If there was a surprise in Bury St Edmunds’ first big EU Referendum debate, it was the level of agreement between the two sides.
All four speakers criticised what one called ‘the hysterical shouting in this debate’ and both sides told the audience, of about 60, that leaving the EU would not be a ‘magic wand’ over immigration. They also deemed forecasts unreliable, but still used them.
The Athenaeum debate was organised by Bury MP Jo Churchill and the town’s Conservatives, but was open to all.
The debaters were: Lord Deben, as John Gummer, served as a Tory Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister for London, Employment Minister and Paymaster General. Bernard Jenkin is MP for Harwich and North Essex and defied the Tory whips in the Maastricht Treaty vote. Luke Morris is a partner in accountants Larking Gowen and deputy chairman of Business for Britain, East of England. Tim Stonehouse is maltsters Muntons’ sales director and an ex-City trader.
Opening the debate, ‘out’ businessman Luke Morris accused the EU of ‘riding roughshod’ over laws it did not like, citing the handling of the refugee crisis ‘contrary to the UN declarations’.
The accountant added: “I don’t think the Eurozone has even decided itself how it will address its problems.”
‘In’ businessman Tim Stonehouse said: “The UK has benefitted immensely from the EU and belonging to the biggest trade block in the world.”
He stressed its importance as a food market, both for selling our goods and as a source of food imports and added that Defra says 55 per cent of farm income is from the Common Agricultural Policy.
He added: “If we leave... the majority of farmers would not remain competitive and that would have a negative impact in East Anglia.”
Bernard Jenkin MP said of leaving: “It means taking back control of our country.
“It means taking back control of the famous £350 million a week we give the EU. The money farmers get is your money – we pay twice as much into the CAP as we get out.”
He felt trade deals could be negotiated and added: “You don’t only trade with people you have agreements with.”
But Lord Deben, who has represented Britain and the EU on the World Trade Organisation, argued: “Europe gets a deal Britain could never get and other countries who don’t have the agreements find they have to accept the rules without having a say.”
He added: “If you want to take back control and have control of our future, then you have to be where the major decisions are made.
“If you leave, you leave the decisions to other people.”
A member of the public felt the debaters had not spoken enough on immigration which he said was ‘what the country is worrying about’.
Mr Jenkin said he thought immigration was good for the UK but said EU migration was now overtaking all other migration.
He added: “When we joined there were 12 countries and they were wealthy ones, since then it has expanded with poorer countries and the potential for very large scale social migration has increased.
“Leaving the EU is not going to be a magic wand on immigration but will at least allow us to be able to hold our politicians to account. You don’t have to have this religion of freedom of movement.”
Lord Deben accepted the importance of the issue and said it was going to be a big problem for all wealthy countries. But he added: “If you want free trade you can have it, but Switzerland and Norway still have to have free movement to get it.”
He said claims immigration lowers wages were false, and said the USA did not have free movement but wages for poorer people were lower than here.
Asked where we would be in 40 years if we stayed in, Lord Deben thought: “We’ll be one of the most successful countries in the EU.
“I think we’ll be stronger in the rest of the world because we’ll have negotiated better agreements than we could on our own.”
Mr Morris said: “I think we’ll continue to see democracy eroded. The distance between the plebs – you and I – and the people making our rules seems to be getting wider and that’s not a good thing.”
Following the debate the Bury Free Press invited the audience to take part in a straw poll. Of the 49 votes, 51 per cent wanted to leave, 39 per cent stay and nine per cent were undecided.