When Tony Blair stood down as prime minister in 2007 I blogged:
Today's media consensus is that the public has undergone a long process of disillusionment with Tony Blair.
My own experience has been the reverse. When he was first elected it seemed obvious to me that he was an actor more than a statesman - and a terribly bad actor at that. All those speeches with his voice thick with unshed tears - the best known is his reaction to the death of the Princess of Wales, but there were many more - were so palpably insincere that I was convinced that the public would see through him any day.
Well, it took years to happen, and by the time it did I started to find myself with a grudging respect for his longevity and skill as a political operator.That is pretty much the view I hold today, which is why I am able to say what my fellow Liberal Democrats seem incapable of saying: Tony Blair's speech on Europe was right.
Let me remind you what he said:
Elections should never simply be about an exchange of rhetoric, the laying out of policy positions or the cacophony of the campaign. They should also be an investigation and a decision about our ambitions as a nation, who we are and where we're going.
For me Europe is an important litmus test. I believe passionately that leaving Europe would leave Britain diminished in the world, do significant damage to our economy and, less obviously but just as important to our future, would go against the very qualities that mark us out still as a great global nation.
It would be a momentous decision.
Should the Conservatives be re-elected on May 7th, it is one which we will be called upon to make. If they win the election, they are committed to holding a referendum to decide whether Britain remains in the European Union. It will be held within two years. It will follow an attempt by the Government to re-negotiate the terms of Britain’s membership. The referendum will, for the first time since we joined Europe after years of trying unsuccessfully to do so, put exit on the agenda. ...
The business case against exit from the European Union is obvious. Over half our trade is with Europe. I am about to visit the Hitachi plant in Newton Aycliffe – a fantastic vote of confidence in the economic future of the North East and a great tribute to Phil Wilson our local MP. But they came here to access the European market. There are millions of UK jobs dependent on that access. I agree that not being part of the single currency is not, at least in the short and medium term, going to imperil the supremacy of the City of London as the world’s greatest financial centre, but leaving Europe altogether, is quite another thing.
There is, in my view, also a complete under-estimation of the short term pain of negotiating exit. There would be a raft of different Treaties, association agreements and partnerships to be dis-entangled and re-negotiated. There would be significant business uncertainty in the run-up to a vote but should the vote go the way of exit, then there would be the most intense period of business anxiety, reconsideration of options and instability since the war.This is what I would like to hear Nick Clegg saying. And when he challenged Nigel Farage to those debates, his strategy was to establish the Liberal Democrats as the pro-Europe party - the opposite-of-Ukip party.
Today, if the newspapers are to be believed, his strategy is to concede an early referendum on Europe to the Conservatives after the general election as part of the negotiations for a second Coalition government.
What worries me is not so much that this move is wrong, as that our shifts in strategy will be incomprehensible to our potential supporters.
My own view is that referendums are a bad idea. As I argued in Liberal Democrat News back in 2011:
For years the main parties have engaged in something close to a conspiracy. The issue of Europe has been taken out of general elections, with the promise that it will be decided through a referendum. Those referendums never take place. The result has been an infantilisation of debate on Europe, as politicians are allowed to take up self-indulgent, extreme positions they know they will never have to defend to the electorate.
This process has been bad for us Liberal Democrats, encouraging the idea that all we need do to prosper is not offend anybody and deliver lots and lots of leaflets. And it has been bad for democracy as a whole. Why should voters feel enthusiastic about Westminster when their representatives avoid talking about one of the most important issues facing the country?I stand by that today - and I agree with Tony.