And so it begins. Dave finally emerged last night from his sham negotiations, an ersatz Chamberlain, guaranteeing if not “Peace in our Time” then at least settlement of the European question for a generation. However there was no tumultuous applause or thanks from a grateful nation, no joy left unconfined, just a weary resignation about it all.
It is progress of a sort that European matters are not settled against a backdrop of threats of terrible war, of course, but this renegotiation farce symbolises one unavoidable fact: we live today in a geriatric continent unable to face up to its major challenges. Once European diplomacy concerned itself with territorial land-grabs by virile competing powers, now the EU spends days over marginal changes to migrant benefits. Old, staid, tired and disillusioned, it is like a decaying old man still clinging onto the flickering ideals of his youth, the memories and grandeur of better times. The reduced reality is days spent in the bath chair while life and events carry on without him.
Faced with such a demoralising prospect, pretty much everyone agrees that what is needed from the Eurosceptic movement is a campaign that emotionally connects not just with our fears of today but also hope for the future, built on the traditions of our glorious past. Yes, we must get out the core vote by addressing fears of immigration, but the referendum will also be won and lost by capturing the moderately comfortable, apathetic and apolitical voters whose overwhelming inclination will be to stick with the status quo. To attract these people we need a youthful and energetic campaign from public figures such people can identify with, an upbeat hymn about the wonderful possibilities of a better tomorrow, that there is nothing to fear from change.
Sadly that is just not what we got from the Grassroots Out (GO) meeting I attended last night in London. As the name suggests, Grassroots Out was originally intended for the grassroots, the True Believers, that small minority who revel in hearing the same dry trade statistics in speeches by the same old faces – of which we got many. All that would be fine, but GO is now seeking the official referendum leave campaign designation.
The evening started well, with a good turn-out, and certainly a considerably younger demographic than, say, the average Ukip conference. It was, however, worrying that very few black or Asian faces, if any, were present: London is great trading and multi-ethnic city that should be more comfortable than any with a global future. Questions need to be asked why after all this time the Eurosceptic movement still can not tap into that.
But then again, it is easy to see why: too many of the speakers reflected the True Believer mentality, even though some were seriously impressive figures: for example, the brilliant conservative intellectual Ruth Lea, who rather surprisingly spoke in a broad Cheshire accent, like many highly cerebral people she plainly has trouble connecting with the average person. If you will forgive the pun, others such as Sir Bill Cash should simply be put out to grass: a heroic life sacrificed for the cause, no doubt, but again no connection beyond the already converted. Cruel but true.
Star turn of the evening was definitely Kate Hoey: Ulster Protestants have a habit of making even the most forthright of us look equivocating, and as usual Hoey did not disappoint. Speaking with all the blunt honesty and balls that makes her so respected, she combined the common touch with an ability to put Euroscepticism into the broad historical sweep of the Labour movement, excoriating its current leadership for its failure to seize the day as she did so. She was followed by David Davis, who was competent but a bit flat, as he often is. Farage was electrifying as usual, if slightly hoarse. He can speak to the common man, sure, but perhaps not so much to the aforementioned middle class swing voters who will be a vital demographic in this referendum.
And then it all went horribly wrong. We were promised a “mystery guest”, so secret that even some of the organisers didn’t know whom he was. Could it be Gove or even Boris, sensationally upstaging Cameron’s deal and ruthlessly knifing him in the process? Perhaps even Sir Michael Caine, a plucky, patriotic cockney underdog whom the average public really could connect to? Who was this towering figure, this King over the water, returning to lead us to victory?
And then it came out: “Mr George Galloway!” Nigel boomed.
I left. So did many others. There is nothing more to be said.