Europe: A running sore for the right
We're going to get a referendum on Europe. At least, if the Conservatives win an overall majority at the next election we are. And not just any referendum but the fabled in/out referendum - the opportunity for the people to pass decisive judgment on Europe that has been so clamoured for by much of the political right for the last couple of decades.
Europe has had a profound effect on the British right since the 90s. It tore apart John Major's premiership, and thus doomed his once-promising attempt to recast the party without abandoning the core achievements of the Thatcher administration. It has continued to divide the Conservatives ever since, occupying a prominence in the minds of a certain corps of the parliamentary party far out of proportion to the concern shown for the issue amongst the electorate.
Latterly, it has spawned Ukip, which for all its attempts to establish itself as a "traditional conservative" party remains, outside European elections pretty, much the same species of one-track vote-splitter that the Referendum party was before it. There is a real fear in some quarters that Ukip might do to the right what the Liberals and SDP did to the left in the previous century and so allow a reunited left to dominate the political playing field.
But now we've got our referendum, in theory at least, it is worth giving proper thought to the consequences. The ramifications of the UK leaving or remaining within the EU have been discussed a lot, but I'm interested in what might happen to the political right if, as I believe likely, the UK votes to stay inside the EU. Because it would likely leave a giant, gaping hole where their political foundations used to be.
Like a lot of nationalism, there is a section of Eurosceptic opinion that trades on grievance - in this instance, the fact that "we, the people" have not been given a vote on Europe since Harold Wilson's referendum in 1975. Because of this, these people claim that the British would of course vote to leave the EU en masse if only the political elite would let them.
The various consequences of leaving and remaining within the European Union will be much discussed over the next few years, that much is certain. But I want to consider a very particular question: regardless of the odds, what will happen to the British right if we vote to stay in the EU?
Obviously, the manner of our staying will matter. If Cameron somehow manages to secure sweeping reforms, a vote to remain will be to some extent a vindication of the soft-Eurosceptic position. If he fails, and we vote to stay in anyway, that will not be the case.
On the one hand, settling the European question might serve to unite the right and prevent the gradual fragmentation that threatens to greatly diminish the influence of Conservative politics in the 21st century. Whilst there will always be a core of diehard "Outers" who will never let the issue go, a referendum will do much to reconcile moderate opinion on either side and, if the public vote to stay in, will help to reunite the Conservative leadership with its large and increasingly fractious anti-European wing.
The impact on UKIP is incalculable, as it hinges on the price nature of their support. Their raison d'être will be largely demolished. Whilst there will still be a legitimate role to be played making the case for withdrawal, it will have lost a lot of its anti-elitist "where is our voice" appeal. Their remaining strength will depend on two things: the size of the electorate for whom Europe is the overriding concern (which polling suggests is vanishingly small); and those it can continue to attract with the rest of its manifesto. Will it still be able to draw in disaffected Conservative voters if the European battle has been waged and lost? Will it still be able to appeal to Labour voters on what is essentially an old-fashioned Tory manifesto without Europe to drive them?
It is perhaps for this reason that many on the left, not least Ed Miliband and much of his party, appear disinclined to support a referendum at present. It is not simply that they support EU membership, but that they are fully aware of the strategic weakness it is proving for their opponents. In the wake of the coalition, Labour has apparently recaptured a big chunk of the centre-left and left-wing vote which had bled to the Liberal Democrats over the 13 years of its last administration: the prospect of a united left - the absence of which permitted many of the Conservatives' 20th-century successes - is in sight.
Yet there is a counter-case to be made. When it comes to a referendum, it seems certain the Conservatives will fight on both sides of it. Cameron will fight to stay in, whilst several senior cabinet ministers will campaign to withdraw. Although one would hope that it could be conducted in a spirit of amity on all sides, it would be foolish to underestimate the depths of the passions the European issue stirs in some people. There is a very real chance that the fight could get dirty, setting the party at war with itself with Ukip fighting side by side with the Tory outers.
That is fertile ground for a split, especially if the vote is less than emphatic. If the hardline Eurosceptics think there's still ground to be made on the European issue, and especially if they've just been fighting a savage battle with their party colleagues, they might give Ukop the big injection of credibility and parliamentary representation it needs to make a break for the mainstream - an occurrence which would doom the British right to decades of difficulty, at the very least.
So a European referendum is a gamble on Cameron's part. It might resolve an issue which, if left to fester, risks fracturing the political right into relative impotence. But the stresses might tear that right to pieces first.
Henry Hill is the author of the award winning Dilettante blog
To contact the editor, e-mail: