Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lib Dem wriggling on Europe comes back to bite Clegg on the bum

Yesterday Nick Clegg took part in a notably scratchy interview on the Radio's Today programme. In part this was due to that programme's philosophy that its own presenters are far more interesting and important than those they interview. Justin Webb once looked as though he might be an exception to this, but he now fits in very well.

Another example of the programme's failings, incidentally, was its coverage of this morning's helicopter crash. It took half an hour for it to be mentioned, and the show ended with John Humphrys informing us that the helicopter was still dangling from the crane. It was like watching a carthorse trying to do dressage.

But much of the blame for that unsatisfactory interview has to go to the Liberal Democrats themselves. Because our record on Europe and referendums was very difficult for Nick to defend.

Let me quote from an article I wrote in Liberal Democrat News - a rare example of my writing for that paper "because I had something to say, not because I had a deadline to meet":
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 ... 
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?
I ended by saying that the way to thwart the Tory right  is not to shunt Europe off to referendum campaigns that never happen but to return the issue to the centre of our general election campaigns.

This is still what I believe today, and we cannot complain if our wriggling in an attempt to avoid talking about Europe appears less than impressive to journalists and voters.

Incidentally, the Tory enthusiasm for a referendum on Europe is yet another example of the modern Conservative Party's divorce from its own philosophy.

British Conservatives used to insist on the inherent superiority of our constitution on other models. Now they are happy to junk it because of their obsession with the European Union.

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