Thursday, October 20, 2011

An "in or out" referendum the European Union was always a bad idea

Back in December 2009 I wrote a post saying the the party should drop its commitment to holding an "in or out" referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union.

I gave four reasons and as far as I can see they still hold good today:
  • Europe should be one of the great issues in British politics. By quarantining it through promising referendums and then not holding them, the parties have done much to being politics into disrepute. Let's debate Europe at general elections.
  • By advocating an "in or out" referendum the Liberal Democrats are retreating to their comfort zone. The question now is what kind of Europe we want to see, and that requires some thought. Reminding people that we were the first people to advocate British membership of the EEC will no longer do.
  • The idea that an incoming Liberal Democrat government would hold a referendum and then, if the outs won, devote five years to negotiating British withdrawal from the EU is ludicrous.
  • Advocating this referendum exacerbates the idea that we are trying to be all things to all people. We are the most pro-European party, but if you hate the EU then - hey! - you can still vote for us because we will give you a referendum so you can vote to leave it.
It appears that Liberal Democrat MPs will be whipped to vote against such a referendum on Monday, which may instead exacerbate the idea that we say one thing in opposition and do the opposite in power.

Jonah Oliver points out that this would not be just. The Lib Dem manifesto at the last election promised an "in or out" referendum "the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU".

No such fundamental change is under discussion at present, and - of course - we did not win the election.

Still, it would have been a lot better if we had never taken up the idea of such a referendum in the first place.


Anonymous said...

Nick Clegg was leader in 2009.

I absolutely agree with the thrust of the article.

Jonathan Calder said...

You are right, of course. I have edited the post.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article (at a time when there is some absolute idiocy going round).

A referendum would not end the row. The antis would almost certainly lose, but then they'd be back saying they hadn't understood the question, or something had changed, or anyone of the many things they said after the last one.

The LibDems are the only chance we have to vote for a pro-European party. Labour and Conservative just dither while making sure they're not too anti (because being anti-European is actually electoral suicide in this country).