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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Challenging expectations

When I was doing my A-levels my teacher gave me some good advice which I have brought with me into my working life - always challenge the assumptions behind a question. As Liberal Democrats we are constantly challenging the so-called political consensus, that is what we do. In these circumstances, when faced with a straight yes-no choice on a bogus question, a principled abstention is not just possible but it is a requirement.

It is for that reason that I thought that Nick Clegg was absolutely right to order his MPs to abstain on the issue of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty last night. I would also defend the right of individual MPs to defy that order and troop through the lobbies to promote a contrary view. The other liberal tradition of acting according to individual conscience is one that I value very highly.

Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians are not party ciphers, they are first and foremost representatives acting on behalf of their constituents. The party bond comes in the liberal principles we hold in common as opposed to the collective actions that other parties insist on to measure the loyalty of their representatives. In the vast majority of occasions that leads us to act and vote together instinctively and that is how it should be.

If the Lisbon Treaty is 95% of the constitution on which all the parties based their pledge of a referendum then the current set-up minus Lisbon is 90% of that constitution. Those now calling for a referendum on Lisbon are using it as a means to undermine the European project. They are instinctively anti-European but do not want to put the real question in front of the British electorate of whether we should stay in or get out because they know that it is an argument they cannot win.

When Gordon Brown accused Nick Clegg yesterday of wanting to re-open a debate he believed to be settled in the 1970s, he could not have been more wrong. Since that referendum in 1976 the European Union has changed beyond all recognition. The institution we are faced with today is being shaped by geo-political pressures outside its control and as a result it needs to modernise to reflect those changes.

To focus on just one part of that change is to lose perspective and presents the danger of leaving us with an institution that is not fit for purpose. At the same time we need to recognise that there is a lot wrong with the European Union that needs to change. We cannot have that debate around just the latest in a long line of treaties, we need to decide on the more fundamental issue of whether we wish to be part of this process or not and in doing so recognise the reality of the interdependent world we now live in.
On “Challenging Expectations”: Peter, congratulations; you're response was everything we've come to EXPECT from years of Lib-Dem thinking. (Mutated from MIB (1997) movie)

Three front bench resignations – “WOW” is all I can say. (Mutated from a Neelix line in an episode of Voyager; episode # not known.)
Your always up early Peter - not surprising as you are a very hard working AM/Councillor.

The news wires are reporting that there will be another Lib-Dem rebellion on the EU treaty issue, this time in the Upper House.

I am not sure if Clegg can claim he is in control.
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