Philip Collins knows a thing or two about speech writing; but I can’t help thinking that his assessment of what David Cameron should say about Britain and the EU is misguided. Perhaps it’s his Labour blood, but he is fascinated with ‘those in Mr Cameron’s party who are obsessed with Europe in general or frightened of UKIP in particular’. Collins’ analysis seems to suggest (or hopes?) that Cameron’s speech will be primarily for Bill Cash et al. But the speech is the first step to a referendum renegotiating Britain’s position in the EU. The primary audience must be the public – Mrs Bone rather than Peter Bone. Therefore, its content should be about people rather than politics.
What might David Cameron say? Collins is right that Cameron does not have a European policy, at least in the sense of not having a manifesto for reference. Collins sees this as a weakness; but I see it as a possible strength. Where the public is concerned, some vagueness on the detail might not be a bad thing provided Cameron can shape a compelling story of why and where Britain’s relationship with the EU must change. This speech ought to deal in imperatives or Cameron may fail to capture the public’s attention at the outset.
Downing Street’s strategy at last month’s EU budget negotiations revealed something of its overarching analysis of the EU. The target was not ‘good Europe’ (ie, the single market), but ‘bad Europe’ (ie, the excesses of federalism). Cameron had some success building a coalition against the EU Commission’s plans by contrasting unaccountable Brussels’ comforts with the deprivations imposed on Greece. This simple gambit suggested a very strong moral argument that the federalist project is failing Europeans. The internal logic said that ‘Europe costs too much’, and not just in terms of money. This logic should be articulated and developed.
To do that, the government would need to persuade the public that there is a link between what is happening in Athens and what has beset some post-industrial areas of Britain: that inherited unemployment and other long-term economic difficulties in the provinces are partly the result of businesses being made uncompetitive by the failure of federalist EU regulations and costs. The government has made this case in the past, but not often enough. Neither has it succeeded in explaining that abstract money arguments are really about people (both present and future), something that David Cameron conceded recently.
There will be pressure on Cameron to frame his policy in the grand terms of ‘strong Conservative leadership repatriating sovereignty and restoring parliament’. But small words about little people are better, especially given the contempt in which parliament and other institutions are held. The ‘how’ of change is a difficult question; but it isn’t yet important. The present need is to be clear about why there must be change.