The surprising truth about that Lib Dem in/out EU referendum leaflet*

Clegg-referendum-leaflet-lisbon-2008On Monday morning, Nick Clegg was given a hard time on BBC Radio 4′s Today Programme by interviewer Justin Webb, who accused him of changing his position on an EU referendum on the basis of this pictured leaflet (click to enlarge**).

Nick brushed it to one side, correctly pointing out that the party has stuck to its 2010 manifesto pledge (my emphasis):

The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for a fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.
– Liberal Democrats 2010 manifesto

Since then, though, there’s been a fair amount of head-scratching at Lib Dem HQ trying to find out more about that leaflet.

They think they now know the answer: it dates to 2008 — two years before the general election — when the Lisbon Treaty was progressing through Parliament.***

The party took the position that any referendum limited to the Lisbon Treaty itself would be a false one. It would inevitably turn into a ‘Do you like the EU or not?’ referendum, so the question asked should be the fundamental in/out one.

Not all Lib Dem MPs agreed with this position: three resigned from the front bench in order to vote for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty itself. (And see how it’s held back their careers — Tim Farron is now party president, while Alistair Carmichael is Lib Dem chief whip and David Heath a government minister.)

Put all this together and it shows that the Lib Dems have actually had a consistent policy on an EU referendum throughout Nick Clegg’s tenure as party leader: when a British government signs up for a fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU there should be an in/out referendum, not simply a referendum limited only to the changes agreed in the Treaty itself.

_ _ _

* to the best of my knowledge and understanding.

** Image taken from George Eaton’s post here on the New Statesman website.

** Three reasons for dating it to 2008:
1) the picture used of Nick Clegg is one that wasn’t used at all during the general election,
2) the text refers in the present tense to the Lisbon Treaty (‘the Conservatives only support a limited referendum on the Lison Treaty’), and
3) the person who it’s believed art-worked the leaflet is understood to have left the party that year.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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33 Comments

  • So you wanted a referendum in 2008, you might have wanted one in 2010 and you don’t want one now?

    That’s not going to do much to dispel the notion that the Liberal Democrats are primarily the party of opportunism.

  • This Google search suggests it was uploaded to the old ourcampaign.org.uk site on 28th February 2008, i.e. nearly five years ago.

  • @Simon McGrath beat me to it. This is still a live link:

    http://europe.libdems.org.uk/full-manifesto/putting-europes-house-in-order

    The leaflet may be old but the policy was still in place for the euro manifesto. It went further than the leaflet by stating explicitly that an in/out referendum was what was needed and would be relished – at some point there has been a change of policy. I’m pro EU, but supported the policy as I believed that once the realities of leaving were apparent it would be infinitely winnable.

    Therefore, it may have been the Lisbon Treaty that acted as an impetus, but it was a clear in/out referendum that the Lib Dems campaigned for. Therefore a question to Clegg as to why this was a wise idea in 2009 and not in 2013 is perfectly valid, even though Guido was factually wrong about the leaflet…

  • Worth looking at this to see when the change started…

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8388475.stm

    Although a ‘A Lib Dem spokeswoman’ is quoted:

    “We always said, if there was going to be a referendum, then there should be a referendum it should be on the larger question of Britain’s relationship with the EU.”

  • The critical question is “Was it in place as part of the last GENERAL ELECTION campaign?”

    There is no obligation on a party to deliver on something that is not included in that election campaign literature. As it is, there is little immediate point in holding one, since even if there’s a massive “Yes” today, all you”ll need is a two line change to the EU Treaties over Euro governance to have the “No” side claiming that electorate were “deceived” when voting (never mind that the UK doesn’t use the Euro).

    A better wording for a referendum would “Parliament, and Parliament alone, shall have the authority to determine questions concerning a) the UK’s membership of or withdrawal from the EU, and, b) to authorize or reject any proposals for changes to the EU treaties on behalf of the UK (be these new proposals in Treaty or other format), and, c) to exercise any opt-outs or opt-ins when and if Parliament believes these are in the best interest of the UK” and leave it to people to vote “Yea” or “Nay”.

    After that, like or love Parliament’s future decisions, you can’t argue they are “undemocratic”.

  • @Paul R
    “There is no obligation on a party to deliver on something that is not included in that election campaign literature.”

    But it was included in the literature for the European elections making it the platform Lib Dem MEP’s stood and were elected on. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to change direction, but there should be justification why, even if it is that it was the wrong policy before…

  • Peter Watson 17th Jan '13 - 5:36pm

    @Paul R “There is no obligation on a party to deliver on something that is not included in that election campaign literature.”
    Can’t resist.
    Apparently there’s no obligation on the party to deliver on something that is included in election campaign literature either.
    Lights blue touchpaper and retires …

  • @ Simon McGrath

    There’s no contradiction or inconsistency there.

    The Lisbon Treaty didn’t come into force until 1 Dec 2009, so the Euro ’09 policy the party campaigned on is entirely consistent both with that 2008 leaflet and with the 2010 general election manifesto: better to have an in/out referendum than a narrow referendum on just one Treaty.

  • “The Lisbon Treaty didn’t come into force until 1 Dec 2009, so the Euro ’09 policy the party campaigned on is entirely consistent both with that 2008 leaflet and with the 2010 general election manifesto: better to have an in/out referendum than a narrow referendum on just one Treaty.”

    Sorry, but there’s nothing in the wording of that 2009 manifesto to indicate that the policy would expire on 1 December. If it was written with that thought in mind it was highly misleading at best, and producing this kind of legalistic excuse now just makes things worse.

  • @Stephen Tall
    Except the euro manifesto does not say better to have one then the other, it promises an in out eferendum and uses that to differentiate from the other parties. It does not explicitly link the referendum to the treaty or any future ones.

    The last part of the quote “Britain will only win the case for a flexible, democratic Europe in Brussels if we settle our arguments at home on whether we should be part of the EU or not.” makes this clear. If we can only win the case after settling membership we stand no chance until after the referendum. As it stands we are still expecting our Ministers to make the case before the argument is settled….

    Unless of course we are to put off winning the case for a flexible,democratic, Europe until after the next major treaty triggers a referendum?

  • I do note that the campaign from that leaflet was still live in at least late 2011, when I signed it and received:

    LibDem email list server

    20/10/2011

    Reply
    to me
    Many thanks for signing our petition calling for the Government to give the British people a real choice on Europe by holding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

    We’ll send your new updates directly to you at: (email address removed)

    Best wishes

    Chris Rennard
    Chief Executive, Liberal Democrats

    P.S. We take your privacy seriously and we never sell your data to anyone else. All our emails also contain information (usually at the end of the message) on how to stop receiving messages.

    The small print:
    This email was sent using the Liberal Democrats’ email list server. Visit http://lists.libdems.org.uk to find out more about the lists you can join or control your membership of the list.

    You can leave this list by sending an email to:
    [email protected]

  • Fair point – though you’d have hoped that if party policy had actually been changed, that supporting materials for earlier policies would’ve been actively turned off rather than left to continue zombie-like?

  • @Steve Way

    The commitment in the election literature was for a referendum THE NEXT TIME – not this time – there is a FUNDAMENTAL change to the EU Treaties.

    There has been no fundamental change to the EU Treaties since then. There is a minor Eurozone related 2 line change completing its final ratification stage and the next ones will be equally minor (Crotian accession).

    The European elections took place almost a year AFTER the UK had ratified the last major change (Lisbon) but before that came into force. In other words UK ratification was over by the time of the election and that election literature.

    And it is safe to assume major changes will be parked by the other EU states until after the current government leaves office or the Conservatives deal with their Eurosceptic “militant tendency” many of whom would be more at home in UKIP.

  • “The commitment in the election literature was for a referendum THE NEXT TIME – not this time – there is a FUNDAMENTAL change to the EU Treaties.”

    Do you mean that Simon McGrath omitted a reference to “next time” when he quoted the 2009 Euro manifesto above?

    If that’s what you’re saying, please can you quote the part he omitted, so that we can be clear what was said?

  • @Paul R

    http://europe.libdems.org.uk/full-manifesto/putting-europes-house-in-order

    No it wasn’t READ (see we can both use caps to emphasise a point) the EUROPEAN Manifesto I LINK to above. At no point is it established that the IN/OUT referendum is linked to the Treaty, or that it would only be needed if there is a major change. If they wanted to link it to the treaty they could easily have done so, in plain English, in the same paragraph that they mention an in/out referendum as they did on the 2010 Manifesto.

    “The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.”

    The section I quoted from the 2009 document in an earlier post makes it plain that the feeling at the time was that we could not win our case for sensible reform until we have settled the question of whether we want to be part of the EU. Unless you believe that is it was Lib Dem Policy at the time to go through negotiations for the NEXT treaty without the possibility of winning our case.

    That is clearly no longer the thinking, meaning that Stephen Tall is wrong that policy has not shifted under Clegg. I make no judgement whether it is a good or bad change, I merely point out the position has changed over time and that those who make policy, especially the leader and those MEP’s elected under that manifesto, should be able to explain why.

  • The European manifesto leaves the “when” of a referendum open, the general election one narrows it down.

    For that matter, may I point out the PM has over the last year or sosaid there should be a reformed Eurozone system, that does not mean he is commiting the UK to participating in system be it reformed or not, nor does it prevent him subsequently setting a pre-condition that the reforms must be in place before any UK referendum is called.

  • @Paul R
    Which does not address the point that the Lib Dem manifesto at the 2009 European elections clearly states that ;

    “Britain will only win the case for a flexible, democratic Europe in Brussels if we settle our arguments at home on whether we should be part of the EU or not.”

    That, in plain English, and linked to it’s position in the text, means after an in / out referendum. The position has changed, there may well be good reason for this. If Clegg still believed the quote above, then he would be pushing for a referendum now to enable the Government, he is part of, to negotiate from a better position. I’ve no problem with changing position (but not principle) 4 years after a manifesto, I just believe it is incumbent on those who change position to explain why.

  • “The European manifesto leaves the “when” of a referendum open, the general election one narrows it down.”

    Please don’t insult our intelligence.

    The European manifesto says the Lib Dems are in favour of an in/out referendum – without qualification. The general election manifesto says they are in favour of an in/out manifesto – but only in particular circumstances, which as you yourself say are unable to occur for some time. Those two policies are clearly quite different.

  • I detect a fair amount of fact shuffling, and history shredding here, to protect the ‘dear leader’. But this is what Clegg wrote in 2008.
    “It’s time we pulled out the thorn and healed the wound, time for a debate politicians have been too cowardly to hold for 30 years – time for a referendum on the big question. Do we want to be in or out? Nobody in Britain under the age of 51 has ever been asked that simple question.”
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/feb/25/eu.liberaldemocrats
    But the voting public, already know that Nick Clegg ‘has form’, when it comes to reneging on promises and pledges. The public have no interest in Nick Clegg ‘explaining himself’. He has proved the value of his integrity, time and again.

  • @Steve
    That does not say one must be held now. I’d favour one in the immediate short term as I think it would be won handily but the government’s immediate concern is the economy which has to be dealt with irrespective of the result of any referendum.

  • @Chris
    Timing in government is everything. Tax cuts NOW – a great campaign favourite – may be possible in a boom, in a financial crunch – such as now – they are a hangman’s noose for the government and the public.

  • @Paul R
    You are yet again confusing the two manifesto’s. The 2009 one was for the Euro elections and was the then policy. As it was in the manifesto, voters could safely assume it was a policy for that term. The policy has changed – unless you feel there will be one before 2014?? – and it is fair for the reason for that change to be questioned.

    You still have yet to answer the important point that the wording of the 2009 manifesto was clear (and was only confirming the 2008 Clegg quote above) that it was important to hold the referendum in order to move on. The excuse that the economy is overriding is a poor one, we held a referendum on the voting system without affecting the runing of the economy.

    Clegg used to feel it was cowardly not have asked the question, and that a good position in negotiations was impossible until after a referendum happened. He is now part of a government that has stated it’s aim to renegotiate major issues prior to a referendum.

    To argue there has not been a change seems nonsensical. I’m ambivalent to the actual change, I would get out on the streets to support the EU in a referendum but am equally content that we remain firmly in the EU in the absence of one. But refusing to accept there has been a change of approach and therefore failing to justify it, just falls straight into the arms of the Tory right and UKIP who will claim pro-europeans are running scared.

  • David Allen 18th Jan '13 - 5:46pm

    I can’t get worked up about this one. Sure, Clegg has been all over the place, but, so has everyone else. Clegg has committed many worse sins.

    As I see it, there was a fairly narrow window of time a few years back when an in-out referendum might have been a smart idea. It was when the Eurosceptics were clamouring for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which was obviously a very smart idea from their point of view. They hoped to persuade credulous voters that they could just put a stop to this pesky treaty which that nice Mr Farage said was so terrible in some ill-defined way, without actually risking our trade with Europe. The sceptics wanted to tie up Europe in bureaucratic knots, and then claim triumphantly that Europe was a bureaucratic disaster, because of the knots which they themselves had tied it in.

    To that threat, Clegg’s suggested response was essentially “Right then, we’ll bet the farm. We’ll make it an in/out referendum. That’ll scare people into voting yes, won’t it? And it’s only fair. Europe won’t work if people try to reject new treaties when they are needed.” Bold, yes. Justified – well, perhaps.

    Gordon Brown’s reaction was essentially “Why take such a big gamble? Why not just steamroller Lisbon through with our big clunking fists?” So that’s what he did – arguably rightly – and the moment passed. The Lib Dem policy lost relevance.

    A referendum right now would be a dreadful idea. Nobody would know what the question really meant.

  • “Timing in government is everything. Tax cuts NOW – a great campaign favourite – may be possible in a boom, in a financial crunch – such as now – they are a hangman’s noose for the government and the public.”

    Obviously if you simply wrote in a manifesto “We favour tax cuts”, without qualification, while privately thinking “But only when the circumstances are suitable, which they won’t be for several years”, you’d be guilty of deliberately misleading the electorate, wouldn’t you? Surely the point is simple enough.

  • @ Steve Way:
    “Clegg used to feel it was cowardly not have asked the question, and that a good position in negotiations was impossible until after a referendum happened. He is now part of a government that has stated it’s aim to renegotiate major issues prior to a referendum.”
    Don’t get what you are saying. So cowardly is now OK,..?

  • @John Dunn
    If you read on and put it in light of my previous posts, you would see what I am saying is that there has been a change of approach instead of denying it there should be an explanation. I would say that to use the phrase cowardly was I’ll advised as he is now in a position to have that thrown back at him..

  • Reading this thread and also many others, and following the twists and turns of the Tuition Fee debacle, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that the Lib Dem leadership previously said all sorts of things in the knowledge that they would never be in government and therefore not in a position to have to live up to their promises. They have now been caught out good and proper, most embarrassingly by the ‘No more broken promises’ line which is now cringe-worthy in the extreme. Not only did the leadership not mean much of what they promised they are even now going against the will of the Party to bring in Secret Courts, Rights for Shares etc etc. Oh joy!

  • The associated ourcampaign petition went live on 14th February 2008.

    Mark Park provided the first signature… :-)

  • “. I would say that to use the phrase cowardly was I’ll advised as he is now in a position to have that thrown back at him..”

    Joining “no more broken promises” ; ” A miserable little compromise” “75% of our manifesto delivered”, “cleaning up politics” and the infamous ‘ pledge’.

  • Patrick Smith 20th Jan '13 - 10:55am

    It is inevetible, due to our close proximity,quest for peace post 1945 and 50 % trade links and dependent jobs and business interests ,that the UK remains an important member of the EU.

    However,I support a wider UK Economic expansion to the BRICS trading `super-power’ economies ; that Dr Vince Cable advocates in his book.

    I believe that it is necessary to re-arrange the chairs, in that there is a need for the DPM to press to maintain the `International Defence Warrant’ to fight for closer work and scrutiny, with Interpol on child trafficking and international crime and stand-up for tighter border controls, than occurred under Labour.

    There is no requirement for a Referendum now ,unless and until we know what the outcome of the next round of UK membership conditions are going to involve : on remaining a key player in the EU.

    The British people should be allowed to have their say later and it must be unequivocal now and in the next Lib Dem GL Manifesto as to why and when the Referendum will be held.

  • I’m sorry, but this just reads as so much squiring, it’s like damage control with a flame-thrower.

    It’s a pretty clear statement, the pledge clearly makes an in/out vote being about democracy, the right to choose, not have that choice made for you.

    You can’t make such clear moralistic statements, and then retract them with excuses of “2008 manifesto” yadda yadda yadda, not the right time, yadda yadda yadda.

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