Is the Lib Dem Euro-referendum pledge being dropped?

Cast your mind back a few months.  Speaking on Radio 4’s You and Yours on 16th June 2009, Nick Clegg said the only way to sort out the debate about EU membership was to

have a referendum in this country as to whether we stay in or stay out. What we can’t do is to be a member of a club and complain about it from the sidelines.

That Lib Dem policy may have started out as a quick fix to get the party out of a tight spot, but as it’s been stuck to, it’s become seen by many as the more principled approach.

Why have a referendum on complex treaties that virtually no-one voting will have read, the argument goes.  The real question people want to decide isn’t whether subsection 17g of article 38 should be reworded, but whether the UK should be in or out of the European Union.

Clegg certainly thought so in Feburary 2008, writing

Nobody in this country under the age of 51 has ever been asked that simple question. That includes half of all MPs. We’ve been signed up to Europe by default: two generations who have never had their say.

So it comes as something of a surprise today that Lib Dem Foreign Affairs Spokesman Ming Cambell has said that pledge no longer stands.

The BBC has the report of Ming’s appearance on today’s Politics Show.

The Lib Dems have ditched their pledge for an “in or out” referendum on UK membership of the EU, ex leader Sir Menzies Campbell has said….Sir Menzies told the Daily Politics there was “no public appetite” for a vote since Lisbon Treaty ratification.

A substantial proportion of the population (over half in some polls) say they want the UK to leave the European Union and might be a little taken aback at the claim that there’s no public appetite for a referendum.

It might also raise eyebrows amongst those pro-Europeans who have long seen an open and full referendum debate as the best way to counter what they perceive as the constant drip, drip, drip of anti-EU misinformation from large sectors of the media.

Ming’s argument is that, when the issue was whether or not to have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, having an in/out referendum was the better option; but now that Lisbon is settled and no other major changes are on the horizon, we should put all our energies into making it work.

On Radio 5 Live this afternoon  Nick Clegg said any referendum should be in/out.  But that’s not the same as saying there should be a referendum.

Does the Lib Dem leadership support an in/out referendum if the alternative was no referendum at all?

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • Technical point – Ming is not a party foreign affairs spokesman

  • No-one under 51 has ever had a say? Big deal – nobody alive has ever had a say on whether or not we should be part of the UK (except, arguably, some elderly citizens of the Republic who very clearly said ‘no’). If a referendum is to happen, it should be in or out, but at the same time each constituency country should be asked in or out of the UK, each county should be asked in or out of England, Scotland, Wales, and each village should be asked in or out of their county. And if we’re going to go down that route, it would be meaningless unless it’s going to happen once every five years or so.

    (I’m actually not kidding. In the absence of sensible migration laws, allowing people to live wherever the heck they like, if you’re going to constrict people within borders, those borders should be subject to regular review)

  • Herbert Brown 1st Dec '09 - 4:28pm

    After all those pious statements about how vital it was to have an in/out referendum, and all the nonsense of whipped abstentions and Commons walk-outs, this policy is going to be dropped the instant the Lisbon Treaty comes into force?

    Is the party trying to set some kind of record for sheer cynicism?

  • Can we drop this “nobody under 51” rubbish? Nobody has ever voted in a referendum on the monarchy, the first past the post system, the union of England and Scotland, whether to have English as the national language, or whether they should bring back Jackanory. We must resist the Europhobic insistence that we keep having referendums until we get it right. We voted for ever closer union and that’s that done and dusted.

  • Stanley Theed 1st Dec '09 - 4:55pm

    I too will be interested to learn of any change in our stance. I suppose having a manifesto commitment to have an in/out referendum is different from supporting an in/out referendum introduced by another party where we are unlikely to have a say in the wording of any referendum put to the electorate. I do not think we should change our stance from that prior to the Lisbon treaty, but any support for a referendum introduced by another party should be ‘in princiiple’ only. As for ‘an appetite’ I suspect that there could be many calls for a referendum, but the turn out could be very low if put.

  • Andrew Suffield 1st Dec '09 - 5:20pm

    There are problems with how the EU works – we all know the big ones. I think most of the “leave the EU” group only lands there when you ask them “in or out?”, and that a large portion of those are really “in an EU with these problems fixed, out of an EU where the problems are not being addressed”.

    Still annoyed at how everybody is quick to group as “europhile” and “eurosceptic”. The euroreformist side is real too.

  • Nice to see the standard lines being trotted out from the Europhiles about how “we” don’t want a referendum on EU membership. Some of us do. I’d describe myself as Eurosceptic rather than Europhobic, but I’d like there to be a national debate on our membership of the EU, and the call for a referendum was one of the few things that encouraged me to vote for the party in the European elections. I know I’m not alone in that, both inside the party and without.

  • “Nobody has ever voted in a referendum on the monarchy”

    There wouldn’t be any point at the moment, the result would be a victory for monarchismn and as far as I’m aware there’s no significant campaign to abolish the monarchy.

    “the first past the post system”

    We might if the Lib Dems win an election.

    “the union of England and Scotland”

    Scotland may have one if independence becomes a popular position.

    “whether to have English as the national language”

    Stupid comparison, since when was the status of our national language the subject of political debate?

    “or whether they should bring back Jackanory.”

    Not something the government can do.

    “We must resist the Europhobic insistence that we keep having referendums until we get it right. We voted for ever closer union and that’s that done and dusted.”

    We voted for a common market. And even if we had voted for ever closer union it’s currently a very unpopular position. Are you seriously suggesting that the British Parliament’s ability to make legislation and therefore obey the will of the British people should be increasingly stripped away without any consultation?

  • I saw Ming Campbell on the Daily Politics show – he was very clear.

    Basically Lord Pearson the new leader of UKIP said he wanted UKIP to do well so Tories would lose to Lib Dems because the Lib Dems would hold a referendum. In response, Ming Campbell made it absolutely plain that there is no longer a Lib Dem pledge to have an in/our referendum.

  • There are various arguments for/against a further referendum on European Union membership, but “we might lose” really is a poor one!

    Do we believe in democracy or not?

    I have no particular objection to the EU, or our membership of it, but the cynicism it provokes – in my view – is a significant threat to our system of democracy.

  • Richard – I won’t be called stupid by someone who doesn’t understand the concept of a common market.

  • Simon Titley 1st Dec '09 - 8:51pm

    I don’t understand why the Liberal Democrats keep getting their knickers in a twist on this referendum issue.

    For all the noise that Eurosceptics and the tabloids make, Europe is simply not a salient issue for the vast majority of voters in a general election. This is repeatedly shown in the monthly Ipsos MORI issues index – the latest one (here: ) shows that only 1% of voters believe it to be the most important issue and only 3% believe it to be an important issue at all.

    In so far as British voters care about Europe as a political issue, the biannual Eurobarometer poll shows opinion in the UK divided roughly one-third pro-European, one-third anti-European and one-third with no strong feelings either way. These proportions have not shifted significantly in recent years.

    The party’s referendum policy was originally cobbled together only to provide cover for its MPs in the south-west when the constitution was an issue. Even so, it shouldn’t waste any more time trying to finesse the referendum issue. Most voters don’t care and won’t notice what the party thinks, let alone appreciate any subtle nuances the party concocts.

  • I think this was a case of Ming expressing his own personal view rather than than that of the leadership.

  • Paul Griffiths 1st Dec '09 - 9:09pm

    This just confirms my long-held view that the party doesn’t have a problem with its policy on the European Union – it has a problem with its policy on referendums. There is no coherent position on the latter, so the party swings about seemingly at random.

  • Richard – “We voted for a common market. And even if we had voted for ever closer union it’s currently a very unpopular position” You’re flat out wrong on the first issue. We voted for “ever closer union” – it was right there in black and white in the treaty, that exact phrase. So let’s lay to bed that nonsense that somehow the goalposts have been moved. On the second, an interesting perspective that major geopolitical units should shift due to transity unpopularity (largely due to lies and misleading half-truths), which, as correctly noted above, the overwhelming majority of people don’t care about. Your position makes about as much sense as advocating that the blue states of 2004 should have seceded from the US, or that the red of ’08 should now do likewise – if something is right (like our membership of the Union), you stick at it through ‘unpopularity’, make it work, and fight against the doers of evil (in this case the treachery of UKIP and their Tory allies who want to see us implementing the same law, but stripping away our ability to write it, as is the case in Switzerland and Norway).

  • Antony Hook 2nd Dec '09 - 1:40am

    Having a referendum could be a cathartic and beneficial experience for the country.

    For the first time in a long while the arguments on both sides would receive a clearer airing than they have received in a very long time.

    If you place the facts before the public I am sure the public would overwhelmingly support the Union continuing.

    But I bear in mind “cognitive activist” George Lakoff’s (“Don’t Think Of An Elephant”, “The Political Brain”) argument that the facts aren’t enough to win a public argument.

    This Union of ours needs an Abraham Lincoln: someone who can put a case for it based on the public’s values.

  • Liberal Neil 2nd Dec '09 - 1:39pm

    @Iain “The only people who feel strongly about the EU are Tory/UKIP switchers.”

    Them and Lib Dem/UKIP switchers and Lab/UKIP switchers, of whom there are many.

  • The Manifesto that all Lib Dem MEPs were elected on in June this year stated in Nick’s foreword:

    “Britain will only win the case in Brussels for a flexible, democratic Europe is we settle our arguments at home on whether we should be part of the EU or not. That is why Liberal Democrats have argued for a referendum on whether Britain stays in or leaves the EU.”

    This is repeated on page 17 of the document.

    However, the manifesto is no longer available on the new Lib Dems website.

    Mae It Happen said the same thing, but that is not on the website either.

    Both these documents were approved by conference.

    The Europe briefing on the site does not mention a referendum

    The Pocket Guide to Policy (updated June 2009) does not mention a referendum.

    I conclude therefore that a referendum is still policy. It is included in the platform upon which Lib Dem MEPs were elected. It has not been overturned by conference.

    However, I also conclude that Ming is reflecting the wish from the Party’s fantatical pro-European’s that this pledge had never been made. He was the one who first made it. Clegg inherited it.

    Ming’s u-turn begins the process of the Party ‘airbrushing’ the policy from view.

    There will be some MPs most miffed at this – they see it as an important shield agianst the Tories.

    How important the issue of Europe will be at the election is open to question.

    But Lib Dem MPs will be asked. They can’t avoid it.

    Time for some clarity from the top.

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