Why Ming is quackers about the EU referendum

looney tunes – rabbit fire

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You can forget Tom and Jerry. For me, the best cartoon double act of all time is Bugs and Daffy.

The thing is, I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdogduck. It’s not that I have anything against transvestites you understand, but I always found Bugs to be unbearably smug and utterly cynical, appealing to Elmer’s worst nature.

Daffy on the other hand, despite always ending up on the business end of a shotgun, has a sort of everymanfauna appeal. Sure, he loses his temper every once and a while. Sure, you always know he’s onto a loser. Sure, he can be a conniving little sod at times. And yes, he is often the agent of his own downfall. But you can’t help but sympathise with the guy.

Why am I mentioning all this on a blog post about the EU referendum? Well, because those classic Bugs-Daffy-Fudd cartoons remind me a lot of the level of debate surrounding the EU. Elmer is the voter, Bugs is the Eurosceptics and Daffy is the Europhiles. Depressingly, Bugs always gets the better of Daffy. Daffy meanwhile never seems to realise he’s onto a loser playing Bugs’ game and never changes tac (except for when he tries to be clever and ends up being hoist on his own petard). All too often, the debate degenerates into the equivalent of “Rabbit season! Duck season! Rabbit season! Duck season!” At no point does Daffy sit Elmer (who is a vegetarian for God’s sake!) down and attempt to reason with him. No wonder the voter often ends up losing his rag and gunning for both sides of the debate.

Sadly for the Lib Dems, Ming Campbell has now done the equivalent of wearing a Daffy-style “shoot me now!” sign. In an interview with the FT, he’s leapt to Gordon Brown’s defence arguing that a referendum on the EU Reforming Treaty is “not necessary“:

Lib Dem support for a poll could even have threatened Mr Brown’s Commons majority on the issue and piled on the pressure for a vote that many believe the prime minister would lose.

But 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. 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.

However, such a question is unlikely to be put by any government in the near future. “My judgment is a referendum is not necessary on this document,” he said in an interview ahead of next week’s Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. “But if we were to have a referendum, then it is worth considering a more fundamental referendum, in a sense of being in or out.”

A formal decision on the party’s position will be taken after Mr Brown signs a final treaty text at an EU summit in Lisbon next month, but few believe it will differ greatly from the draft agreed in Brussels in June.

What depresses me most about this statement is that he has chosen to parrot the government line that the reforming treaty is “sufficiently different” from the constitutional treaty to not warrant a referendum. Stung by sneering about “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…” from the sceptics, many pro-Europeans have adopted the tactic of giving the treaty rabbit ears and pretending it is of another genus completely.

This will not do. Just because the UK doesn’t have a document called “the constitution” it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have one. In lieu of a single document called “the constitution” (or even “the constitutional treaty”), the EU still has a constitution: it is the collected treaties since Rome. The debate gets even more stupendous when Europhiles insist that is can’t possibly be a constitution because it doesn’t refer to a flag or a national anthem. That leaves the US constitution a bit fucked, doesn’t it?

Europhiles could go around calling the sceptics’ bluff, pointing out that we already have a constitution which by opposing this reform, they in effect support. Instead, they seem to be dedicated to playing the sceptics game. I don’t understand it.

What’s worse, exactly the same thing happened in the 90s. The Eurosceptics started muttering darkly about “federalism” and the Europhiles promptly started denying that they had any federalist leanings; you could be forgiven for thinking they misheard “pederast”. Federalism is a perfectly sensible system of government. So sensible in fact that the self-same Little Englanders who purport to hate it so much at an EU level are now demanding a federal UK (of course, they want a woefully lopsided federation, but that is for another debate). Federalism in an EU context means, among other things, a way of finally reforming dreadful inter-governmental nonsenses such as the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. Eurosceptics like to emphasise how much they hate such things, yet seem to hate even more the prospect of reforming them.

Another example of the sceptics nonsense: they constantly go on about the EU undermining Parliamentary sovereignty, yet they demand a referendum. Fact: referendums undermine Parliamentary sovereignty. If our Parliamentary system is so perfect, how come it has lead to this situation occurring? They manage to simultaneously despise the government and call for it to be trusted to look after our best interests. They claim to defend democracy while insisting our voices should be drowned out by governments at a trans-national level.

As has so often been pointed out, with the exception of Euronihilists such as UKIP they have no Plan C. They don’t offer any solution for what the EU should do if this reforming treaty were to fall. They don’t have a meaningful contribution to make at all.

So why have they been allowed to dominate the public debate for so long? Simple: pure cowardice on the part of the pro European movement. Stung by the disastrous debacle that was Britain in Europe which, among other things, lead to the virtual demise of the European Movement (the organisation), they have become utterly petrified of calling the sceptics’ bluff. They have come to regard the public as the mob – a dangerous rabble that politicians need to protect “us” from. In fairness to them, we are to understand that they have launched a “Coalition for the Reform Treaty” but they are so disdainful of the public that they haven’t even bothered with a website.

People like Andrew Duff are quick to point out the complexity of the treaty and how impossible it would be for the general public to deliberate on it. Surely, if it cannot be explained in layman’s terms, it is pretty much indefensible? Indeed, don’t we expect the public to deliberate between party manifestos? What’s simple about that? In any case, what magical qualities do our MPs have that enables them to make the decision on our behalf?

One of my favourite anecdotes is that in the run up to the Danish referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, a research company did a poll which revealed that the average member of the public knew more about the content of the treaty than the typical non-specialist MP. Give people a say and, generally speaking, they take the trouble to inform themselves.

In a sense, Ming is correct: it may well be more useful and meaningful to have a referendum on EU membership than on this reforming treaty and if that is what he had called for yesterday, I wouldn’t have a problem. But even here he hedged his bets.

My own view is that while a referendum on EU membership may be preferable (although Jonathan Calder makes some interesting arguments against), it won’t fly. That being the case, given the choice between a referendum on the treaty and no referendum at all, I say go for the referendum. From my perspective there is no down side: either the public approves the treaty, or it doesn’t. If you’re a democrat and a Europhile there is a Plan C: the sort of meaningful public debate we were promised when the constitutional treaty was first mooted and never got (maybe then George Monbiot can get his wish). From a tactical Lib Dem position it is a no-brainer as well: either Brown will hold firm and we can be holier than thou, or he’ll capitulate and we’ll look like we forced him into it.

Either way, the bottom line must be that if the European project is to be sustainable, it is crucial that the political class carries the public along with it. Every time they pretend they can bypass the public on this, they cause long term damage and further alienation. Treat the public like children and they will behave like children. Treat them with respect and they may just start listening to you. Ultimately, as I wrote on Lib Dem Voice on Sunday, you are either “drawbridge up” or “drawbridge down”. If you believe the public are incapable of making a correct decision without politicians intervening, then it isn’t just referendums you ought to be questioning; its elections as well.

A referendum on this single treaty won’t solve everything. It may be that we just need to take a hit so the public, denied a voice for so long, can vent its frustrations once and for all. If we have a referendum though, we will no longer be able to simply indulge in arguing semantics. I would like to be on the side which argues for giving national parliaments a greater say on EU policy, for an EU citizens’ initiative and for reform of the CAP and CFP. Wouldn’t you? What’s stopping us?

The sad answer to that last question is Ming Campbell. If it looks like a lame duck and quacks like a lame duck…?

Nuff respec’ to:

…with apologies to any I might have missed.


  1. Brilliant post, and great cartoon (you’re right; Daffy is funnier) 🙂

    Including those of us who made our views clear in comments on the Lib Dem Voice news story, it looks like – and this is just a bit of fun – Ming has so far lost this particular internal party referendum by six votes to ten. Two points to notice: the Phantom of the Voice is on Ming’s side, for once (Laurence, are you well?); and remember, this is just a referendum on a referendum, not ‘Ming in or out’.

  2. I’m never that well at the best of times Alex, but I’m trying to play this one with a straight bat. I’m actually fairly euro-sceptic, but I want us either to be in Europe and positive about it, or to get out altogether. Which is not to say that this isn’t another great article from James.

  3. What, I think,this – otherwise excellent – argument misses is the division within the so-called “pro-European” camp.

    From the very beginning, there was a division between functionalists, like Monnet and federalists like Spinelli. Functionalists were afraid of the people. Elections had brought Hitler to power; the French Third Republic had become a shambles. Intelligent people working together could do a much better job if they were insulated from the public that was incapable of being trusted. If that sounds a lot like the Enarquate of the French Fifth Republic, then that’s because they were created by the same people.

    The Commission is older than the Treaty of Rome; the elected Parliament was created in 1979 as a concession to the British.

    Federaism isn’t just a dirty word in euroscptic circles; the Commission hate the idea too.

  4. Thanks for this article, I really enjoyed it.

    However, you seem to perversely misrepresent one of the arguments when you say: “Another example of the sceptics nonsense: they constantly go on about the EU undermining Parliamentary sovereignty, yet they demand a referendum. Fact: referendums undermine Parliamentary sovereignty. If our Parliamentary system is so perfect, how come it has lead to this situation occurring?”

    As I understand it, and as the argument was expressed by Tony Benn when he spoke in Parliament against the Maastricht Treaty, the point is, quite simply that Parliament is not sovereign. The point is that sovereign power remains invested in the people, who lend it to Parliament for the period during which it sits. As Parliament is not sovereign (and precisely because it is not sovereign) it does not have the power to give away sovereign powers to any other body. The argument runs that Parliament is not sovereign, not that it is.

    Of course, this is true, even technically. Parliament is in no sense sovereign; the Queen is, and it must wield its powers in her name. However, either way, Parliament does not have the authority (so the argument runs) to cede sovereign powers over anything to any other body.

    Apart from that, I thought this was another brilliant article.

  5. I don’t think Tony Benn is at all representative of the Eurosceptics. Benn, as far as I’m aware, is in support of a written constitution (which would indeed introduce the concept of popular sovereignty into UK constitutional law). The Conservatives, UKIP and the other assorted headbangers oppose that as strongly as they oppose the EU.

    The concept of Parliamentary sovereignty is hardwired into the UK constitution. There is no higher authority than Parliament in our system – certainly not the people who are mere subjects of the Crown. Parliament is even capable of withdrawing from the EU if it so wished. And it is this special status that a lot of sceptics – certainly not Tony Benn – wish to defend.

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