There is a wise adage in politics that leaders, representatives and their parties should listen and respond to the questions the people, their electorate, are asking rather than matters which endlessly fascinate professional politicos but leave virtually everybody else (99.999 per cent of the population) cold.
Enter the torrid and seemingly endless Tory debate on Europe. Begun in earnest under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the Conservatives remain in utter disarray over whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union. As Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times succintly put it, the Tory Party is suffering from “a single-issue neuralgia that knows no equivalent in any major party in the west”.
And nobody except professional politicians actually cares. Opinion polls consistently show that whether or not Britain remains a member of the European Union is not central to people’s lives. According to YouGov they are far more concerned about jobs and prices, schools and hospitals. Although it pains me as an MEP to say it, EU membership is little more than peripheral in terms of voters’ priorities.
All of which leads to the inevitable conclusion that those Tories who fight in such a relentless and unremitting way to get Britain out of the European Union are not answering any question asked by those who voted for them. Instead they are reinforcing their own strange view of the world whereby the EU is seen as the source of almost all that is wrong with Britain and we would all be massively better off without johnny foreigner telling us what to do.
This could be understood and forgiven if it were just a few misguided backbenchers banging the drum. While this may have been the case prior to William Hague’s disastrous four years as Conservative leader from 1997 to 2001, the Tory tide most definitely turned during the first years of the 1997 Labour Government. Local Conservative Associations selected ever more anti-EU candidates while those already in Parliament gained ground. The only comparable episode in recent British politics was the Labour Party during the 1980s when Labour lurched to the left espousing causes such a unilateral nuclear disarmament which the majority of the British people did not want.
Yet the Tories in 2013 are very different position on EU membership. While Labour was in opposition in 1983 when the party wrote “the longest suicide note in history”, the Conservatives are in government, albeit in a coalition, the other part of which, incidentally, does not share their EU phobia. It’s one thing not to listen to the people when the only damage will be that the opposition party does not get elected. It’s quite another not to listen when in government and the party can make a difference to people’s lives.
David Cameron’s unseemly haste to publish the EU Referendum Bill surely indicates that he, the Prime Minister, is not listening to the people. Instead he is putting what he perceives as his Party’s interest first, both internal – pacifying his rabid Eurosceptic backbenchers and external – doing something about UKIP. Cameron is running scared yet in incapable of showing leadership. He appears more like a headless chicken in a mire-filled farmyard than the world statesman he wanted to present during his visit to the United States and meeting with President Obama.
Tragically for David Cameron his strategy of appeasement – appease UKIP and they will not take any more Tory votes and appease the anti-EU backbenchers so that they will pipe down – is patently not working. He is our Prime Minister and as such he would do well to learn basic lessons. Appeasement does not work. Cameron should listen to the people rather than try and maintain an impossible position on something a large majority of the population does not rate as a priority.