest. They will want the best of both worlds. If they can, I think people will vote for staying in – on the right terms. But Britain won’t be offered the right terms unless the people are given the chance to vote. Get the EU to stare down the barrel of a British referendum – or forget about any chance of reform.