Referendums don’t resolve anything

I hesitate to return once again to the scene of the crime, lest I bore Chris Keating even more (then again, it is my experience that everything I’ve ever said and done bores Chris to tears, so I’m onto a loser there).

This episode has got me thinking because while I absolutely do defend us having a referendum (on lots of things, for that matter), as someone whose job it is to look into these things I’m accutely aware of their limitations.

Paul Walter, honourable mea culpa notwithstanding, is correct to say that for many a referendum on the treaty would be a “proxy debate” for EU membership. But Jonathan Calder is also correct to suggest the opposite. George Monbiot is similarly correct to suggest that both are entirely missing the point. I agree with all three of them.

It is one of the main features of democracy: local elections invariably become proxies for national issues, national elections invariably become proxies for local issues. During the last two European Parliament elections, the Lib Dems spent all their time banging on about crime, health and education. It did them no good; UKIP trounced us. But UKIP were having a proxy debate of their own on membership of the EU. They were completely disinterested in properly representing people in Brussels, which is why they ended up fielding an assortment of the mad, the bad and the sad.

That’s politics for you. But for all it’s flaws, as the great man said, it’s better than all the other options. In recognising this however, it is contingent on us to try and improve it. That’s partly why we Lib Dems call for electoral reform; its partly why we want powerful local government. And it is mainly why I’m hoping to move an amendment calling for the party to look into more participatory forms of policy development on Wednesday.

Looking at the specific area of Europe, and transnational democracy in general, as internationalists it is incumbent on we Liberal Democrats to develop ways to reconnect the public with transnational institutions. The European Parliament for example is notionally very democratic, yet without a European demos, it suffers from a chronic lack of legitimacy. It is given a mandate every five years and then left to get on with it. Many MEPs attempt to engage with the public, but in the face of indifference from both the media and the people themselves, it is a thankless task (I write as a former press officer for an MEP!).

The UK Parliament fails in its role as key scrutiniser of what the Government gets up to in Brussels. Admittedly its powers are more limited than its equivalent in, for example, Denmark, but MPs are not exactly clamouring to be given a more central role. The Government plays a dishonest game of blaming the EU for every controversial directive (including the ones it quietly backs in the Council) while claiming the credit for its better moves (including the ones it quietly opposed). It’s no wonder the public feels alienated and confused about the EU.

So what is to be done? Jonathan Calder’s lament that the Lib Dems are continually refighting the 1975 referendum got me thinking? Maybe it is time we actually accepted that the mandate for something as complex and potentially powerful as the EU can only ever be time limited. As an independent nation, perhaps we should seek to periodically renew this mandate every few years? While I think Jeremy Hargreaves is profoundly wrong to dismiss the reform treaty as just another one of dozens that the UK signs all the time, it is true to say that EU development is evolutionary not revolutionary. Saying we absolutely must have a referendum on Lisbon but not Nice is clearly untenable.

Take another example: the existence of the BBC – a far less fundamental issue for our constitution – is reviewed every 15 years or so. Its charter is reviewed and renewed to take account of new technology and dynamic culture. As such, despite the fact that it is funded by a profoundly regressive tax, it doesn’t suffer from anything like the level of controversy that the EU does. Yet I strongly suspect that if the charter had been engraved on tablets of stone 70 years ago, it would be a much hotter political potato than it is.

So how about this? Instead of blundering along until the whole situation becomes untenable yet again, the UK should, as a matter of course, seek to renew its popular mandate to remain a member of the EU every 15 years, coinciding with the elections to the European Parliament.

It would put an end to this non-argument every time we sign another treaty and put the onus on the political class to ensure that the European project does leave the public so far behind. It would be a new compact with the people which would benefit enormously from its transparency; the silly arguments about the UK handing its sovereignty over the Brussels would simply no longer be tenable. If the occasional tweak in the form of a new treaty were deemed to be required, it would remain up to Parliament and Government to review it, but the proxy arguments which emerge every time one is agreed would have less weight. And in the intervening 15 years we could get on with the job of actual policy making.

I haven’t made my mind up about this, but I do think it has something going for it. I’m hoping to kickstart a debate. What do you think?


  1. Well I have felt so strongly over this issue and that Ming has effectively done a U-Turn on supporting calls for the European Treaty that I have resigned from the Liberal Democrats. Whatever you think of Referendums and Europe – basically there was a promise to hold one AND the treaty is not substantially different from the Constitution. No wonder people are cynical about politicians. Time for Ming to resign!

  2. I’m sorry to hear you’ve done that Dave, although given that Ming is now committed to a referendum (albeit on a different question), I have to say I’m surprised you didn’t wait at least until how conference panned out.

  3. I thought about going and asking Ming in the Q and A session but then I thought it would a wasted trip. He has plainly made up his mind by his statement and I wonder who he consulted. Wouldn’t it have been better for Ming to have consulted the party, open it up for discussion and then made his mind up before making such statements?
    I feel his call for a referendum on EU membership is unneccessary and a foolish smokescreen. It just cause more division and derision. At least people can vote for UKIP if they want to get out of Europe. All I wanted was for Ming to keep his word in regards to supporting a referendum on the European Treaty. With the Tories, Labour backbenches and the TUC we could really have put a squeeze on Brown. Now Ming has blown that. And for what?

  4. I disagree about the difference between a referendum on EU membership and on the reforming treaty since the arguments about two are tangled up anyway.

    As I said yesterday, the key question is whether or not the Lib Dems will support a vote on the treaty after their attempt to push for a referendum on membership has fallen. If they do – and Ming has not ruled that out yet – then I don’t have a problem. I’m not concerned about being “divisive” regarding any putative alliance between the TUC and the Tories. Division is their stock in trade.

    We shall have to see. I would maintain that you have more chance of changing things on the inside than you’ll ever have outside though. There however I suspect we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  5. After a year and half I think we can clearly see that Ming has performed poorly as leader and in the next election the Lib-Dems will suffer in terms of seats. This is not a media invention. I only hope the party wakes up from being in denial and replaces him before the election. The mess he made this week over Europe will show the Lib-dems as inconsistent, divided and confused.

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