Elections are supposed to be a time when fundamental issues are discussed, so that whatever government is elected it has a mandate to steer its policy. It is disappointing therefore, when big issues such as our continued membership of the EU are not properly debated. One device to defuse it is to argue for a referendum. This effectively kicks it into the long grass, which is what the Conservatives are trying to do.
Now I know people will argue that this is what Harold Wilson did in 1974, when he “renegotiated” some rather minor changes and then went on to win the referendum, but it doesn’t mean it is the right course of action. The political landscape was very different then. Then most of the media supported us staying in. Now they do not.
The negative attitude of the Government makes the prospects for any meaningful renegotiations doubtful. There is already some evidence that businesses are postponing investment decisions because of uncertainty and it may be a contributory reason for HSBC considering moving its headquarters out of the UK.
Membership of the EU is tied up with our general view of this country’s place in the world. It was refreshing, therefore, to hear Ed Miliband make a speech about foreign policy last Friday. I think the key phrase in the speech was “(I am) optimistic about our role (in the world) not pessimistic.”
He put forward the case that since the war the Labour Party has always supported the world view that we should work with allies and partners to have influence in the world. That means organisations such as the UN, NATO and the EU. It is often forgotten that Britain played an important role in establishing both the UN and NATO, and took part in the first UN organised military operation in Korea.
The world faces some difficult challenges, such as the rise of Islamic State, divisions within states and of course climate change. But it is difficult to see how Britain withdrawing from the world stage is going to help us deal with them.
An example of how Europe now regards us is the fact that David Cameron was not invited to join President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel in the discussions with President Putin about Ukraine.
Now anyone who has done any doorknocking in this campaign knows that you will be confronted with two issues: immigration and the NHS. The latter is of course linked with EU membership. Despite pledges from the outgoing government the number continues to increase. So what can be done?
The reason immigrants come is because there is a demand for their labour, particularly in London. If we did withdraw from the EU the expert opinion is that it would damage our economy, so the pull would no longer be there, but is that a trade-off we wish to make?
Stricter enforcement of minimum wage legislation would prevent “undercutting” of local labour. The unfortunate fact remains that if the economy booms, as it does in the south of England, it will attract in labour from overseas.
We should remember too that concern about immigration is also prevalent in many other European countries. It links up with worries about national identity as well as employment.
Again we have to make a judgement as to whether we are more likely to be able to manage migrant flows in a sensible way by working with our EU partners or deal with it by simply walking out and putting our own economy at risk.
What I am concerned about is that we have the debate here and now, as part of the election. A promise of a future referendum would do damage to our economy by creating uncertainty, and ensure nothing else politically gets done for two years.
There are other issues, such as the NHS, which need attention. In the end it is a debate about what sort of country we want to be, one which involves itself in the world and plays an active role, or one which retreats to the sidelines, damages our trade and the standard of living of all of us.
David Taylor-Gooby is a freelance writer. His latest book, “The NHS, A Challenge for us all” is available from Searching Finance.