Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday 20 January 2013

Stephen Tall is right on an EU referendum. And also very wrong.

Stephen Tall has recently been promoting the fact on Lib Dem Voice that the Lib Dems only ever promised a referendum on membership of the EU when there was a fundamental change in the relationship.

Stephen is absolutely right about that. That has been the line since 2007 and it hasn't really changed since then.

But he is also wrong. Wrong in that the fact he is right is largely beside the point.

We called for an in/out referendum. I remember our spokespeople before the last election saying things like "It's about time the British people had their say" and "We think the real question should be in or out". I also remember Clegg referring to those who were questioning this as cowardly. 4 years ago he wrote a piece that included these comments:

"..time for a debate politicians have been too cowardly to hold for 30 years - time for a referendum on the big question. Do we want to be in or out?"
"This generation deserves its chance to say where we stand on Europe - in or out."

To most people's minds those sort of statements are pretty unequivocal. If we row back from them now we look shifty and like we are the ones who are cowards.

Guido and others have been making hay in recent days with Lib Dem leaflets from a few years back that called for a referendum. There were no caveats attached and we were clearly trying to neutralise Europe as an issue in order to win votes from those who might want to vote "out".

So whilst on a technicality we might be able to point to the fact that the context was in discussions around the Lisbon treaty and how if there was going to be a referendum on that treaty we'd be better off with it being an in/out referendum. But that won't cut much ice with most people. There are too many on the record Lib Dem statements of how "the people should decide". We look like we are backing away from a referendum.

One final point. This referendum is going to happen. It is a racing political certainty. The time has come. As Clegg pointed out in that piece nobody under the age of 51 (now 55) has ever voted on membership of the EU/EEC. If it is inevitable as it is, far better to be on the side of those calling for it from a strong principled position rather than looking like the shifty bunch who called for a referendum a few years back but now are denying that's what they really meant. During any referendum campaign "they never wanted to have this vote in the first place" will form a plank of the "out" campaign. We're giving them unnecessary free ammunition.

We've already dug a hole for ourselves here. We need to get out of it and accept we called for a referendum. Not keep wriggling on the hook. We have precious little political capital left. We should not be spending it on this futile exercise.


Nick said...

The problem with 'racing political certainties' is that they quite often fail to happen, and leave those thinking they would looking pretty silly.

And the 'no one under age X has had a say' argument is silly, unless you also advocate referendums on our membership of the UN, the Commonweath and whatever else too, as no one of any age has had a say on those.

I wrote a letter to the press a few months ago when our local tories were pushing this and said:
"we pledged to hold a referendum on EU membership at the time of the next major EU treaty. What we didn't say was that we would support a referendum whenever some disgruntled Tory backbenchers felt like having one. Given the current situation of the European economy, for Britain to hold a EU referendum now would be an act of madness,
injecting even more instability into a volatile situation."

Mark Thompson said...

"And the 'no one under age X has had a say' argument is silly, unless you also advocate referendums on our membership of the UN, the Commonweath and whatever else too, as no one of any age has had a say on those."

That's almost beside the point though Nick because that is exactly the argument that Clegg used himself (and other Lib Dems did too) as the quote shows. So if that is now our argument we will rightly be seen as hypocrites. Better to just accept it and get on with planning the "in" campaign.

Anonymous said...

Mark, thank God you have said this, ,and put it so succinctly. I have been in despair over the sheer dishonesty of our position re: statements on "eu" referendum. ( Mind you, I'm also a very unorthodox LibDemmer wrt the "eu", being viscerally opposed to the whole nightmarish federalising project !)

Jim said...

Its funny that you think that the Lib Dems have any political capital left at all (not a party point, Labour and the Tories have precious little either), but the LDs are 100% tapped out in that department I'm afraid, as far as the voters are concerned.essnomu

Stephen Tall said...

I don't really disagree Mark. But I'm going to invoke Ben Goldacre's catchphrase (which I know you agree with!) - it's a bit more complicated than that.

When there's a treaty under discussion I think it makes sense to have an in/out referendum. I think too the time has been reached when we need to re-confirm membership through a referendum.

We could hold a referendum now. If we did I think the 'remain in the EU' side would win convincingly. But at the moment no-one really knows what the EU will look like even in a couple of years' time.

Surely in those circs it makes sense to 'wait and see', at least until the Eurozone crisis has resolved itself?

Is that the crisp, clean sound-bite policy you want for the Lib Dems? I doubt it. But I think it's the only credible one.

Nick said...

For once, I agree with Stephen. The problem with Britain having a referendum when there's not any new treaty is that it would effectively paralyse the rest of Europe during the campaign, when they wait to see if we're in or out. If it's part of the ratification process of a new treaty then everyone else will be going through the approval process as well.

And one thing that I think would be a certainty is that if we had a referendum now and voted yes, then as soon as there was another treaty in a couple of years time the calls would start for another referendum on that anyway - 'this isn't the EU we approved' etc

tall said...

The eu is mad