Thursday, July 04, 2013

Why we need a referendum on British Membership of the EU


The original version of this post (given below) was written in 2013, the day before a vote in the House of Commons on the proposal then being put for a referendum.

That bill was ultimately blocked by Lib/Dem and Labour peers in the House of Lords, but of course, following the election of a Conservative majority government in 2015 we are now having such a referendum next month, in July 2016.

I won't pretend that I have been other than disappointed by the quality of the debate: neither side has covered itself with glory. Nor has everything about the management of the debate or the referendum itself been perfect.

Nevertheless, it still seems to me perfectly possible that either side could win. Polls - and yes, they got the General Election badly wrong, so they are not gospel - suggest it is very close indeed and I think it genuinely is. I don't see any way either side could get the sort of two-to-one margin which "In" won in 1975.

This referendum is going down to the wire and we're not going to know who has won until all the votes are counted and the result declared. And because it really could go either way, this referendum will ultimately have allowed the British people to have the final say on whether we should be in the EU or not.

For that reason I will make clear now that whichever side wins, I will strongly urge the other to accept the result as  the will of the people and respect it.

If the people vote "Leave" we should activate article 50 and leave the EU, probably on the basis of a the "Flexcit" plan unless the Leave campaign manage to get their act together and put forward a coherent proposal which is different.

If the people vote "Remain" that should equally be the end of the matter for a generation at least.

Either way, the British electorate will have been given the opportunity to leave the EU or stay within to try to reform it, and they will have taken that choice.


Tomorrow Conservative MPs will vote in parliament for a referendum on British membership of the EU. This is why I hope the bill to provide such a referendum is passed.

Nearly forty years ago, my parents' generation were given a vote on whether Britain should be part of what was then called the "European Economic Community" or more popularly the "Common Market." But the British people have never been properly consulted on whether Britain should be part of the kind of European Union we have now.

And it is time they were. I support David Cameron's promise of a referendum by 2017 following renegotiation if the Conservatives are in power or are able to deliver a referendum with the support of other parties.

At the 2005 election, all three main parties promised a referendum on a proposed redesign of the European treaties which was then being called the proposed EU Constitutional treaty. The story of how that promise was broken is one of the most shameful tales in the history of both the European Union and Britain.

Initially the powers that be in Europe were happy to put the proposed constitution for Europe treaty to referenda in a large number of EU member states, in a manner which was mostly free and fair, the one questionable aspect being that the plebiscites in countries where it was thought there was a significant risk of a "No" vote - Britain, Ireland and Denmark - were to be held last, at which point they appear to have assumed the countries who had already voted would have supported the constitution resulting in great pressure on us to follow the lead of the rest of Europe and vote "Yes."

Only it didn't work out that way. Maybe several electorates were not as keen on the European project as the powers that be had believed, maybe they used the referenda to stick up two fingers at their own governments for different reasons, maybe they just didn't like being taken for granted.

For whatever reason, the proposed constitution didn’t get past the electors of some of the countries thought to be most pro-European. At first it appeared to have been put on life support when the people of France voted "Non" and then killed when the voters of Holland also voted against a few days later.

As the proposal appeared to be dead, a relieved Tony Blair cancelled the vote in Britain, believing himself off the hook.

The trouble is, the EU doesn't allow cherished schemes to be killed for such trivial reasons as that the electorate have voted against them. The constitutional treaty came back with some minor changes and a new name - the Lisbon Treaty. Everyone in Europe except the then Labour government of Britain recognised was the proposed Lisbon Treaty was more than 90% the same as the constitutional treaty which the electorates of several European countries had voted down (and others probably would have if given the chance.)

This time they were not taking any risks about consulting the people. Only Ireland put the proposal to a referendum, and in a climate of fear and recession the Irish government managed to get a "Yes" vote.

Shamefully for Europe, none of the countries whose voters had rejected the original draft of the treaty dared to consult them again.

Shamefully for Britain, the Labour and Lib/Dem parties broke their promises to hold a referendum here on the treaty.

A Conservative motion to hold such a referendum attracted the support of the overwhelming majority of Tory MPs (all except two), and a few brave Labour and Lib/Dem rebels. However, Gordon Brown whipped labour MPs to vote against a referendum, and Nick Clegg whipped Lib/Dem MPs to abstain.

David Cameron made a promise that if he came to power before the treaty was ratified he would suspend ratification and put it to a referendum. Unfortunately he had no opportunity to implement this promise because the ratification of the treaty was completed while Gordon Brown was still in power.

Brown’s signature of the treaty was a particularly embarrassing episode and the worst of all worlds – rather than sign at the same time as all the other leaders he turned up after they had all gone and signed it on his own as if trying to hide. This managed the rare feat of uniting the full spectrum of opinion from the most pro-Federalist to the most anti-EU – but they were all united in finding this ridiculous.

The whole sorry saga left a bad taste in the mouth and poisoned attitudes to Europe through a wide part of the British political spectrum. Whatever the future relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe is to be, we have to start by accepting that the British people must decide the basic direction, and that means giving them a vote on it.

Until comparatively recently I was not a supporter of an In-Out referendum, partly because the idea was being put forward by people who were trying to wriggle out of their promise of a referendum on the EU Constitution by offering one on British membership of the EU instead. (They thought they would lose a vote on the treaty but win one on EU membership, so they were offering a plebiscite they thought would give the result they wanted as a substitute for the one they had actually promised at election time, which wouldn’t.)

I changed my mind when I listened to David Cameron’s speech on Europe, which convinced me that we do need a referendum on British membership.

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