I spent yesterday at the congress of The People's Pledge at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster. The campaign has a simple aim which unites people across Britain's political continuum; it asks voters publicly to register the following pledge;
I am voting for an in-out referendum on EU membership. I will use my vote to help secure a majority of MPs in Parliament who support an EU referendum.
and to campaign for that referendum. If you agree, please click on the link above and sign up.
It's a cross-party organisation and I found myself in uncomfortable company. The Communist Party and RMT union both support the campaign, as does UKIP. Most supporters want the referendum so they can vote to leave the EU. Some pro-EU people support it because they want to resolve the issue once and for all so Britain can really commit to political union.
Apart from squirming at receiving fraternal greetings from the Central Committee of the British Communist party, I also found it embarrassing that pro-EU speakers (whose support is of great value to the campaign) were howled down by the antis, even when they made sensible points. I found it uncomfortable to look around at those doing the howling. I agree with them on Britain leaving the EU but I didn't much like the look of them. I couldn't help feeling the media, to the extent they decided to cover the event, would have fun with the images of elderly - and rather snarly - Daily Mail readers.
The scariest part for me was the confusion on all sides between politics and economics. Pro-EU speakers spoke of banding together against the peril of an economically-rampant China as if we would need gunboats to make the Chinese buy and sell stuff. Anti-EU speakers spoke of locking ourselves into a failing bloc in economic decline, as if by remaining a member we could only sell to EU countries. In fact overseas trade only accounts for 15% of GDP and EU countries account for only 50% of overseas trade. This, despite forty-odd years of being trapped inside the EU's tariff barrier, which makes us less competitive in global markets.
The economic vision of most participants seemed to be at the level of the medieval guilds. It was as if Adam Smith had never written the Wealth of Nations. Of course, this wasn't true of all those there, as conversation over drinks and dinner with my old Blogpower mucker Ian Grey of Shades of Grey confirmed.
To be fair, this was a well-organised political event that drew more than 2,000 delegates from across the country. It was far bigger than the 'Occupy the City' nonsense that is dominating the newspapers. It made very clear that many people in Britain (opinion polls suggest a majority among supporters of all parties) want to have a say on whether Britain continues with the EU project or not. Politics is a dirty business and sometimes you have to work with whomever will help you to your destination, even if they plan to mug you on the way. I also learned new respect for the abilities (if not the ideas) of Keith Vaz, who was the only pro-EU speaker who could get the hall to listen to him politely. He really is an ingratiating little slime ball.
For me, however, the speaker of the day was Ruth Lea. She calmly and wittily put the economic case for Britain's withdrawal from the EU and skewered the scaremongering of those who pretend millions of British jobs depend upon membership. We run an enormous trade deficit with the EU. There is no way BMW will stop selling us their cars or Poggenpohl their kitchens. Even if, when we leave, our EU friends want to get all politically medieval on our economic arse, we are a market they can't afford to lose. Liberated from the tariff barrier and the Eurocratic obsession with regulating our every economic breath, we would become an even more important one.