So there I was, boning up for Conference by reading my homework, with my big fluffy nose stuck inside Consultation Paper 87 – pithily entitled "Europe" – considering issues to consider (unlucky) No. 13: "In either case, would a referendum as part of the ratification process be (a) appropriate or (b) unnecessary", when who should stalk in but Sir Mr the Merciless declaring that he has worked it all out for us!
"We do not need a referendum on this!" he said.
Well, goodness, THAT was very cross-making! Aren't we supposed to "Trust in People" (to make Greenland Fairly British for Free)? What about the Maastricht Treaty? We said that THAT needed a referendum, even if that wasn't a Constitution either. And this is just a big a change!
I was not the only one to get hot under my fluffy collar! Lots of Liberal Bloggers all marched out to plant their soap boxes on Sir Mr the Merciless's lawn (and some of them to defend his window boxes).
Had our beloved Sir Mr the Merciless gone round the twist? Had he fallen under the EVIL INFLUENCE of Mr Frown? No, it turns out we had all MISUNDERSTOOD!
Do not look at me funny, Daddy!
"Ah," said Sir Mr the Merciless, "what I MEANT to say was: we do not need a referendum on this… we need a referendum on the WHOLE Europe Question! Should we stay or should we go?"
Which as lot better, isn't it? Well, isn't it? Or is it?
Well, I suppose so. It DOES let Sir M row back off of a slightly sticky wicket, taking the question of being too close to Mr Frown and knocking it for six, and leaving Mr Balloon sunk in the referendum race.
[R: could this metaphor GET any more mixed?]
But it is – obviously – the NUCLEAR OPTION as far as Europe goes. Many, probably most people, realise that it would be TOTAL MADNESS for Great Britain to pull out of the European project. Even apart from the fact that they are our closest neighbours and that we've lost the Empire and that the Americans were never going to consider us as anything other than insignificant even if we hadn't just pis quite annoyed them by pulling out of Basra and embarrassing them, then even apart from all that the thing about Europe is that is WORKS!
What has Europe done for us? Well, apart from the peace and the prosperity and the aqueducts and the cheap holidays and the investment and the environmental protection and the economic stability and the… I think you get the picture. No one wants us to give up on the GOOD LIFE and go back to well, the Tom and Barbara Good Life!
So – again obviously – from a PRO-EUROPEAN point of view, a referendum on "Do we stay in the Space Age or go back to the Stone Age" looks a JOLLY SIGHT more winnable than "Shall we accept this treaty that you've probably either not read, not understood or already made your mind up to dislike anyway and by the way would you like to kick the government?"
But isn't it also very slightly CHEATING?
Giving people a "Europe: take it or leave it" option is hardly geared to INCLUSIVITY, is it? It is not going to make people WARM to Europe: quite the reverse it is going to reinforce the stereotype of Europe as cold, isolated, far away place with which we have little in common… er… but which has so much power over our lives.
What we want is not STERILE exchanges on whether to stay in Europe or not, but a real debate on what we want Europe to be and how we are going to get there, how we are going to get there TOGETHER.