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.
There are several oddities about the way this has come to pass. In the Leaders’ debate last week, Europe featured little and where it did, mainly as a route into the question of immigration. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of people in Britain will not decide their vote on the issue of Europe. Yet the vocal minority, for whom opposition to Europe is their raison d’etre, has already won this huge concession from the governing Party.
We don't actually know what the proposed re-negotiated terms of membership look like.
We have just been through the near death experience for the UK of the Scottish referendum. The day was saved, but almost half the Scottish people voted to break up a partnership which has served all the nations of the UK well for over 300 years. The economic case for separation was always weak because of the way over those years the economies have integrated.
Now that case has collapsed along with the oil price. All the calculations made at the time of the referendum on revenue, on foreign exchange, on the balance of payments are now massively reduced because the oil price has halved. Norway, for example, has suffered a 30% plus fall in the value of its currency. I had to laugh when I heard the SNP Leader challenge Ed Miliband over whether he voted for Tory public spending cuts. The reality is that had Scotland voted to exit the UK it would now be in economic trauma, trying to negotiate its currency against a backdrop of the sliding global devaluation of oil related economies. Never mind Tory cuts, they would be dwarfed by the SNP cuts necessary to keep the Scottish economy afloat in the radically altered market conditions we now face.
But the point is: despite the rational evisceration of the policy that defines the SNP, support for them – at least according to the polls – is even stronger than at the time of the referendum.
Nationalism is a powerful sentiment. Let that genie out of the bottle and it is a Herculean task to put it back. Reason alone struggles.
The referendum on Europe carries with it the same risk. For that reason, should the Conservatives win, one other thing will be certain. The PM will be spending more energy, will have more sleepless nights about it, be more focused on it than literally any other single issue. He knows the vastness of the decision. He knows the penalty of failure. He knows exit will define his legacy. And, following the Scottish referendum, he knows the perilous fragility of public support for the sensible choice.
It is a huge distraction for the country. But it will also be a huge distraction for the Prime Minister. It will take precedence over the NHS, education, law and order, the lot.
And the oddest thing of all about having this referendum? The Prime Minister doesn't really believe we should leave Europe; not even the Europe as it is today. This was a concession to Party, a manoeuvre to access some of the UKIP vote, a sop to the rampant anti-Europe feeling of parts of the media.
This issue, touching as it does the country’s future is too important to be traded like this. It is greatly to Ed Miliband’s credit that he resolutely refused to make that trade. He faced down calls to follow the Tory concession from parts of the media and many inside our Party. In doing so, he showed real leadership. He showed that he would put the interests of the country first. He showed that on this, as on other issues, he is his own man, with his own convictions and determined to follow them even when they go against the tide. I respect that.
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.
The Tory campaign talks of chaos should Labour win. Think of the chaos produced by the possibility never mind the reality of Britain quitting Europe. Jobs that are secure suddenly insecure; investment decisions postponed or cancelled; a pall of unpredictability hanging over the British economy. And for what? To satisfy the insistent Euro-phobia of a group who will never be satisfied.
There is a beguiling notion that upon Britain voting to leave, the rest of Europe would be in an amenable and friendly frame of mind in the consequent negotiation. They would have, it is said, a shared interest, in making it as amicable as possible.
Excuse me, but get real. As a result of our decision every other European Leader would be faced with big choices about the terms of Britain’s relationship with Europe now as an outsider. This they would regard as a wholly unnecessary diversion from the critical domestic challenge of recovering their own economies. They will believe that Britain wants to have the benefits of the single market without the responsibilities. They will be determined to prevent that. Norway and Switzerland both are obliged, as the price of their access to Europe’s market, to accede to a series of European rules even though they cannot influence their drafting. The rest of Europe will be vigorous in ensuring Britain gets no special treatment. This will be a horrible process. Don't be in any doubt about that.
I am aghast at some of the arguments used as to why having such a vote is ‘a great idea for democracy’. Apparently we should have a referendum because its 40 years since we last had a vote. That is seriously an argument for doing something of this magnitude and risk? A sort of ‘keeping us on our toes’ thing? So should we do the same for NATO? Or have periodic referendums not just in Scotland but all over the UK just to check popular feeling? We should have a referendum if we seriously believe that getting out of Europe is a national priority if our terms aren't met. If we don't, then it is a completely unacceptable gamble with our future.
Or we're told that in the case of Scotland the referendum proved a great thing because of the exceptionally high turnout. But that only proves the importance of the decision. I agree that a vote in Europe would also be of importance. But that doesn't mean it is sensible to have it.
If I was leading a business dependent on access to the Single Market or more important employed in such a business, then the issue of Europe and the risks of this referendum concession would be a big decider in my vote.
However the case for Britain staying in Europe is much more than about business. It is also crucially about Britain’s role as a global player. In the 20th Century even as Britain declined in relative importance to the USA as a global power, we were able to maintain a position as one of the world’s leading nations. We kept our alliance with America strong. We entered the European Union partly to ensure our position. These are the two well-founded pillars of British foreign policy. And they're mutually reinforcing.
Through these alliances we exercise a power greater than our relative size would otherwise bring us. As one of the world’s traditional powers, this is a sensible strategy for us to pursue in order to be able to hold our position.
But today, as the world goes through a geo-political revolution, this strategy is the one being pursued by similar sized countries everywhere. The rise of China is the single biggest geo-political change in my children’s lifetime. True China has many challenges. But the last decades have seen them become a dominant economic and political force. This is only going to accelerate. Their population is 20 times that of the UK. In time the same will happen with India. And then there are other countries like Indonesia whose population is three times that of Germany.
This is all completely obvious. As a result, round the world, countries are banding together not in opposition to the rising powers, but in recognition of the geo-political fact that they have risen. So in the Far East, ASEAN has gone from being an alliance somewhat sleepily developed to suddenly becoming an important priority for countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia who realise that even all together the ASEAN nations are half the size of their powerful neighbour to the north. In Latin America it is the same with the Pacific Alliance and Mercosur. Mexico is forging ever closer relationships with North America. Some of this is driven by trade of course. But it is also part of an adjustment of the power relationships in this new world.
For Europe, the crisis of the single currency has obscured one central new reality: that, despite all the travails of recent years, the objective case for Europe has actually never been stronger precisely for these geo-political reasons. Europe and the USA are trying to negotiate a new trade partnership. Only Europe together could achieve such a huge undertaking with such significance for European business including its ability to affect commerce with China and India.
Then there is the issue of resurgent Russian nationalism. This will both test Europe and demand it stick together. I do not think we yet fully appreciate the degree of threat which the Eastern European nations feel under. Without the shelter not just of NATO but of the EU, their vulnerability (with consequences for our own security) would be chronic.
Then there is the issue of Islamist extremism whose threat is real, present and clear. It affects all European nations.
Do we really think this is the time in which to put into play our very membership of the European Union, the largest commercial market and most developed political union in the world? And the one on our doorstep? So that instead of playing a leading role in resolving these common challenges, we would decide to engage in the juddering impact of a negotiation which would weaken all these alliances and put us out of the leadership game?
Remember the relief we felt when Scotland voted no. Why was that? Because towards the end, having paid only intermittent attention to the enormity of the decision, we awoke to it and realised – I think with shock – how close we had come to relegating ourselves from the Premier League of nations. Now think if the vote had gone the other way. It doesn't bear thinking of. It would be exactly the same with a vote on Europe. We're frankly not much focused on it now. But that is the same semi-conscious torpor that almost led us to disaster in keeping the UK together. And if we think that having the vote will resolve the issue, think again about Scotland now.
This alliance with Europe was sought half a century ago by the then leaders of our country because they knew that without it, Britain could not maintain its influence and its power. And of course it involves ceding or pooling some sovereignty. But it does so in order to gain sovereign power over decisions that in the reality of 21st Century geo-politics we will only exercise in concert with others.
The anti-Europe faction in British politics argues that Britain can ‘take back’ its freedom by leaving the EU. But the whole point of an alliance is that you enlarge your freedom to influence and to shape events through the instrument of partnership. Today, with globalisation ever blurring national boundaries and forcing integration on the world, such alliances are becoming the norm for every region of the world. Europe as an idea may have been born out of the wreckage of war; but today its rationale is not peace but power and it grows ever stronger.
None of this invalidates the case for reform in Europe. And here is the tragedy of Britain framing this debate about reform purely in terms of Britain’s relationship with Europe and not Europe’s relationship with its own structures and rules. Britain has many allies in this quest for change. The French-German motor of Europe remains powerful but the past years of the financial crisis have put it under strain as a vehicle for European progress and in any event both countries and the other key European players want and need a strong Britain to balance Europe. The movement for change in Europe would benefit hugely from British input and leadership. Nationalist forces in Europe – see the National Front in France – are surging everywhere.
This is the very opportunity for Britain to show both its own character and the way forward for Europe. It is why Britain leaving Europe would ultimately be so contrary to what makes Britain as a nation successful and great.
We are a creative country as our most recent inventions in science and technology have shown, to say nothing of the creative arts and their contribution not just to our culture but to our economy. Our education system, for all its faults, remains admired and draws students to it from all corners of the globe. We have the English language, the pre-eminent language, an extraordinary product of good statesmanship and good fortune. We have always done best as a people out there in the world, confident, engaged and active on the world’s stage. We won the bid for the Olympics precisely because this was the image of Britain abroad; and because London was seen as a thriving melting pot of different cultures and peoples. This is the spirit of modern Britain.
I know that those who want us out of Europe say that they agree with all that but we can do just as well, if not better, out not in.
In theory part of that may be true. But reflect on the forces leading this campaign to get us out: UKIP, and the right of the Tory Party. Ask yourself this question: do they represent that spirit? Are they the standard bearers of an open-minded culturally tolerant Britain? Are creativity, innovation and curiosity about what we can learn from the world their hallmarks?
We know what this movement to wrench us out of Europe is based on. You can see it on display when Mr Farage swiftly moves the debate to immigrants.
National pride is a great thing. Nationalism as a political cause, in the hands of parties like UKIP, is almost always ugly and can never, despite being wrapped in the garb of high-sounding phrases, disguise its mean spirit.
This is why this debate over Europe matters more than we know. Because it says something very profound about us a country.
This becomes very plain when you speak to people outside of Britain about whether Britain should leave Europe. Wherever you go – USA, China India, by the way all the countries the Euro fantasists say would be so keen to have independent relations with us – they approach the question with a certain amount of incredulity. The most common response is: why would you do that? They think we won't of course. And probably in the end that is right.
But it is interesting to probe the reason for their incredulity. It is not simply about the politics or the economics. It is that Britain giving up on Europe contradicts their sense of what Britain is about as a country.
It is the same reason I am so passionate about this issue. It isn't just about money or power. It is about character. It is about who we are and where we're going as a nation.
A decision to exit Europe would say a lot about us and none of it good:
That an adventurous country has become a timid one
That one with global ambitions has opted to be a parochial bystander
That a country known for its openness to the world shuts the open door nearest to it
That a nation which has built its history on confidence towards others defines itself by resentment to others
That, with all the challenges of the world crowding in upon us, demanding strong and clear leadership, instead of saying ‘here's where the world should go’, we say ‘count us out’.
It isn't an accident of history that has put us in Europe; it was an accident of history that we weren't in it from the beginning.
So think about that vote on May 7th. Think of the consequences of a re-elected Tory Government making the central question of the next Parliament whether we get out of Europe or not. Think about the risk such a referendum poses. Think about our past and our future.
Labour and its Leader took a brave decision when they decided not to yield to pressure but instead to make the principled and intelligent case for Britain in Europe. In doing so, they showed that they understand Britain’s future and its destiny better than those prepared to trade policy for political advantage. That is one very good reason, amongst many others, for voting Labour on May 7th. I want Labour to win. I want us to win for the future of our country and its place in the world. I want Labour, under Ed’s leadership, to be the Government of our country on May 8th. I believe we can and will do it.