What is a constitution?

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It seems I am caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the Lib Dem PP’s refusal to back a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty under any circumstances is something I’m not happy with. On the other hand, saying so publicly makes me subject to the fatuous braying of Tory bloggers like Iain Dale and Dan Hassett.

Let’s be clear: the reason the Lib Dem front bench don’t want a referendum on Lisbon is because they are (correctly) convinced we would lose it. To that extent they are being opportunistic, and no amount of soft soaping from Paul Walter or others will change that.

But is Nick Clegg correct to insist that an in or out referendum is the closest we have to the promised referendum on the Constitutional Treaty? Abso-bloody-lutely.

Because the whole point of the Constitutional Treaty was that it was a “delete all, replace with” process. It was a Year Zero approach to reforming the EU. Lisbon, at the insistence of the Euro-sceptics, is not; it is an amending treaty. That being the case, the EU’s constitution is the body of treaties going all the way back to Rome. If you want a referendum on the EU’s constitution, you have to have a referendum about that.

So if you want to get technical here, it is actually more dishonest and going back on past election promises for the Tories not to support the Lib Dem line of an in or out referendum than for the Lib Dems to not support the Tory line for a Lisbon referendum. Far more dishonest.

I think there has been a democratic deficit regarding the EU for a long, long time now. It has left scars and could harm the UK’s role in the EU in the long term. A referendum on Lisbon might help correct that. But the fundamental problem there is that we have a model of strong government and a weak Parliament. Which party supports the status quo the loudest in this regard? Step forward the Conservative Party.

Nick Clegg may not be exactly showering us in glory here, but at least we don’t have a shyster like David Cameron at the helm. I sleep soundly.

6 thoughts on “What is a constitution?

  1. James, I am delighted to have your seal of approval on the main argument:

    “But is Nick Clegg correct to insist that an in or out referendum is the closest we have to the promised referendum on the Constitutional Treaty? Abso-bloody-lutely.

    Because the whole point of the Constitutional Treaty was that it was a “delete all, replace with” process. It was a Year Zero approach to reforming the EU. Lisbon, at the insistence of the Euro-sceptics, is not; it is an amending treaty. That being the case, the EU’s constitution is the body of treaties going all the way back to Rome. If you want a referendum on the EU’s constitution, you have to have a referendum about that.”

  2. I think there is an element of backtracking, but I think a large part of this is due to poor choices regarding our earlier commitments. We should have made clear that we supported a referendum on the constitution as an in or out process.

  3. This is all *too* technical for how the public sees it, and that’s what matters.

    The problem with apparently switching to a different referendum pledge is that, having appeared to abandon our original pledge, people are not likely to believe this new policy will ever be delivered.

    I’ve had people say to me that as soon as there’s any chance of that ‘in / out’ referendum happening, we’ll back out on that too. It’s not good.

    To me, if we’re honest, what the document is labelled, and the manner in which it achieves its ends, is basically irrelevant if the net effect of both seems to be the same.

    And everyone who’s not a fool or a minister appears to agree that this is the case with the Lisbon Treaty and original EU Constitution.

    This all boils down to trust.

    In any case, why does supporting an in / out referendum necessarily preclude supporting one on the Lisbon Treaty, as we have on previous ‘amending’ treaties?

  4. Mike, fundamentally I agree. I’m very conscious of the fact that regardless of the rights and wrongs of the matter, arguing about which kind of referendum is exactly the kind of Policy Wonkiness that Nick Clegg said he wanted to move the party away from.

    I’m only arguing the very narrow point that however tenuous our position on this is, it is far more principled than the Tory line.

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