Friday, October 28, 2011
Liberal Democrat News: The party should stop calling for referendums on Europe
This article is published in today's Lib Dem News. It was a pleasant change to be writing for the paper because I had something to say, not because I had a deadline to meet.
The "Europe" issue
The Liberal Democrats voted for a referendum on Maastricht. We called for one on the Lisbon treaty until we had the chance to vote for it in the Commons in February 2008. Then we walked out, demanding an in-or-out referendum instead. That has been our policy ever since, until we had a chance to vote for an in-or-out referendum on Monday, whereupon we voted against it.
It may be possible to find a thread of principle running through this history – at the last general election we called for an in-or-out referendum only when "a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU" – but I have a simpler idea. Let’s stop calling for referendums on Europe altogether.
The arguments used in favour of referendums are weak. We are told that winning an in-or-out vote would settle the question for a generation. Nonsense. In 1975 Britain voted by more than two-to-one to remain in the Common Market: five years later the Labour Party committed itself to withdrawal.
On Monday the Tory MP David Nuttall complained that 84 per cent of people alive today have never voted in favour of EU membership. But an even larger percentage has not voted in for joining the United Nations, abolishing slavery or the Act of Union. Must we have referendums on all those too?
For years the main parties have engaged in something close to a conspiracy. The issue of Europe has been taken out of general elections, with the promise that it will be decided through a referendum. Those referendums never take place. The result has been an infantilisation of debate on Europe, as politicians are allowed to take up self-indulgent, extreme positions they know they will never have to defend to the electorate.
This process has been bad for us Liberal Democrats, encouraging the idea that all we need do to prosper is not offend anybody and deliver lots and lots of leaflets. And it has been bad for democracy as a whole. Why should voters feel enthusiastic about Westminster when their representatives avoid talking about one of the most important issues facing the country?
There is another, less disinterested, reason why we should drop our calls for referendums. I am an enthusiast for the Coalition and not one of the party’s most instinctively pro-European members. But even I cannot be anything but enthusiastic at the prospect of breaking the Conservative Party in two.
Because, as Monday’s Commons debate showed, the anti-European wing of the Conservatives is simply ungovernable. The more we can do to keep the issue of Europe at the centre of British general election campaigns, the harder life will be for David Cameron.
Let me give two local examples. The other day the ‘politcal chairman’ of Harborough Conservatives tweeted the suggestion that Tory MPs who favour a referendum should consider forming a new party to “get the PM’s attention”.
And then there is Rupert Matthews who believes that, were there to be riots in London, the European Commission could go to the German government ask it to send a Panzer division “and there is nothing the British government could do about it”.
You could say Mr Matthews is an eccentric who teaches a course on ‘Understanding our Paranormal Universe’ for something called the International Metaphysical University. And you would be right. But at the end of the year, because of the resignation of Roger Helmer, he will become the East Midlands’ newest MEP.
The way to thwart people like Matthews is not to shunt Europe off to referendum campaigns that never happen. It is to return the issue to the centre of our general election campaigns.
Jonathan Calder blogs at Liberal England and wrote a weekly column for this newspaper for many years.