The latest stage in the saga of British departure from the European Union is struck today by Tory party chairman, Grant Shapps MP. The Tory plan is to put into law now, before the general election, a commitment to hold a referendum on revised terms of membership in 2017, i.e. after the general election.
This is of course a bold blow against the principle that no parliament can bind its successor, which is odd coming from a party that claims to believe in this principle. (This website, of course, knows that this so-called principle is a sham and indeed would be undesirable were it not a sham. So to that limited extent, three cheers for Grant Shapps.)
But Mr Shapps intrudes in our story not for the reason of the referendum – it is not really his plan but that of his leader, David Cameron – but because of the wording.
The Tories propose that the referendum question should be worded thus:
“Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”
Meanwhile the Electoral Commission, a body set up to scrutinise, impartially, the conduct of elections, has suggested that this wording might be misleading. The verb “be” in that question could be taken as implying that the UK is not a member of the EU at present, and in fact research suggests that a proportion of the electorate would indeed interpret it in that way. Nonsense, says Mr Shapps, and in so doing he encapsulates everything you need to know about the British debate abut the EU.
It doesn’t matter what the facts say, if a person in a position of authority thinks something different. If a newspaper editor thinks that this country is being bled dry by immigrants, if a business leader supposes that there is too much regulation, if the Tory party chairman feels that he knows better than the Electoral Commission’s experts, then that’s what counts. Protecting people’s feelings is now the highest priority, in the wacky world of Grant Shapps.