.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Referendum blues

Writing on Liberal Democrat Voice, the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, has announced that the party will tomorrow table an amendment to the Government’s parliamentary motion proposing the Queen’s Speech, which will call for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

I am no great fan of referendums. It seems to me that they act contrary to the principles of a representative democracy, in which elected politicians are required to exercise their judgement on the basis of the facts in front of them following an informed debate. I do not believe either that such mechanisms are particularly democratic nor empowering.

In fact, by narrowing an issue down to a single question and through the need to simplify arguments so as to get them across to the widest possible audience, the process can often lead to uninformed discussion and the removal of choice. As the outcome of these things tends to rely on the format of the question, referendums are open to manipulation, whilst in many cases well-funded interest groups are able to hijack the agenda through their spending power alone.

The demand for a referendum on the European Reform Treaty is a case in point. Anti-Europeans, knowing that they will not win a plebiscite on Britain's continued membership of the European Community, have focussed instead on a treaty, which brings in essential reforms so as to enable an much-extended union to continue to operate. The present constitution is not fit for purpose and needs to be changed one way or another, but it is not the first such change since the the British people last voted in 1976.

There have been many reforms that have seen the EU widen both its membership and share sovereignty. As Vince Cable points out these include Mrs Thatcher’s Single European Act through to a succession of treaties agreed by both Conservative and Labour governments. The EU has changed beyond recognition from the EEC that Britain originally joined in 1973. None of this has been subject to a referendum:

The Conservative Party promoted closer European integration – without referendums – while in office. In opposition they have indulged in the worst kind of anti-European populism, calling for referendums on individual treaties to mask their own divisions and the wish of many of their own MPs to leave the European Union altogether.

Similarly, the Labour Party has been less than honest. Since 1997 they too have given away powers, but refused to engage the public in a proper debate about the direction of the EU. Gordon Brown appears scared to make the case for Europe, though we hope that he will accept our challenge to do so.

We are not uncritical supporters of the European Union. We want it to concentrate its energies on genuine cross-border issues like the threat of climate change and promoting of free trade with countries outside its borders, It should also reform many of its own internal policies and practices.

However, the EU has brought a period of unparalleled peace and prosperity to Europe and it has successfully integrated new member states that were once dictatorships in Southern and Eastern Europe. The Liberal Democrats believe that Britain’s best interests will be served by being positive members of the Union, while seeking to improve it.

Referendums, whether they relate to Europe or to the UK's own constitution, have been cynically used to paper over splits within political parties rather than to offer people a real choice on the way forward. I am not suggesting that the present proposal from Vince Cable is any different. However, what Vince is suggesting is that if we are to have a vote then let us at least concentrate on the real issue at stake - our future within Europe.

Do we want to be in or not? If we do want to remain members then we must define the terms on which we wish to participate. That should include an acceptance that governance structures must be fit for purpose and it must also recognise that there are many positive benefits to be gained from membership. However, as Vince says there are things that the EU can do much better, including its own accountability and transparency and we should not be shy of saying so.

Personally, I am happy with the amendment my party has tabled. It moves us away from a proxy debate and focuses instead on Britain's role in Europe and the wider world. You cannot debate a vision when you are discussing the sub-clauses of a treaty that most people will not have read, and referendums, if they are about anything, should be about vision. If we are to go to the polls, let us at least cast a vote on our future and that of our country.
Thanks for this. At the risk of sounding uncritical you clarify and sum up my feelings exactly!
Hi Peter,

What are your views on Kirsty Williams' rally call? I suspect a new post is being written by you as I'm typing this comment.
I agree with 90% of what she says, in fact much of it reflects what I said in my pamphlet.
There is a better alternative: Free Europe Constitution. Vote Yes or No at www.FreeEurope.info.

Must a "good European" promote more power to the EU? Is it anti-European to feel like a European, but wanting a freer Europe?
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?