Comment: Is it too early to start talking about Britain’s post-EU future?

By Des Brown

On the eve of the 1979 general election, James Callaghan said: "You know there are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.”

There feels like a sea change now in favour of the UK heading down a one-way avenue towards exit from the European Union. It feels almost inevitable now that a 'no' (withdrawal) vote will be successful and the UK will become the first member state to depart come the referendum in 2017 (Greenland withdrew in 1985, but they are a Danish province not a state).

It may well be sooner. David Cameron is facing considerable pressure from over a third of his party who are less inclined to renegotiate membership and more to quit at the earliest possible opportunity. Any incoming Labour administration in May 2015 would find the groundswell of support for a referendum impossible to ignore.

But why is what was once unthinkable now likely? The 'no' campaign will become a coalition of the ill-tempered, bitter and always furious. Who will be part of this coalition? Every one who is anti-EU (a broad cross section of people nobody likes, from Michael Gove to Bob Crow), people who are anti-immigration, people who want to restore capital punishment (something which EU membership prohibits), people who are anti-Tory, so will vote 'no' simply because Cameron is fighting to stay in and the Dailys: Mail, Express and Telegraph (which looks increasingly probable it will switch its support to Ukip at the General Election, following its readership).  The 'no' campaign will serve as the depository for lots of people who know what they're against but not what they're for. The Tory right and Ukip will play to this during the referendum, with the two magic words being 'capital punishment' – leave the European Union and we'll be free to re-introduce the death penalty, something which will guarantee the votes of 90% of all policemen alone.

The 'yes' campaign will be measured, thoughtful and full of detailed analysis, as indicated by Geoffrey Howe's article in Sunday's Observer, making a plausible case for British membership. All three major party leaders will campaign for a 'yes' vote to stay in, as well as the CBI and  The Guardian, Independent, Financial Times and Mirror. Although were the Conservatives to lose the election, it is uncertain quite how eurosceptic the political complexion of its new leader would be.

The 'yes' campaign has an excellent case to make. The UK needs to be a member simply because of Britain's USP amongst the world's nations: senior member of the EU, Commonwealth and Nato, the Atlantic alliance with Washington and a seat on the UN Security Council. Leaving the EU diminishes this. It also leaves the UK without free access to one of the world's largest trading areas. And, after all, couples only divorce when they no longer have anything in common, are no longer talking to each other and the marriage has broken down irrevocably. Is this really the case with Europe?

But the 'yes' campaign also has a mountain to climb and their voices will drowned out as the 'no' campaign is characterised its incensed anger and bad temper. Back on June 7th, 1975, a leader in The Times hailed the vote to remain in the EEC as "a wonderful result".   But parallels with the 1975 referendum will be largely redundant as in June 1975 the UK had only been a member of the Common Market for two-and-a-half years, the nature of it was different and there was no Ukip acting as an agent provocateur for acrimony (the result then was 67% voting to stay in). No opinion poll now shows a majority in favour of staying in. The most recent You Gov/Sunday Times poll on May 19 showed 36% would vote to stay, 45% to leave.

No one really knows what the process of British disengagement will involve as, since the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the union has always increased in size, not decreased. However, departure now feels like the settled and inevitable will of a large section of the population and the talk will soon be of Britain's post-EU future.

Des Brown is a blogger behind Be Not Afeard the Isle is Full of Noises, about the cultural, social and political life of Great Britain.  He also writes for the Newcastle Free Press and The Moscow Times.

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