Cameron’s Lisbon pledge is “grammar streaming” all over again

Share This

Do you remember “grammar streaming“? That remarkable non-policy that Cameron came up with in 2007 designed to shut down the spiralling rows over grammar school policy that had been raging throughout the summer? Cameron’s announcement about European Policy today reminded me of that prime example of ridiculousness.

Like grammar streaming it is an attempt to square a circle which a large proportion of his backbenchers, frontbenchers and grassroots are obsessed with beyond all reason, despite the fact that a compromise in this case isn’t really possible. Part of the problem is that the Tory rhetoric about Lisbon for the past four years has been so over the top that lamely muttering “never again” doesn’t begin to rectify things. If the Lisbon Treaty was as bad as they have been claiming it is then the logical course of action is to call for the UK to leave the EU. That they are not tells you everything you need to know about what they really think about how pernicious this treaty really is.

European Treaties consist of rules that we have to live with from the moment they are ratified. They are not mere events. They aren’t a kick in the balls that you feel sore about for a while but which don’t fundamentally change anything. Yet this is how the Conservatives have consistently portrayed them. Maastricht was supposed to be the treaty to usher in the European Superstate. It didn’t happen. Then we were told that the secret plan was in Nice. Didn’t happen. And so we go on, treaty after treaty. Each time the Tories confess quietly that, yes, the last one wasn’t anything like as awful as they had been making out but THIS one on the other hand… it is laughable.

Cameron’s new cast iron guarantee appears to consist of two legislative steps: first, they will pass a law asserting Parliamentary sovereignty. Second, they will amend the European Communities Act 1972 to prohibit the further “transfer of power to the EU” without a referendum.

The first one is interesting because Bill Cash attempted to introduce precisely this rule into the Lisbon Treaty bill last year. Cameron – and most of the Conservative Party – abstained. So this is another EU-turn. But they had good reason to abstain – Cash’s amendment was meaningless. Parliamentary sovereignty has always been a mythological concept, as evidenced by the fact that the executive in this country wields enormous royal prerogative powers. The Tories may now want to shave off the worst excesses of the royal prerogative, but they have shown no sign of ending them. In particular they haven’t called for the government’s treaty-making powers to be invested in Parliament. Laws such as the Treaty of Lisbon Act are really just niceties – there is nothing to stop the government from ratifying treaties without Parliament. And indeed they do in the case of less controversial treaties.

One thing you can’t do is call for Parliamentary sovereignty with one hand and then demand popular referendums to ratify EU treaties with the next. Unless, it seems, you happen to be David Cameron (to be fair, most of the Conservative Party thinks the same thing). In any case, what does this pledge mean in practice? Under Lisbon, the European Council can make all sorts of changes without going as far as agreeing another treaty as long as all the member states agree. If Cameron agrees to one of these cosy little deals will he subject it to a referendum vote, or claim that it doesn’t count because it isn’t in a treaty? And what does “transfering power to the EU” mean anyway? We have done no such thing. We’ve pooled sovereignty which is a very different thing. Once again, that appears to give him a lot of wriggle room.

What is so special about European treaties anyway? If, heaven forbid, the Copenhagen talks result in a radical global commitment to reducing carbon emissions, it will have a profound effect on UK law. We will in effect be ceding our power to set energy and environmental policy for decades to come. It will be far more profound in practice than Lisbon. Will Cameron therefore be demanding a referendum on it (I right this as someone who thinks it might not actually be a bad idea as it would force the country as a whole to contemplate the crisis we face)? What about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, due for renegotiation in the next couple of years? Is there a more profound impact on our sovereignty than security issues?

The whole thing smacks of style over substance and an attempt to buy a handful of naturally very angry people off. What I don’t understand is why it all seems to have been written on the back of a fag packet. Cameron must have known he was going to have to come up with a Plan B this summer as the opinion polls made the Irish “yes” win look increasingly likely. Yet he carried on pretending that the Lisbon Treaty was dying. The decision to promote Dan Hannan was especially surprising given the whole NHS debacle. He knew Hannan was a loose cannon and one who was causing him grief at the time. He knew Hannan would rather garotte himself than accept a U-turn on Lisbon. Yet he appointed him anyway, with predictable results.

I think Cameron will be a disastrous Prime Minister if he gets the chance: another Tony Blair but without the steel. His photo in the Guardian yesterday summed it up perfectly, something which Alastair Campbell has been mercilessly taking the mickey out of. It really is the most excrutiating photo of Cameron since That Bullingdon group shot. Here is a man who clearly puts more thought into his image than into his policies. The result is that both end up pretty laughable.

And yet, and yet… Gordon Brown is so spectacularly awful and incompetent that none of this seems to matter much. Despite the fact that UKIP will be having a field day trying to extract as much support from Eurosceptic Tories as they can on polling day, it probably won’t be enough. As with grammar streaming, the loony wing seem to have been largely bought off with this vague assortment of half promises and purple rhetoric. It certainly looks at the moment as if a sizeable chunk (by no means a majority) of the British public have made their mind up that they want Cameron as the next Prime Minister. I’m pretty sure they will shortly repent, but there doesn’t seem to be any telling them.

9 thoughts on “Cameron’s Lisbon pledge is “grammar streaming” all over again

  1. “Cameron’s announcement about European Policy today reminded me of that prime example of ridiculousness.”

    I think that you’re being perhaps a little harsh on Cameron — this is an area where trying to keep a united front on party policy is like attempting a tightrope walk whilst fencing with one hand tied behind your back. Sure, his policy announcement was mainly about party management, but I don’t discredit him for that — I think he showed reasonable political skill in managing to defuse what looked like a certain blow-up with the Eurosceptic wing.

    Next Left does a good analysis of Cameron’s three major pledges: http://www.nextleft.org/2009/11/camerons-cufflinks-define-tory-schism.html . As you say, the idea of having referendums on any transfer of power to the EU is an incredibly tricky one. I can see two potential ways of going about it: merely a legislative one that details the passing of new treaties plus one or two other big issues such as the Euro, and adopting or abolishing opt-outs to other significant pieces of EU legislation. This would obviously be limited, and not act as a cast-iron guarantee of protection of UK sovereignty via referenda.

    The second could be a document more similar to constitutional legislation, or the Human Rights Act, which would be subject to judicial interpretation. Given the Conservatives’ attitudes towards judicial behaviour of this kind in recent years, I’m sceptical if they would be thrilled by this idea, however, it would politically carry more weight than a limited bill that simply laid out specific cases where referenda must be held.

    The Sovereignty bill would have to be pretty symbolic and meaningless, if it were to comply with British terms fo membership — merely a restatement of what is possible under the status quo. It would also be stupid to detail a sovereingty bill in such a way that would conflict with any potentail future change in the status quo of legislative competence, as this would be highly embarassing for the Conservatives in government.

    Repatriation of powers strikes me as the most problematic announcement — it will be very tricky to achieve anything meaningful, and is a huge hostage to fortune risk.

    “I think Cameron will be a disastrous Prime Minister if he gets the chance: another Tony Blair but without the steel.”

    Did Blair show a lot of steel in opposition?

  2. Cameron et al have to cater to their right-wing bedfellows through gimmicks like this but, in all seriousness, people should be focusing on how they can use the existing democratic channels that Lisbon affords rather than trying to tinker with the EU yet still. See http://www.right2bet.net for the first campaign to try and utilise Lisbon’s citizens’ initiative provisio. Here’s hoping grassroots campaigns like right2bet can make a difference.

  3. I agree (though I’m not generally keen on the idea of citizens’ initiative). I have plenty of disagreements over Lisbon, I think that there’s a large amount of hypocricy underlining hardline Euroscepticism, as there are many things the UK could do unilaterally to improve democracy within the EU, without even considering the fundamental terms of membership. I’ve outlined some of these up on the Soapbox.

  4. David,

    My problem is that I doubt Cameron’s intentions here. I don’t believe he really gives two hoots about parliamentary sovereignty; I just think he is attempting to carve out for himself a path of least resistence. And in doing so he is paying a lot of lip service to some very silly ideas within the Conservative Party which really need to be challenged instead of indulged.

    Incidentally, regarding EU citizens’ initiatives, the system in Lisbon is only really agenda initiative – there is no referendum process at the end of it. As such, I can’t really what objection there is to it. Indeed – ultimate irony of ironies – I predict that within six months the most fervant of Euro-nihilists will be running regular CI campaigns to “send a message to Brussels”.

    It will be fascinating to see how the system works in practice. We don’t have anything like it at a UK level.

  5. “My problem is that I doubt Cameron’s intentions here. I don’t believe he really gives two hoots about parliamentary sovereignty; I just think he is attempting to carve out for himself a path of least resistence.”

    Well, quite. Isn’t this a little similar to Blair’s path with things like Constitutional Reform? Blair professed it to be “boring”, but continued elements of Smith’s agenda for political convenience.

    Cameron strikes me as Eurosceptic, yes — but not obsessed with the question of sovereignty to the same degree as the hardline Eurosceptics in his party are. Thus I can understand his reaction to the Lisbon treaty, and the fact that he didn’t really have a lot of wriggle-room — trying to defuse the referendum issue, as well as trying to appear like he wasn’t going for renegotiation in an impractical way, was a pretty difficult task.

    My own objection is to the idea of Citizens’ initiatives in general — rather than the Lisbon system specifically. I can’t help thinking of all the trouble it’s caused in California. However, if what you say is true, it doesn’t seem like anything too dangerous.

  6. I repeat: the Lisbon system is agenda initiative only. There will be no California-style proposition ballots. None. Zip. Zero. Nada. It is a glorified petitioning system.

    I’m rather less sceptical of Initiative and Referendum systems than you are. Despite the problems it has with its system on occasion California is a successful world-beating economy in its own right, so it hasn’t done too badly out of it (ditto Switzerland). That said, I would rather have systems of participatory democracy lead to a dialogue between Parliament and the people and a check on the former, not as an alternative means to legislate. And it isn’t a route we should consider going especially far down without a written constitution.

  7. “I repeat: the Lisbon system is agenda initiative only. There will be no California-style proposition ballots. None. Zip. Zero. Nada. It is a glorified petitioning system.”

    Ah, well I have no objection to it in that case.

    “I’m rather less sceptical of Initiative and Referendum systems than you are. Despite the problems it has with its system on occasion California is a successful world-beating economy in its own right, so it hasn’t done too badly out of it (ditto Switzerland).”

    Are you saying this has arisen out of the intiative and referendum system? I don’t know about that; what I do know is that the I&R system recently made California come very close to being the first State in US history to declare bankruptcy, because some idiots thought it was clever to draft a law specifying that 2/3 of the legislature had to approve a budget.

    The I&R system goes against the point of representative democracy in my book — which is to combine democracy with qualified legislating, by electing people to dedicate themselves to the job. I’m much more open to a Swiss-style system where it’s about whether or not to ratify such a law rather than actual initiation, although I think this can be abused as well.

    The main problem is that you can have too much ballot democracy — which can endanger it, by leading to referenda being dominated by interest groups. Though I can see how it might prove re-invigorating, I think we have to be very careful when considering this sort of thing.

    “That said, I would rather have systems of participatory democracy lead to a dialogue between Parliament and the people and a check on the former, not as an alternative means to legislate.”

    Ditto. I think, along with many other of the Carswell/Hannan ideas, it’s attempting to fix a problem by looking in the wrong place.

    As for a written constitution, wouldn’t it be rather difficult to come up with one enough people have ‘faith’ in? I don’t know whether I speak for other British people, but I have big trouble even trying to think of having faith in a single document to communicate elusive ‘British values’. I’m open to a more entrenched version of the HRA, however, for specitic rights.

  8. Actually, Hannan/Carswell aren’t in favour of full I&R as far as I am aware. Certainly Carswell is a bit sceptical of it (I’ve chatted to him about it). His system – which I’m also keen on – is for a “people’s bills” system where the six most petitioned for legislative measures would be guaranteed a second reading debate. He also supports a veto power, which you appear to also support.

    The debate around “British values” is a distraction which has done the cause for a written constitution few favours but I don’t see why it should be a particular obstacle. All a written constitution would do is set out the framework defining and limiting the powers of each arm of the state. Any values written into it should ideally be universal, not especially British (there is nothing especially “French” about “liberté, égalité, fraternité” or “American” about “life, liberties and the pursuit of happiness”).

  9. Carswell supports a veto power for Parliament, yes. I may have misunderstood his ideas — I thought he was arguing for a similar system of I&R to California’s, where Citizens could actually influence the legislative agenda through petition, but I may well be mistaken. I certainly would support a veto power in such a system, though — but I regard it as a bit besides the point. As you say, we need a better dialogue between representatives and people, (certainly, one driven less by the media), and an I&R system won’t necessarily lead to that, as it’s not dependent upon representative sections of the people participating.

    “The debate around “British values” is a distraction which has done the cause for a written constitution few favours but I don’t see why it should be a particular obstacle. All a written constitution would do is set out the framework defining and limiting the powers of each arm of the state.”

    The thing is, arms of the State have a way of evolving out of limitations, even if they are intended to be held in check. Written constitutions can also limit arms of the State in ways that, upon writing, they were not strictly intended to. I think all of this has the potential to confuse debate, by viewing written constitutions as “superior” pieces of legislation that are somehow superior in quality to mere laws. I think it’s far better to limit power through the normal legislative process — as Labour did HRA-style, and not make such a fuss about it.

    The fact is, actually, that even the HRA has proved incredibly controversial — to the extent that its future is still in doubt, idiotic though the proposed Bill of Rights is (which would appear to be *less* like a bill of rights than the HRA itself is — how many bills of rights do you know that have “guidance notes” for judges?). The fuss over the European Constitution and, subsequently, the Lisbon treaty shows that these types of legislation kick up far more fuss among the public and the tabloids than they would as ordinary bills.

    So I guess I’m open to a written constitution, but I have big worries that it could kick up a huge stink that the normal legislative process wouldn’t.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *