Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Referendum on British Membership of the EU


Below you will find my original 2013 post supporting the call for a referendum on EU membership,  an update which I wrote in 2016, the month before that referendum took place, and here is a further update written in December 2017, an extremely turbulent year and a half after Britain voted to leave.

David Cameron persuaded me when he first announced his intention to call for a referendum if he was re-elected in 2015 that this was the right thing to do, and I still think that it was.

It was an extremely important issue on which the British people had not been properly consulted for forty years, during which the nature of what was originally called the "European Economic Community" and had been sold to them as a "Common Market" had changed. Worse, a promise to give the British people a say on the most recent set of major changes - the EU constitutional treaty of which more than 90% was eventually enacted as the "Lisbon Treaty" - had been broken by the New Labour government, creating a significant amount of anger in a part of the British population which was poisoning British politics.

I thought at the time that the majority Britain's metropolitan elite, including most journalists, most senior business leaders, and most politicians in all the major parties other than the Conservative party were not taking the concerns of that section of the British people seriously enough and badly underestimating the degree of resentment, the strength of the conviction of many people that their views were being ignored, and the number of people who felt it.

Subsequent events suggest that I was right that the elite was making that mistake, and continued to make it until they found out the hard way in July 2016. However, I also found out in July 2016 that I too was underestimating that resentment and the extent to which Britain is a divided society and indeed, so was almost everyone else. The EU referendum and indeed the 2017 general election reveal a country separated by vast gulfs of mutual incomprehension in several directions.

Like almost every other organisation built by fallible but well-meaning mortal human beings, the European Union has strengths and weaknesses, does some things well and others badly, some good and some harm. It's biggest weakness was and is a democratic deficit which, although not nearly as bad as the kind of people who call it the "EUSSR" make out, really does exist. This is not just the result of a power grab by institutions in Brussels but because it is convenient for the elites running the member states.

In my professional career I have heard national officials more or less admit, in places where the media were unlikely to pick it up, that they were going to get the EU to impose things they wanted to happen but knew to be unpopular, rather than take action themselves which they would have to justify to their own electorates.

I would have liked to see the EU go down the path of reform and democracy, and hope that it will still do so without Britain, but we could not have gone down the road of seeking reform and democracy within the EU without a democratic mandate from the voters in Britain. In the event, voters chose a different path.

I wrote in July 2016 that whichever way the vote went in Britain's referendum, it must be respected. I still hold by that.

* It was in the manifesto of the party which won the 2015 general election to call a referendum on EU membership and abide by the result.
* The legislation setting up that referendum was passed by parliament with an overwhelming majority of the House of Commons.
* During the referendum campaign the government wrote, at taxpayers' expense, to the home of every elector in Britain promising to implement the result of the vote.
* The referendum was won by the "Leave" side by a margin which, although not huge - 52% to 48% - was quite clear.
* When the Supreme Court ruled that parliamentary approval would be required to trigger "article 50" of the Lisbon treaty and start the process of leaving the EU, the necessary legislation to do this was overwhelmingly passed by parliament.
* The vast majority of MPs elected in the 2017 general election had stood on a platform of respecting the referendum result by leaving the EU.

On any reasonable criteria the democratic mandate from the British people to leave the EU is indisputable. To fail to do so now would have very serious consequences for confidence in British democracy which in my opinion would do far more damage than Brexit will.

Now, not one of the points above provides any over-riding democratic mandate for a particular FORM of Brexit.

The Referendum ballot paper did not specify whether or not Britain would still be in the single market or the customs union, or what immigration policy Britain should follow - it simply asked whether Britain should leave the EU or not.

Both those who want a "soft Brexit" and those who want a "hard Brexit" should all be free to argue their case without being called traitors, mutineers or enemies of democracy on the one side or racists and xenophobes on the other.

And because the vote was so close, anyone on either side with any sense should listen to the arguments of the other side.

Britain is a great county and we can make Brexit work. But to do so we need to work together.


The original version of this post (given below) was written in 2013, the day before a vote in the House of Commons on the proposal then being put for a referendum.

That bill was ultimately blocked by Lib/Dem and Labour peers in the House of Lords, but of course, following the election of a Conservative majority government in 2015 we are now having such a referendum next month, in July 2016.

I won't pretend that I have been other than disappointed by the quality of the debate: neither side has covered itself with glory. Nor has everything about the management of the debate or the referendum itself been perfect.

Nevertheless, it still seems to me perfectly possible that either side could win. Polls - and yes, they got the General Election badly wrong, so they are not gospel - suggest it is very close indeed and I think it genuinely is. I don't see any way either side could get the sort of two-to-one margin which "In" won in 1975.

This referendum is going down to the wire and we're not going to know who has won until all the votes are counted and the result declared. And because it really could go either way, this referendum will ultimately have allowed the British people to have the final say on whether we should be in the EU or not.

For that reason I will make clear now that whichever side wins, I will strongly urge the other to accept the result as  the will of the people and respect it.

If the people vote "Leave" we should activate article 50 and leave the EU, probably on the basis of a the "Flexcit" plan unless the Leave campaign manage to get their act together and put forward a coherent proposal which is different.

If the people vote "Remain" that should equally be the end of the matter for a generation at least.

Either way, the British electorate will have been given the opportunity to leave the EU or stay within to try to reform it, and they will have taken that choice.


Tomorrow Conservative MPs will vote in parliament for a referendum on British membership of the EU. This is why I hope the bill to provide such a referendum is passed.

Nearly forty years ago, my parents' generation were given a vote on whether Britain should be part of what was then called the "European Economic Community" or more popularly the "Common Market." But the British people have never been properly consulted on whether Britain should be part of the kind of European Union we have now.

And it is time they were. I support David Cameron's promise of a referendum by 2017 following renegotiation if the Conservatives are in power or are able to deliver a referendum with the support of other parties.

At the 2005 election, all three main parties promised a referendum on a proposed redesign of the European treaties which was then being called the proposed EU Constitutional treaty. The story of how that promise was broken is one of the most shameful tales in the history of both the European Union and Britain.

Initially the powers that be in Europe were happy to put the proposed constitution for Europe treaty to referenda in a large number of EU member states, in a manner which was mostly free and fair, the one questionable aspect being that the plebiscites in countries where it was thought there was a significant risk of a "No" vote - Britain, Ireland and Denmark - were to be held last, at which point they appear to have assumed the countries who had already voted would have supported the constitution resulting in great pressure on us to follow the lead of the rest of Europe and vote "Yes."

Only it didn't work out that way. Maybe several electorates were not as keen on the European project as the powers that be had believed, maybe they used the referenda to stick up two fingers at their own governments for different reasons, maybe they just didn't like being taken for granted.

For whatever reason, the proposed constitution didn’t get past the electors of some of the countries thought to be most pro-European. At first it appeared to have been put on life support when the people of France voted "Non" and then killed when the voters of Holland also voted against a few days later.

As the proposal appeared to be dead, a relieved Tony Blair cancelled the vote in Britain, believing himself off the hook.

The trouble is, the EU doesn't allow cherished schemes to be killed for such trivial reasons as that the electorate have voted against them. The constitutional treaty came back with some minor changes and a new name - the Lisbon Treaty. Everyone in Europe except the then Labour government of Britain recognised was the proposed Lisbon Treaty was more than 90% the same as the constitutional treaty which the electorates of several European countries had voted down (and others probably would have if given the chance.)

This time they were not taking any risks about consulting the people. Only Ireland put the proposal to a referendum, and in a climate of fear and recession the Irish government managed to get a "Yes" vote.

Shamefully for Europe, none of the countries whose voters had rejected the original draft of the treaty dared to consult them again.

Shamefully for Britain, the Labour and Lib/Dem parties broke their promises to hold a referendum here on the treaty.

A Conservative motion to hold such a referendum attracted the support of the overwhelming majority of Tory MPs (all except two), and a few brave Labour and Lib/Dem rebels. However, Gordon Brown whipped labour MPs to vote against a referendum, and Nick Clegg whipped Lib/Dem MPs to abstain.

David Cameron made a promise that if he came to power before the treaty was ratified he would suspend ratification and put it to a referendum. Unfortunately he had no opportunity to implement this promise because the ratification of the treaty was completed while Gordon Brown was still in power.

Brown’s signature of the treaty was a particularly embarrassing episode and the worst of all worlds – rather than sign at the same time as all the other leaders he turned up after they had all gone and signed it on his own as if trying to hide. This managed the rare feat of uniting the full spectrum of opinion from the most pro-Federalist to the most anti-EU – but they were all united in finding this ridiculous.

The whole sorry saga left a bad taste in the mouth and poisoned attitudes to Europe through a wide part of the British political spectrum. Whatever the future relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe is to be, we have to start by accepting that the British people must decide the basic direction, and that means giving them a vote on it.

Until comparatively recently I was not a supporter of an In-Out referendum, partly because the idea was being put forward by people who were trying to wriggle out of their promise of a referendum on the EU Constitution by offering one on British membership of the EU instead. (They thought they would lose a vote on the treaty but win one on EU membership, so they were offering a plebiscite they thought would give the result they wanted as a substitute for the one they had actually promised at election time, which wouldn’t.)

I changed my mind when I listened to David Cameron’s speech on Europe, which convinced me that we do need a referendum on British membership.

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