Tim Farron MP writes… EU referendum: the Conservatives are not acting out of patriotism

This is not likely to win me any votes, but I am proudly pro-Europe and in favour of our continued membership of the EU. That doesn’t make me an apologist for every aspect of the EU: the EU could definitely operate more transparently, efficiently and effectively, and we as Liberal Democrats should say so more often and with more conviction.

Nevertheless, our main challenge has to be to win hearts and minds in favour of our broader membership of the EU, and reverse the completely poisonous anti-European narrative. So many of those who were so indignant this summer about Mr Murdoch’s excessive and nefarious power, seem all too happy to swallow his carefully calculated anti-European narrative hook line and sinker.

Interesting isn’t it, that those who are anti-Europe tell us that they want to protect British sovereignty on the one hand, and then effectively cede sovereignty to a US citizen – and others with a reactionary agenda – who control our media and thus dictate the terms of debate on this and other issues? At least we can vote out our MEPs; we can’t vote out Murdoch and co! But I digress…

I am passionate about our membership of the EU, but I am equally passionate about allowing the British public to decide the future of that membership. An ‘in-out’ referendum is important for democracy, but it would also act as a catharsis. It would force those who take cheap shots at Europe whilst not actually wanting us to withdraw, to face up to realities. Which brings me to the debate today in Parliament…

…MPs will vote in the House of Commons on a Backbench Business Motion calling for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. I will be voting against this motion and against the calls for a referendum. Many people will remember that I lost my place in the Shadow Cabinet in the last Parliament because I voted in favour of a referendum specifically on the Lisbon treaty, and I firmly stand by that. The best way to lance the boil of this unnecessarily poisonous relationship with the EU from the British side would be to have an ‘in-out’ referendum. It’s vital that our relationship with the EU is one that the British people consent to – so I am strongly in favour of a referendum, but I’m equally firmly of the view that it shouldn’t be now!

Earlier in the year at the height of the campaign on the referendum on the Alternative Vote, Conservatives complained that a referendum on a constitutional issue was a distraction when the country has such a huge budget deficit. I didn’t buy that argument of course, but following that logic – and in the context of the ongoing economic crisis both in Britain and across the EU – a referendum at this moment on whether we should withdraw our membership of the EU, would be a lot worse than a distraction. It would create massive instability, seriously affect market confidence and add an even greater strain to our economy. It would be a gross act of navel-contemplation and would damage our relationship with our neighbours at the very worst time. Far from being a distraction this would actually be downright destructive.

Think of it this way: suppose you were opposed to the British Empire in 1941 (and I would have been!) and wanted to see self-determination for every part of it, you’d still probably put that concern on hold until you’d won the war – you’d think that dealing with the empire question was a distraction at a time of national and international emergency. I see a referendum on the EU and then our collective ‘war’ against the economic nightmare we face in very much the same light.

So please don’t allow the right wing of the Conservative party to claim today that they are acting out of patriotism. They are not. They are indulging an obsession at a time when their country needs them to act in a more grown up fashion. Voting for the motion today will be an anti-patriotic act when tens of thousands of people face losing their jobs and their homes. The EU is a matter of concern to millions of people, but if you want to know what really keeps Britain awake at night, it’s the economy stupid.

That said, I do still want to give the British public an opportunity to vote in a referendum. That must happen the moment that there is a significant treaty change, which is what we committed to in our manifesto, but please let’s not go there now while we are trying to rescue the economy and doing so alongside our neighbours.

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36 Comments

  • We, the British people, have not had a serious say in whether or not we wish to be swept up in the political juggernaut that is the EU since we joined the EEC. Too often, requests to even sensibly debate the costs and benefits of remaining in this Grand Project have been met with obfuscation, party-political sniping and refusals. The obvious fudge that a referendum (note: not necessarily an in/out referendum) would be appropriate at some point in the future when ‘serious’ powers are potentially ceded (who decides?) is frankly unworthy of the voters. Who says debate and referendum would cause instability? Markets might be relieved that GB would be insulating itself against the niggardly attempts to save the euro. Businesses might relish potentially different regulation. GB might be better off for the debate. To argue that now is not the time is ridiculous, because it’s been overdue since the EEC became the EU, and further delay might cost us more in the short and long term. There are many mights above, but that’s precisely why mature debate needs to be had – and the sooner the better.

  • Daniel Henry 24th Oct '11 - 3:25pm

    I heard Labour were largely anti EU in the 70s until the referendum decided the issue.

    The current dissatisfaction with the EU grew during the layer 80s and early 90s as the nature of the Union changed. A new referendum would likely settle the issue until there were significant changes again.

  • Don Lawrence 24th Oct '11 - 3:39pm

    Simon,

    I cannot reconcile your view that the main parties are all “fairly united”. If they were, why would the leadership insist on three line whips. Perhaps their leaders know something you don’t?

  • Tony Holden 24th Oct '11 - 3:41pm

    Another politician misses the point, the debate today isn’t about a referendum being held right now, go re-read the petition.

    And, Chris, please cite where the petition only got 36,000 signatures. You should also go back and check exactly what was voted for in the 1975 petition, it bears no resemblance to what we are members of today.

  • “We’re in the middle of shark-infested waters and the ship’s hit a mine and no-one’s at the helm. We’re hundreds of miles from land and no one knows if it will survive or sink before we get there.”

    “OK. Our side of the boat doesn’t have a hole in it. So let’s hold a vote right now on whether to get off at the next port or stay on after for the full cruise.”

  • Glib – adj. more voluble than sincere or thoughtful

    Eh?

    OK. It would be a rubbish time to hold a referendum.
    I trust that is plain enough.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Oct '11 - 6:26pm

    There has been a concerted effort in the right-wing press to overemphasise the limitations on the UK state imposed by EU membership and so to underemphasise all other limitations. I think it a damned cheek that UKIP poses as a “UK Independence Party” when it is actually an extreme free market party whose opposition to the EU is really about handing more control of our country to globalised big corporations. When we are constantly told by the right-wing that we can’t do this and we can’t do that because “it would mean the big companies take their wealth elsewhere”, isn’t it extremely hypocritical to pose the EU as the main thing stopping this country doing what its people would want it to do were it not for global factors?

    The reality is that this lot is trying to hide what they are really about by fooling the gullible into believing the EU is the biggest issue, as if we were still in the 1960s and the nation state was still as strong as it was in those days when the economy was not nearly so globalised as it is now.

  • “The current dissatisfaction with the EU grew during the layer 80s and early 90s as the nature of the Union changed. A new referendum would likely settle the issue until there were significant changes again.”

    Approval ratings in the UK of the EU were lowest in the early 80s (moreso than now) and highest in the late 80s and 90s. Polling disagrees with your statements, but rather suggests that EU-philia or -phobia is cyclical.

    Polling also suggests that although the UK is generally more eurosceptic than our neighbours, it’s also a very low salience issue for most people.

  • Don Lawrence 25th Oct '11 - 11:19am

    @Simon Shaw

    “@Don Lawrence
    “I cannot reconcile your view that the main parties are all “fairly united”. If they were, why would the leadership insist on three line whips. Perhaps their leaders know something you don’t?”

    The only party where an ‘obeyed’ 3 line whip would have a significantly different result from a free vote is the Conservative Party.”

    Sorry Simon, that may be your opinion, but clearly the party leaderships do not agree, otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered. Unless you can point out something you know that they don’t, I will go with the conclusion that your view that the main parties are fairly united, is in fact a fallacy. After all, the leader of a party that believes that none shall be enslaved by conformity, wouldn’t impose a three line whip on his party’s MPs unless he felt it would make an important difference; surely?

  • Yesterday’s motion was simply to determine whether to allow a referendum. It was not about the merits of remaining in or getting out of Europe or renegotiating our terms of membership. That was to come later. Please don’t forget that it was the Tory led coalition which introduced the mechanism for a political form of X Factor in which if a hundred thousand or so people supported an e-petition it meant that it would have to be debated in the House. This means that any group that has an axe to grind and can rustle up a hundred thousand people to press a button can force their pet obsession on to the House’s agenda. I am in favour of representational democracy and am absolutely opposed to such a small number of the electorate being able to disproportionately influence the House of Commons. If the minimal criteria for debating such a petition was significant: i.e., that it had been signed by 10% of the electorate, at least it would have more justification. However, as the Tory led coalition has introduced such a mechanism the house was obligated to debate it. Cameron and Clegg have only themselves to blame for the mess they have got themselves into. They are the architects of their own obloquy and embarrassment.

  • I think this whole debate is dangerous we are consistently failing to make it clear to the Public why we want to remain in the EU. Rarely if ever do I hear our leader defending the EU contradicting the lies and myths peddled by the right-wing press. I don’t like referendums per se, they are the instruments of dictators, populism we could easily learn to regret as we have with the AV referendum. We live in a representative Democracy and long may it live. When will our leader stand up and shout we are not handing power to Brussels, we are sharing power with 26 other countries and they are sharing power with us.

  • Nobody here seems to have pointed out that this was not an “in/out” referendum but one with a meaningless third option of repatriating powers. I say meaningless because it is extremely vague and is close to “motherhood and apple pie” in that nearly everyone feels they could vote in favour of it. (There is also a recognised phenomenon that if people are given two options and a perceived compromise, people will nearly always vote in favour of the middle option).

    I am somewhat sceptical of deciding matters by referendum but if you are going to have one, I think it needs to be a clear binary choice (or failing that, at least use a preferential voting system amongst clear and unambiguous options). This issue will likely re-occur in any future referendum on Scottish independence where the electorate will likely vote for an “independence-lite” option on similar grounds….

    For me, the proposed nature of the referendum would have been a good enough reason to vote “no” even leaving aside the legitimate concern about inappropriate timing…. and I think our MPs were quite right to oppose it.

  • Don Lawrence 29th Oct '11 - 10:17pm

    @Simon

    What absolutre tripe! You haven’t come up with any sort of reason why Nick would want to insist on a 3 line whip, which is what I asked you about.

    You chose instead clain I didn’t understand. As someone else said “Play the ball, not the man”.

    I do understand. I fear you just don’t like my arguement.

  • George Howard 1st Nov '11 - 12:10pm

    What concerns me most about belonging to this club is the cost. Indeed Brussels is wanting yet again increases well above inflation as well as reducing/removing our hard earned rebate. Not impressed that our Lib. Dem. MEP’s also supported these increases . Not impressed. These proposed increases could e.g. employ 32000 nurses; 8000 doctors, 26000 soldiers or £320 per household. Where are Brussels austerity measures. They have not balanced their books for years yet expect countries to blindly contribute more and more to this over bloated bureaucracy. 41% of overall budget still spent on CAP with France receiving some 22%, equates to £6.37billion, UK only 9%.No wonder food prices in France still cheaper than here despite fall in value of pound and vat on food there! If rebate removed UK would pay 14 times contributions than France!
    Interesting that our trade deficit with EU ballooned from £14.3billion to £46.6billion so no argument there re UK likely to suffer if our relationship with the EU is changed.
    Our fishing fleet has been decimated thanks to EU, from a 19% cut in at time of joining to a further 40% in 1996.In terms of fishing subsidy Spain receives 42%,( £2.2billion) France 11% and UK 7%.
    The big question, is the EU good value for money and should we be paying into this bottomless pit???????????
    Someone commented that the EU has prevented war in europe I would suggest this had nothing to do with the EU but due to existence to NATO.
    Lib Dems need to understand the mood of the nation. Seems yet again to be out of touch with reality and the electorate. AV vote and tuition fees good examples in that regard.

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