Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Menzies Campbell backs the wrong referendum

This morning's Financial Times carries a report based on an interview with Ming Campbell. It begins:

Sir Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat leader, on Tuesday took the heat off Gordon Brown over the revised European Union constitution, arguing that a referendum on the new treaty was “not necessary” ...

Sir Menzies, a “pro-European”, told the Financial Times the new EU reform treaty was “sufficiently different” from the original constitution to avoid the need for a plebiscite.

I have argued before in favour of a referendum on the treaty - not because I have any affection for referendums but because for years now our parliamentary system has failed to tackle the issue of Europe.

As I wrote last month:

The most important issue at the past three general elections ought to have been Britain's relations with Europe - first the single currency and later the proposed new European constitution. Instead these questions have been consistently dodged by the government promising referendums on them at some unspecified future dates.

Today it is in the interests of both Labour and the Conservatives to continue to keep Europe out of British politics in this way.

Today the mainstream of Labour instinctively is pro-European, even if it is less easy to name the concrete policies through which that instinct might express itself. What is important, though, is that Labour fears that British voters are essentially right wing - the whole New Labour project was predicated on this belief. Therefore they believe that any return of Europe to the centre of British political debate is bound to harm them.

At the same time, while the Tories remain viscerally anti-European, the more thoughtful amongst them have decided that this view has contributed to the voters' perception that the Conservative Party is old-fashioned and out of touch with the modern world.

So we have a situation where one of the major parties is pro-European, the other is anti-European and both are scared of mentioning it to the voters

I would be happy to be convinced I was wrong, but for this reason I think the argument Yes, we can have a vote on Europe: it's called a General Election, which can be found on the Aberavon and Neath Liberal Democrats blog, will not do.

However, Ming did hold open the prospect of another referendum:
He said the only case for a public vote would be on a much broader “in or out” question about Britain’s membership of the EU, to prompt a serious national debate on Europe.
I rubbished the idea when Keith Vaz came up with it, so I cannot be too respectful of it when it comes from the Liberal Democrat leader.

The real trouble is that even if it were possible to win such a referendum by saying "look at those scary right-wingers", it would take the debate on Europe no further forward. This would be a particular problem for the Liberal Democrats. As I wrote in my Liberator review of The Orange Book three years ago:
Throughout those long years when people made unkind jokes about telephone boxes and bar stools, the argument that Liberal members deployed to show that their party was still relevant was that it had been the first to advocate British membership of the Common Market. And in many ways we are still refighting the 1975 referendum campaign. We are happier defending that membership than we are recognising that we have been "in Europe" for more than 30 years (and are going to remain there) and then moving on to examine our views about how the European project should be developing.
What view, for instance, do supporters of the European project take of free trade? Those in Britain who support it usually do so on the grounds that it will make trade easier, but there are plenty of people across the continent who see the role of the European Union as protecting them from free trade.

I suspect there is a generation gap here, with older Liberal Democrats wholeheartedly supporting a federal Europe and younger ones being more sceptical. I suspect that what is happening here is that the programme we developed in the Grimond years is finally unravelling - regional assemblies, for instance, used to be a Liberal and Liberal Democrat shibboleth, but you rarely hear them mentioned now.

Such a process is inevitable, much as we all honour Jo Grimond's memory. A programme developed to solve the problems of 40 years ago is bound to be of limited relevance today.

Besides, as John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty, if we never test our beliefs in argument:
the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.
My case is that a "Europe: in or out?" referendum will not lead to any such enlightenment, but a referendum on the EU reform treaty just might.


Falco said...

Not the newest of ideas I know but bear with me:

The reson I and I believe many others want a referendum so much is that we have never had any true say on Europe. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives have slowed the "ever closer union" process and many disagree with it. Even those who were old enough to vote at the last referendum were not voting to become a federal state and no vote could have been won if they had been.

Free trade, by all means and not just with Europe. Massive and continuing surrender of Sovereignty requires a referendum.

GaffaUK said...

I agree. It should not be a debate about whether we should be a member of the EU or not. Voters can vote UKIP for that. But those like myself who want to the UK to stay in Europe but also to have a say (by Referendum) at key points where there is a possibility of closer politican integration. I believe it simply comes down to the problem that those who are very pro-Europe believe they will lose such a vote and would rather Ming breaks his promise and do a U-Turn. This has prompted me to leave the party today as he has made a shambles of this.