EU Referendum: if Cameron gets this wrong, the cost at the next election will be immense
This is a guest post by Zach Johnstone.
In the months preceding the European Parliament’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 it became something of a ritual for Daniel Hannan MEP to end each speech with the Latin dictum Pactio Olisipiensis censenda est (‘The Lisbon Treaty must be put to the vote’). Indeed, when Mr Hannan spoke in a debate on any issue whatsoever, these words rang out around the hemisphere to the profound disapproval of the pro-federalist members. This was not merely, as it may at first seem, a hollow manoeuvre from a ‘rogue’ MEP with designs on causing a stir in the disproportionately pro-EU chamber. Nor was it in any way a populist ploy designed to add gravitas to a proposal so far removed from the thinking of the mainstream political establishment that it deserved little better than to be cast off as either eccentric or irrelevant. No, this was quite different.
It was, in fact, a direct and unambiguous restatement of the promise that each of the three major parties made in their 2005 manifestos to this effect. Labour’s mandate to govern derived in no small part from a clear pledge to hold a referendum on the EU Constitution, whilst both the Conservatives and the LibDems offered similar assurances to their voters. The parties were united in their insistence that further change to the EU should be subject to popular consent, such that has not been seen for almost four decades in the United Kingdom. Far from raising a contentious issue, it was Daniel Hannan’s intention to exhibit the axiom that MPs were duty-bound to hold a referendum and that, until this was offered, both the national government at Westminster and the supranational institutions of Brussels were uniformly complicit in holding the democratic process ransom.
In the event, there was little that Hannan et al could do to prevent Parliament’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, or the LibDems’ abstention from the vote, or the Conservatives’ U-turn on the issue of a referendum in the same year. In the face of the organised party machine, conviction and integrity are soon ground down as the way is paved for opportunism and career advancement. Promises were rescinded as quickly as they had been made. However, even if little was achieved in a legislative sense, the uproar surrounding these events reaffirmed one thing: it is now simply irrefutable to challenge the notion that a large proportion of British people (as many as two-thirds by some estimations) are desperate to have their say on UK membership of the EU.
This is precisely where we stand as we head in to today’s Commons debate on the motion calling for a referendum on EU membership. The people have made their wishes known, and now all that is left is for those with influence to ignore and to overlook.
The popular message could not be clearer: the Union’s transmogrification from an unassuming economic entity to a social, cultural and political behemoth has not been accompanied by sufficient (or, indeed, any) popular consultation. Despite the very provenance of much of the legislation to which we are subject having shifted, not since 1975 have we been conferred with as a demos regarding the direction – or the extent – of this change. To say that this fact is widely regarded as a flagrant insult to democracy does not even begin to encapsulate the sentiment held by many.
Cameron’s determination to whip his party to vote against today’s motion – arising as it does from a petition signed by over 100,000 citizens – does nothing whatsoever to ease this culture of disillusionment and detachment. The offering of directly democratic mechanisms present in both the Conservative manifesto and the Coalition Agreement such as recall mechanisms and elected police sheriffs gave optimism to many who saw such initiatives as the practical manifestation of Cameron’s pledge to return power ‘from the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities. From Brussels to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy’. Perhaps this government, unlike others, they thought, would genuinely seek to push power down to the lowest common denominator: the individual.
Today that optimism will be swiftly laid to rest.
By promising voter empowerment and concurrently voting against precisely that, it is no exaggeration to state that Cameron’s strategy risks permanently tarnishing both his personal image and that of the modern Conservative Party. Today’s vote will not bring the Coalition down; aside from a handful of outcries from the few mainstream media outlets offering anywhere near the appropriate level of coverage to an issue of this magnitude, it will be swept under the carpet. But make no mistake: ‘cast-iron’ promises are not easily forgotten.. After today, any remnant of credibility that Cameron’s party has built up through such initiatives as the (entirely ceremonial) Sovereignty Bill will ebb away. Voters who turned towards the Conservatives as a progressive party with a healthy dose of scepticism reflecting that of the national mood will summarily turn away again. This is not an ephemeral political whim but a reflection of the seriousness with which a government takes its citizens’ right to have their say – get this wrong now and the cost at the next election may prove decisive.
It would be remiss of me to denounce Cameron’s approach without firstly acknowledging, as many other commentators have done, the fact that ‘Europe’ is a decidedly sensitive issue for many Conservatives. As Matthew d’Ancona observes in his latest piece: “...one of the great accomplishments of the Conservatives’ 13 years in Opposition was the gradual achievement of unity over Europe.” Not only does the issue risk fracturing the party at any time but Cameron faces the additional challenge of appeasing his Coalition partners. Moreover, it has been widely argued that with more pressing matters ahead (read: addressing the debt crisis), to rake up these old dividing lines is at present both pointless and unhelpful.
Yes, it goes without saying that we are in unprecedented territory: the eurozone stands on the brink of collapse unless France and Germany can broker a deal that satisfies the markets, while the growth forecasts for our own economy look woefully bleak. Yes, the need to manage the fragile and downright unpredictable mood of coalition governance must also be borne in mind. In fact, any number of current issues could be cited as reason enough for the Government to seek to avoid unnecessary distraction. But this is about so much more.
Suspending disbelief momentarily, were the result of today’s motion not a foregone conclusion, I would ask but one thing of all MPs of conviction: to consider for a moment the unique nature of the motion they are to debate. For we are not talking about a simple in/out referendum but one that also opens the door for a genuine via media: renegotiation. The fact is that not every UK citizen calling for a referendum believes the EU to be an intrinsically negative thing; many support it and wish to put the issue of withdrawal to bed whilst others, to varying degrees, wish for the UK to remain a member state on different terms. This motion offers the scope for a far-reaching debate, without the black-and-white rigidity of the traditional in/out dichotomy, through which the true wishes of the British people can truly be determined.
Daniel Hannan is exactly right when he asserts that there is a worryingly prevalent trend amongst MPs on both sides of the House to take what they believe will be the answer to a referendum question and work backwards from there. Referenda in the modern era are held not on the basis of merit but of winability. It is this disingenuous political manoeuvring that renders voters apathetic towards those elected to represent them. Regardless of the outcome for which any particular MP hopes, it is in the vital interests of public faith in the democratic process to permit a referendum to take place and to empower citizens with the ability to articulate their position on the most important of matters. There is nothing to say that a referendum will not tell us that a majority of UK citizens favour further integration into the EU project; opinion polls may point to an anti-EU majority, but they also pointed to a pro-AV majority mere weeks before the referendum earlier this year. This is not about timing or opportunism: it is about the fulfilment of promises; salvaging the very integrity of the democratic process. It is, quite simply, what is right.
For decades the British people have been denied the opportunity to answer a simple but absolutely crucial question: from where, and by whom, do we wish to be governed? If we miss this opportunity, and it seems as though we will, it is troublingly difficult to say when another will come along.