The UK Independence Party (UKIP) have done a phenomenal job of getting the issue of Britain’s membership of the European Union into the political mainstream, and they have at least partly achieved one of their primary objectives - securing a referendum on our continued EU membership. I say partly achieved because under a Conservative majority government led by David Cameron it is a certainty that the playing field will be severely tilted in favour of staying in, with public money lavished on the In campaign, the BBC fully on side and various groups such as the CBI who claim to represent "business" predicting economic collapse if we vote to leave.
No matter. This is the first time in four decades that the British people have had the opportunity to reject our country being a part of the political project of a united Europe, and anyone who believes in democratic self government should be ready to grab it with both hands.
The problem with UKIP's campaign so far is that while it has very forcefully highlighted the many negative aspects of our membership of the EU they haven't really promoted a more attractive alternative. Now, with many people pushing for a referendum in 2016, rather than 2017 as Cameron promised it's high time to start making that case.
Firstly we must consider the alternative - renegotiating our relationship with the EU and staying in it. We can be sure that this option will be fudged. Cameron will secure some hollow concessions in the mould of John Major's Social Chapter opt-out. They will be temporary, and they will not fundamentally alter our commitment to "ever closer union" which lies at the heart of our membership. Yet they will be presented as an attractive alternative which dilutes or negates the negative aspects of the EU while preserving the advantages of EU membership. It will be made to appear attractive to people comfortable with the current arrangements and unwilling to rock the boat, yet it will ultimately lead to the same result – our continuing absorption into a country called Europe.
And what does Out mean? There are two possible options for leaving the European Union and the first question must be which of these options will be offered to us as an alternative to staying in the EU? The first would be membership of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) along with countries like Norway and Iceland. The second would be leaving the bloc entirely and trading under WTO rules. UKIP so far, when they have talked about alternate arrangements, have claimed the advantages of both. A luxury open to them as a small opposition party, but closed now that we actually have a referendum. There are other alternatives which have been suggested such as NAFTA or some sort of revival of the old Commonwealth trading arrangements but there is no certainty that either of these options will actually be available to us, and it would anyway take years of negotiations to attain either.
The choice between EFTA and independence is a large and complex question in itself, and not one that I can do justice to in this article. In a nutshell EFTA would more or less preserve our current trading arrangements and thus be the less disruptive option, but by the same token it would undermine many of the advantages of leaving the EU in the first place, and almost certainly come with strings attached in terms to regulatory compliance, free movement of people and other areas.
Leaving to "go it alone" entirely would mean far greater disruption to our trading arrangements, but also represent a far greater opportunity to develop our own trade agreements with other countries, and to look globally instead of locally.
There is a very attractive case to be made for this, whatever your political outlook. The key point is that important matters affecting our country can be debated openly in our own parliament by our elected representatives rather than being decided by committee in the closed rooms of the European Union's bureaucracy; and that logical decisions can be made and scrutinised based on our national interest, not the pet projects of EU officials.
Pointing out the negatives has got us this far. It is now up to Nigel Farage, UKIP and others who believe in an independent Britain to make this case positively and attractively to the British public so that people can vote confidently for a democratic and free United Kingdom when the referendum comes.