The referendum question

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I have to admit to remaining of the view that if the Lib Dems are in favour of a referendum on our continued membership of the EU, which we apparently are, then if that option looks as if it will get nowhere (which it does) we should be supporting the next best option, a referendum on the Reform Treaty. The fact that we’ve consistently failed to enthuse the public about the EU should not be a reason for refusing to face the music.

But if I don’t quite get Clegg’s line, Cameron’s line is even more inconsistent. Why this fig leaf about a referendum? If the Tories are opposed to the Reform Treaty, which when you read between the lines they clearly are, then why not simply say so? Why push for a national referendum, at great public expense, when a simple no vote in Parliament would save us all a lot of time and money?

It is pure oppositionism – opposing the government for the sake of opposition. The purpose of a referendum in this context (since it isn’t citizen-initiated) is to ratify a decision of Parliament; but if Parliament doesn’t make that decision then we don’t require a referendum.

The Tories have always been the opponents of referendums. They now present themselves as champions, but look a little closer. With the Reform Treaty, they are seeking to give the public a vote on an issue that they oppose and calculate the public do to. With their proposals over council tax, they will only permit a public vote if a local authority exceeds a “trigger threshold” (or as it is currently known, a cap) set by the (Tory) government. Referendums have their place as a way to hold the government of the day to account; but when they are used by government to simply make themselves look popular they are a blatant abuse of taxpayer’s money. It is the politics of Napoleon or indeed Nazi Germany.

There are two ways you can arguably use referendums legitimately – to ratify a constitutional change or at the behest of a significant proportion of the public. You might oppose both uses of referendums, but the dangers inherent of allowing governments to pick and choose as it suits them must surely be worse? Even the much maligned Hugo Chavez doesn’t do that.

You might be uncomfortable with the thick authoritarian streak running through Labour, but Cameron’s weakness for despotism is potentially far worse.

8 thoughts on “The referendum question

  1. You seem surprised that the Conservative’s are exploiting the reform treaty for political purpose without disguise. Of course it helps that they are pushing against an open door as neither of the other parties seem to want to challenge their view, preferring just to avoid Europe.

    Unlike a referendum on NHS privatisation for example, the reform treaty is not something that people care about. So it can be used as a political football and no one will complain.

    Campaigning for a referendum serves them in three ways: satisfying the eurosceptic arm of their own party by clearly implying a ‘no’ but in no way wanting to be drawn on the detail; opening up the hole in the Labour manifesto that promised the public a plebiscite; and that if they were to succeed in enforcing a no vote upon it (since I know few people who would campaign their hearts out for a ‘yes’) this would lumber the EU with more bureaucracy and make it look even more inefficient, which for many Tories is just what the doctor ordered.

    It is then by your tests illigitimate to press for a referendum for the sole purpose of the political gain of this kind. But it is easy to do. The reform treaty is required, not wanted. Needed, not loved. There is no one to defend it as a document, only to refer to it in the context of Labour’s manifesto pledge and whether it is similar to the Constitution or not, which again, no one ever sought to defend and is now habitually refererd to as the “hated constitution” despite the fact that it is arguable that but for the references to the free market and for Jacques Chirac campaigning in its support it would have been ratified by the French, and that but for some awful campaign methods including adverts referring to the war, and the French having voted no only days before, so might the Dutch. It’s a ‘might’ but the point is that pro-Europeans absolutely allowed the eurosceptics to win the debate by never defending either the constitution nor the reform treaty’s corner, thereby leading us in to this false debate in which the Tories are never required to remove the fig leaf.

    And where are our Lib Dem MPs on this? “I know we’re supposed to be pro-European” The say “But I don’t know too much about it, and it costs us votes in marginal Tory seats in the south.”

    Maybe a good start would be a party spokesman for ‘Europe’. His or her first question should be that in the event of a no vote, how would the Conservatives that have ignored right-of-centre leaders from the EU through their EPP divorcing, influence partners in the EU to a yet newer settlement that sought to pave the way forward?

  2. “It is pure oppositionism – opposing the government for the sake of opposition”

    Errrr, no. I think you’ll find that the Conservatives are opposing the Government because this new Treaty will hand huge amounts of power over to Brussels (in addition to the huge powers they already have) while Conservatives like myself would much prefer it if we ran our own country.

  3. The Tories position is to push for a referendum, as was the manifesto committment of all three major parties, and then to campaign for a ‘No’ vote in that referendum. The principle, as effectively introduced by Labour in the last ten years, has become that, for changes that will alter the constitutional settlement (as for the devolutional changes) referenda are the best way of ensuring that there is proper public support for them.

    Since the European treaty is both equivalent to the Constitution, and furthermore is a self-amending treaty, there can be no question that it fits this analysis, therefore fulfilling the requirements for a referendum. The real question is why this Government, which has ordered more referenda than any previous Government, is so reluctant to allow this one.

  4. “this new Treaty will hand huge amounts of power over to Brussels ”

    This is nonsense.

    There is not a single argument that can stand up in saying that the reform treaty pools sovereignity in the manner that any of the other treaties do, including Maastricht.

    It isn’t just a question of perspective, it is a question of fact. The Tories know this so ignore any substantive debate on the contents of the treaty whatsoever.

  5. Tim,

    There are lots of things in Michael Howard’s manifesto that the Tories now happily disown (even though David Cameron wrote it) – what’s so special with this?

    But again, I put it to you that if you oppose this measure then oppose it.

    The reasons the Tories put so much emphasis on a referendum is plain for all to see – they don’t want to be drawn on what they would do instead and so concentrate on the path of action that puts the maximum amount of pressure on their rivals. It is pure opportunism. The Lib Dem front bench is little better, but it is certainly no worse.

  6. The Tories *do* oppose the Treaty – they state very clearly that they will campaign for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum that was specifically pledged by all the parties. They are vague in a number of areas because they don’t want to be drawn on what they’d do instead, but not here. They would oppose the treaty in a referendum put to the people.

  7. Good grief, as the Bishop said to the Choir Boy, I’m clearly not penetrating here.

    Yes, we know the Tories are opposed to the Treaty. The question then follows why they are insisting on having a referendum. Why not simply not have the Treaty and save us all the time, money and fuss?

    It isn’t about allowing people to “have their say”. On all other matters they don’t want the public to “have their say”. And they don’t spell out what they want instead of the Reform Treaty. Given that the rest of the EU do want it, it rather suggests their only option is to get us to leave the EU. Except of course they don’t talk about that either.

    It is a hopeless, cowardly, incoherent mess.

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