The British state and its traditional owners have myriad ways of making their power mysterious and occult. Top of the list is the Queen’s Speech, recently given, in which the actual ruler of the country attends Parliament to read out a list of policies, as if she had thought of them herself. What could possibly go wrong with that?
Well, if you’re Prime Minister David Cameron, you could have a backbencher from your own party propose a motion of regret that there something was missing from the speech and thus have the spectacle of up to 100 members of the Conservative Party voting against a speech by the Queen.
So it has come to pass. While Cameron is in the US, where both he and President Barack Obama are avoiding sticky domestic policy issues by talking to each other, the House of Commons has voted on a bill committing to an “in/out” referendum on EU membership in 2017. Cameron has already promised this, so the Tory Party voted it up, right? Ah, not so much.
The motion put the issue entirely in terms of it being left out of the speech. That gave the government — i.e. Tory ministers — no choice but to vote against it, lest the government be deploring its own program. If not exactly a constitutional crisis, it would have created a constitutional contradiction. The motion of “deplorement”, or whatever, gained 133 votes, 116 of them Tory, with independents and a small group of Labour, anti-EU from the Left.
The deplorundum was the climax of a couple of weeks of hell for Cameron, as a number of grandees broke ranks to come out against UK EU membership. The most prominent of these was Nigel Lawson, who had been Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor when the government signed on to the Single European Act, committing the UK to the process that led to Maastricht and the EU we have today. Thatcher later described signing the SEA as a mistake, saying she never realised it would open the process by which the EU could set limits on national law, and move towards a single superstate.
Thatcher’s funeral and all its bizzarreries unquestionably bucked up the anti-EU groups — and when the UK Independence Party pinched half the Tories’ vote to gain a 25% vote in local and byelections a fortnight ago, minds were concentrated. Cameron has argued that a referendum on EU membership needs to be delayed, so he can get a better deal from the EU to put on the table. But more likely it is a way of nabbing a few extra votes for those slavering for a referendum.
“The prospect of the UK now leaving the EU has become real. If there is a UK by then.”
Both Labour and the Lib-Dems have come out against a referendum, sorta kinda. Labour has dithered, and the Lib-Dems were for a referendum before it became clear that the pro-EU camp might lose. With a referendum promised under a new Tory government, Cameron hopes that enough UKIP supporters can be persuaded to vote Tory as the only way to guarantee a referendum — and thus avoid the nightmare scenario where UKIP take a 5-10% vote across the board, thus handing a bunch of Tory marginals to the other two parties. But not, of course, UKIP.
This is the reality of the four-party political system the UK now faces. With UKIP now in the race, a seat could potentially be won by 25% +1 of the vote (less factoring in small parties), on a 50% turnout. Thus delivering a seat on 12.5% support. This absurdity, and its threat to the Tories above all, may be the final process by which change comes to the UK electoral system.
But the more proximate threat is over the EU. Once Lawson came out against Europe, he was joined by others, including Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, and sinister meat-puppet Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. Gove, enforcer of an absurd new schools curriculum, celebrating “the Great British story”, is often spoken of as a possible leader — or deputy leader — and his statement from within the cabinet promises open warfare for two more years, until the election.
The prospect of the UK now leaving the EU has become real. If there is a UK by then. The Scotland independence referendum is less than a year and a half away, and though a “yes” vote is still unlikely, all the talk of leaving the EU — and thus setting the agenda of major change — makes a similarly imaginative leap all the more possible north of the border.
That will only become all the more lively next year, when Bulgarians and Romanians gain full entry and employment rights to the UK (currently, they have to get a work permit for employment here), and come in, so UKIP says, in vast numbers. This is unlikely, but it won’t take much more pressure on cuts-ridden services to spark fresh outcry.
The situation is so bad that Germany has spoken of the need to keep the UK in the EU. Read that again. Five years ago, Germany would have been happy to see the UK go, and make the place into a giant eurozone. Now Germany is worried that the whole thing will fall apart. So too is Cameron, but he’s thinking about the Tory Party. He thought that promising and deferring a vote on the EU would be too-clever-by-half. Instead he has created an obsessive focus for the next two years on the one thing his party is split on, and the opposition united over. Go to Eton and learn to be this smart. There’s your myriad traditions.