That was the debate that wasn’t…

16410904076_8968cd37f2_oA few weeks ago, I complained that the EU wasn’t an issue being debated in the general election. This week, I finally got my way and we started to explore the finer points of British membership and to consider our place in the world more generally.

Only kidding: we mainly talked about how much we (dis)like Tony Blair.

Blair’s speech on Tuesday was very much a throwback to the late 1990s: a thoughtful opinion on how the UK can make European Union membership work for everyone’s mutual benefit, with a constructive agenda of leadership and partnership. In short, the kind of speech you might have expected him to make if he had ever of followed through on membership of the single currency.

But to what effect?

Pro-membership business groups picked up on his message about the costs of uncertainty, while UKIP chose to recall all the reasons why Blair couldn’t be trusted (or Cameron either, for that matter). Media commentators pretty much followed the same lines.

Whatever Blair had to say about the detail of membership was lost in questions of trust (in him, in Labour, in politics, in the EU) and the never-unmentioned elephant of a referendum. As Blair himself noted:

“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.”

Put differently, the logic of a referendum is grounded much more in opportunistic terms than it is in those of high politics: those who push for it believe they can get the answer they want, which rather up-ends the notion of consulting the people.

In addition, we’re still talking about whether a referendum is a good thing or a bad thing, rather than what we want our relationship with the EU to be. Without the latter, the former becomes very moot.

And because it’s all so predictable and no one has anything useful to say, we roll on. Contrast the way in which the non-doms issue has generated much more interest in the media and among politicians, as they see an opportunity to actually offer contrasting policies and engage in debate.

Precisely because of the referendum, everyone is waiting. In a generous interpretation, that’s because they are keeping their powder dry. On a less generous one, it’s because they have nothing useful to say.

Right now, I’d put my money on the latter.