Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Myths, Lisbon, and the betrayal which never was

Anyone who has been looking at my "quotes of the day" over the past few days will have spotted a theme - about the number of things people believe which range from those which appear strange to others to those which are completely off the wall.

I had a collision with the reality of how much some people's thought processes differ from mine about a decade ago, when in conversation with a highly intelligent work colleague who I would not otherwise regard as paranoid or unbalanced I discovered that he believed that NASA had faked the moon landings.

Like "Capricorn One" except that in that film the US administration decided that to have any chance of keeping such a fake secret they would have to kill the "astronauts" and make it look like an accident.

Now to me the idea that a secret conspiracy known to the number of people who would have to be "in" on something as big as a faked moon mission could possibly fail to leak is so patently absurd that I cannot imagine any US administration daring to try such an enormous hoax, but not everyone sees it that way.

Ironically when I read David Aaronovitch's book on conspiracy theories, I discovered that the same experience that had prompted me to read it - my conversation with a normally perceptive work colleague who thought the moon landings were fakes -  was also what had started him on the road which led him to write it (he had had a conversation with one of his work colleagues who also held that view.)

Unfortunately people are very prone to believing what they want to believe.

And a classic example is those who want to believe that David Cameron is guilty of the same kind of failure to keep his word over the question of a referendum on Lisbon that Blair, Brown and Clegg really were.

Most of that segment of the journalistic and political classes who have a political position want to believe that David Cameron broke an election promise over this, Labour and Lib/Dem people want to think this because they don't want to recognise that David Cameron has a better record of keeping their word than their own party leadership: Kippers, unusually, want to think the same as Labour and Lib/Dems on this issue because they want to believe that none of the three main party leaders can be trusted.

The irony is that every promise about Europe on which David Cameron has fought an election has been kept  and that the fact so many people are under the false impression that he broke a "cast iron" pledge on the subject of Lisbon is an indirect consequence of his trying to stick to the promises on which he and the Conservatives fought the 2005 election long after others would have abandoned those promises.

Let's consider his record.

PROMISE ONE - 2005 GE promise to support a Referendum on the "Constitutional Treaty"

All three parties promised this during the 2005 General Election.

Conservative record - promise kept by DC and almost all Conservative MPs
Labour and Lib/Dem record - the spirit of this promise was certainly broken.

The original "Constitutional Treaty" was of course voted down in referenda in France and Holland a few weeks after the 2005 British Election.

That should have killed it, but 95% of the provisions of the treaty came back as the "Lisbon Treaty" and this time only Ireland had the honesty to put it back to the people as a referendum.

The overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs kept their election promise by voting to put Lisbon to a referendum. The overwhelming majority of Labour MPs,with a handful of honourable exceptions such as Frank Field, broke their election promise by voting against this. The Lib/Dems broke their election promise by abstaining the in Commons and voting against in the Lords.

PROMISE TWO - Conservative Leadership election promise to pull Conservative MEPs out of the Federalist PPP.

David Cameron  record - promise kept.

David Cameron and his European allies have had a huge amount of flak from the other parties and the Euro establishment, some of it incredibly nasty (we're talking allegations of antisemitism and nazi sympathies here) because he kept the promise he made when standing to be Conservative leader that if he won he would ensure that Tory Euro-MPs would ally with more Eurosceptic colleagues rather than continue to sit with the pro-federalist Christian Democrat grouping, the European People's Party or PPP.

But he did keep that promise and after this year's European elections the new group which David Cameron and his Polish counterparts managed to form, the "European Conservatives and Reformists" or ECR group, overtook the Liberals to become the third largest group in the European Parliament.

PROMISE THREE - 2007 pledge to suspend ratification of Lisbon pending a referendum if DC came to power prior to ratification

This is the one that a lot of people argue - wrongly in my opinion - was broken.

The key point about this pledge was that it was given when we thought there might be a 2007 election. When Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair as PM there was a summer of speculation that Brown might call a General election that autumn to seek a new mandate. Brown did not kill that speculation until just after the autumn 2007 Conservative conference.

If Brown had indeed called a 2007 election, and David Cameron had won it, he would have been in a position to block ratification of the Lisbon treaty while he called a referendum. The other parties, half the rest of Europe, and the Euro-establishment would have gone absolutely bananas but AT THAT TIME he could have done it.

And that remained his position until a few days after the treaty was finally ratified, two years after the pledge was first made, but about a year before he became Prime Minister.

The key point is that the promise was made at a time when there was a realistic possibility that it could be implemented and dropped when that ceased to be the case.

This policy was expressed a lot of times in different words. The in which I have quoted it above is the form in which I heard him give it in front of TV cameras: the 2009 Conservative European manifesto stated

"We pledge that if the Lisbon Treaty is not in force in the event of the election of a Conservative Government this year or next, we will hold a referendum on it, urge its rejection, and – if successful – reverse Britain’s ratification.

In this form of words that promise was neither broken nor kept as the qualification did not apply - the treaty was ratified before DC came to power.

The people who think this promise was broken almost always refer to a September 2007 "Sun" article which referred to a cast-iron pledge of a referendum on Lisbon. The article concerned includes the following:

"No treaty should be ratified without consulting the British people in a referendum. Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations."

People who want to argue that David Cameron broke his word nearly always quote the second of those sentences but ignore the first.

I would argue that IN THE 2007 CONTEXT, and specifically including the promise to consult the British people on ratification, this is a promise to hold a referendum on future treaties before ratifying them, NOT a promise to hold a meaningless referendum on past treaties which have already been ratified.

Yes, David Cameron changed his policy when, two years later, the treaty was ratified and it ceased to be meaningful to hold a referendum on a treaty which had already come into effect. This was not a broken election promise because there had not been a General Election in the meantime - which of course is precisely why he never got the chance to implement it.

You think I'm quibbling? OK, try this.

Can any serious commentator make an argument which will hold water for five minutes that it was bad faith or an indication of untrustworthy conduct for David Cameron to change his policy to reflect changing realities, but OK for Nigel Farage to drop all of UKIP's previous party policies and promises during an interview with Andrew Neil like this ...

If you want to disagree with me about whether David Cameron broke his promise, it's a free country and you have the right to do so. But I put it to you that anyone who attacks David Cameron over his Lisbon pledge but doesn't accept that in the clip above Nigel Farage was making exactly the same sort of policy adjustment, (except that he was doing it in a far less competent way), is not exactly being consistent.

For the avoidance of doubt, I'm not criticising Farage for dropping a lot of daft policies. I will admit to laughing at the way he went about it - but we would have laughed at UKIP even more if they had gone into another election with some of those policies. Mind, you, as the saying goes, the trouble with political jokes is that sometimes they get elected ...

PROMISE FOUR - after Lisbon was ratified by Labour without a referendum, David Cameron promised to legislate so this could not happen again and that any future treaty passing power to the EU would be put to the British people in a referendum.

Conservative record - promise kept.

The coalition government has passed the "Triple Lock" legislation which requires that there should be a referendum on any future treaty passing power more powers to the EU.

Even Ed Miliband now says he accepts this, though the wise person will study the fine print of Labour promises very carefully, especially if they try to amend the "Triple Lock" laws.

I can just see a future Labour government trying to use an "In - Out" referendum, which they might win, instead of a referendum on the specific treaty proposed, as a means to get through a treaty ceding more power to the EU which would almost certainly fail in a referendum on the specific proposals. Tony Blair and Nick Clegg have both floated that one in the past.

But my argument stands - every major promise in respect of Europe on which David Cameron has fought an election has been kept.


Jim said...

"Can any serious commentator make an argument which will hold water for five minutes that it was bad faith or an indication of untrustworthy conduct for David Cameron to change his policy to reflect changing realities"

Oh yes, I can do that.

"but OK for Nigel Farage to drop all of UKIP's previous party policies and promises during an interview with Andrew Neil like this ...

oh, no forget it, I cant do that last bit.

Jim said...

"But he done it as well Miss" sounds like a kid in trouble in the school playground doesn't it.

Its fair to say they were both out of order, and the fact they can each say but he done it too, does not excuse either of them

Jim said...

Many people have asked why do I trust DC to hold the referendum i want so much? - the simple fact of the matter is I don't. Its not a matter of trust, its a matter of simple cold hard calculation.

DC has painted himself into a corner on this. If he were to fail to hold a referendum then his own back benchers would tear him apart. if he were to fail to honor a referendum resulting in an out vote, then there would be an immediate meeting of the 1922 committee and DC would not see the sunset as PM.

Thats it, cold hard calculation, nothing to do with trust.

Chris Whiteside said...

That was a question about the consistency of conditional positions, if you split it in half you are answering a different question.

The point I was making wasn't that it was OK for DC to update his policies to reflect changed reality but wrong for Nigel Farage to change his.

Most of the policies Farage tore up on TV in that interview were extremely silly and he was right to drop them, it was just that the way he went about it was hysterically funny, and in particular nobody else would have got away with going into a national election which his party was favourite to win (and indeed still did win) without any policies.

If you are taking a position that it was wrong for both Cameron and Farage to change their policies, then that is a consistent position but I would argue that there is a serious problem with failing to adjust your views to reflect updated reality.

Now if you fight an election on one policy, get elected, and then change your policy AFTER the election, as Blair did twice and Clegg once on Student Tuition fees, or as Blair, Brown and Clegg all did on Lisbon, you are guilty of bad faith.

But updating your policy BETWEEN elections as Cameron did on Lisbon in 2009 and Farage in the clip, is not necessarily showing bad faith.

I entirely agree with your post which says that Cameron has now nailed his colours to the mast of an In/Out referendum on the EU so firmly that you do not have to trust him - as you rightly say his own backbenchers would never accept dropping the promise