David Cameron’s ‘cast-iron guarantee’
In 2007, David Cameron made a populist pledge to The Sun newspaper, and signed a letter assuring the British people of a referendum ‘on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations’. His pledge was a ‘cast-iron guarantee’ that ‘no treaty should be ratified without consulting the British people in a referendum’. And, in May this year, he said: "A progressive reform agenda demands that we redistribute power from the EU to Britain and from judges to the people. We will therefore hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty."
Cranmer has considered both sides of the argument in relation to the new post-ratification context. While ‘Eurosceptics’ (and political opponents) assert that Mr Cameron has reneged on his ‘cast-iron guarantee’ to give the people a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty (or the ‘Constitution for Europe’), there are others (by no means all ‘Europhiles’) who are persuaded that Mr Cameron has not ratted, U-turned or betrayed anyone about anything.
His Grace has considered the matter, and has this to say:
A cast-iron guarantee is a cast-iron guarantee. But although cast iron is resistant to oxidation, it is brittle and not suitable for purposes where a sharp edge or flexibility is required. It is strong under compression, but not under tension.
And Mr Cameron finds himself subject to a little tension.
The Foreign Secretary David Miliband has denounced Mr Cameron's position as ‘false and dangerous’ as he would not be able to deliver his promised concessions from Brussels. He spluttered: “So much for David Cameron's cast iron guarantee to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty." The Prime Minister Gordon Brown has also ridiculed Mr Cameron for apparently not understanding EU law.
But they are of little consequence.
Mr Cameron fights today for the trust of the people: whatever he announces needs to be both credible and unconditional. While there will be many surrounding him who will argue that a 13-point lead over Labour means that ‘Europe’ isn’t a battle worth having, the reality is that the perception of a U-turn is an indication of unreliability, inconsistency and dishonesty. Mr Cameron may, of course, be wholly reliable, consistent and honest, but in politics perception is all. And readers of The Sun will not be inclined to heed nuanced subtleties of what is and what is not ratified: Lisbon is Lisbon, or the ‘Constitution for Europe’, and they do not want it, ratified or not, whatever ‘ratified’ means.
The fact is that Mr Cameron cannot simply opt out of treaty obligations because to do so he would need the agreement of the 26 other member states. And this agreement is not remotely likely. Ergo, a referendum on a ratified treaty is manifestly not the same as a referendum on an unratified one. Mr Cameron’s ‘cast-iron guarantee’ was clearly made in the pre-ratification stage.
If the Tories had pledged allegiance to the House of Stuart, but then found themselves dealing with a context of a newly-installed House of Hanover which offended all that they held dear, the wise move would be to adapt one’s political theology with regard to succession, Divine Right and the Lord's anointed, not to risk political turmoil and accusations of treason with attempts to re-install the Stuarts. And so they did. Tories (now Conservatives) are a pragmatic lot: they have the ability to adapt to a new context: indeed, mutability is one of the defining features of Conservatism. Disraeli observed:
‘In a progressive country change is constant; and the question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.’
Mr Cameron today needs to articulate a change in Conservative EU policy that is in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, and the traditions of a people. If it is not to be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty (about which Cranmer is irritated, but by no means offended or distrusting - Mr Cameron did, after all, honour his promise to withdraw from the EPP), it needs to be a manifesto pledge to the exercise of subsidiarity: a commitment to ‘repatriate’ some of what now constitutes the sacred Acquis.
In order to do this, Mr Cameron will also need the approval of the other 26 member nations of the EU. And he will also need some sort of weighty mandate as he negotiates whatever ‘opt-outs’ he has in mind, and they appear at this stage to relate to social and employment law (but why not fisheries? Why has Michael Howard’s pledge to withdraw from the CFP been abandoned?). Mr Cameron’s mandate for negotiation can only really be provided by the people in a referendum since general elections are not about a single issue. By explaining today what he meant by ‘We will not let matters rest there’ in a post-ratification context, he considerably raises the stakes in his negotiations with the Council of Ministers and his dealings with the new President of Europe.
Mr Cameron may ask for a new UK-EU relationship and demand subsidiarity until he is blue in the face. But if they refuse to grant him his requests, what, in the absence of a handbag, is his ultimate threat?
There is only one response, unwritten and unspoken, but irrefutable and undeniable. Therein lies the hope that keeps Cranmer joyful.