Reading accounts of how the Sky News studio audience apparently reacted to David Cameron yesterday – and if you haven’t seen the accounts, apparently the audience were hostile to the prime minister’s efforts to oil his way over concerns about remaining in the EU -- a memory stirred in the back on my mind.
The memory that stirred was one of defiance. And it gave me hope.
In 2001, I was one of the Irish voters who cast a ballot in the referendum on the EU’s Nice Treaty. This was the treaty that allowed the adjustment of EU institutions to accommodate the expansion of the union to include the eastern European states.
There was no doubt, despite opposition by people like me, that the result of the referendum would be a Yes vote. After all, at that point there was no country in the EU that was more spaniel-like in its devotion to the European Project than Ireland. The government made it clear that to reject the treaty would be an act of shameful ingratitude for all the EU had done for us (let’s let that one pass for now), so obviously it would not happen.
And yet feelings against the EU were rising, despite the entire Irish political establishment being in favour of the treaty.
I hadn’t much hope of seeing it defeated, but then I became aware that many people in my part of rural North Cork were planning to leave their farms on referendum day and drive miles across country to a polling station just because they were determined to vote No
On referendum day, I cast my vote. On the way out of the polling booth, I passed a man on his way in. We made eye contact, and what I saw in his eyes – and I assume what he saw in mine – was defiance. I began to realise that inside so many polling booths that day, thousands of Irish voters saw this referendum as a chance to strike back against being reduced by their own government to being the EU’s spaniel.
I imagined thousands of voters marking their ballot paper ‘No’ and then making a punch in the air with a clenched fist. Which is how the Nice Treaty was defeated: by the defiance of men and women who voted No despite the complacency and arrogance of the government and the threats of disaster if they rejected the treaty.
Of course, you know how the story ended. The Irish government went to Brussels and were handed ‘concessions’ – concessions even more useless that the ‘reforms’ Cameron pretends to have won from his own negotiations earlier this year. Then the Irish were forced to vote again. They were misled and frightened enough to vote Yes on October 19, 2002.
To quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt in other circumstances, that is a date which will live in infamy.
I tell you all that because of the defiance that the Sky News studio audience showed yesterday towards Cameron's slippery arguments for Remain – what even the Brussels establishment news website Politico called ‘stinging blows’ landed by the audience, leaving him ‘rattled by the amount of hostility.’
The audience hit him on scaremongering, on immigration, on his waffling.
It gave me hope that the defiance one saw in some of the audience is a vein of defiance that might run through far more British than the opinion polls show.
Certainly the bumbling Leave campaign is doing nothing to encourage defiance in the voters. I can only hope a certain natural bloody-mindedness is in the British electorate across the UK, despite the strategic errors of the Westminster-village Leave campaign.
Still, Politico did make one observation about Cameron’s performance that takes my hope away again: ‘The Remain campaign clearly believe Gove and Johnson have committed a major strategic error by calling for Britain to leave the single market, with Cameron returning to it again and again. “I keep going on about the single market, but it’s so important,” he said at one point, in a sentence that summed up his entire debate strategy.’
Exactly. The only way for this government threat of economic disaster to be removed from the debate is for the Leave leaders to embrace the EEA option. But they won’t. The natural roar of defiance, which comes so naturally to the British people, will be betrayed.
Yet again: lions led by donkeys.