Opinion: Have we changed our policy on an in-out referendum?

In Andrew Neil’s Sunday Politics interview with Danny Alexander, Neil asserted that we have changed our policy on an in-out referendum. Is he right?

Our position in 2008, when we walked out the Commons after being refused a debate on an in-out referendum, was that we wanted a referendum to decide whether the UK should stay in the EU in the light of the Lisbon Treaty. The Conservative position was that a referendum should decide the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty itself. The difference was perhaps subtle, but it was important. If the public voted no in the Conservative referendum, the Lisbon Treaty would not have been ratified. In contrast, if the public voted no in the Liberal Democrat referendum, Britain would have invoked the Lisbon Treaty’s own provision on member states leaving the Union.

In the 2010 manifesto we said:

Liberal Democrats … 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.

Is that a change? Danny said no, because the manifesto still committed us to an in-out referendum. But that is not the whole story. The Lisbon Treaty had already been ratified by 2010, so the Conservative referendum had become impossible, but the Liberal Democrat referendum was still entirely possible. The manifesto, however, delayed an in-out referendum until after the next treaty. This was a change.

Worse still, Danny claimed that we had succeeded in encapsulating our 2010 manifesto in legislation. The problem is that the European Union Act 2011 does not say that when there is fundamental change in the EU-UK relationship, an in-out referendum must take place. It says that there must be a referendum about such changes themselves. In other words, the 2011 Act encapsulates not our position in either 2008 or 2010, but the Conservatives’ position.

What happened is ultimately very easy to explain. The Coalition Agreement says:

We will amend the 1972 European Communities Act so that any proposed future treaty that transferred areas of power, or competences, would be subject to a referendum on that treaty – a ‘referendum lock’.

No mention there of any in-out referendum. The Coalition Agreement adopted the Conservatives’ position lock, stock and barrel.

The oddity, of course, is that the parties have effectively swapped positions. The Conservatives now want an in-out referendum by 2017, which means a referendum on the basis either of the current treaty (the Liberal Democrat 2008 position) or of a future renegotiated treaty (the Liberal Democrat 2010 position). Meanwhile, we have adopted the Conservatives’ 2010 policy. It might be fair for Andrew Neil to ask why we changed policy, and unwise for us to deny that we have, but only if he also asks the Conservatives why they are attacking us for standing by a section of the Coalition Agreement which accepted their policy, not ours.

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  • Matthew Huntbach 21st May '13 - 12:38pm

    The public are not going to be bothered about all the details here. To them it will come across as yet another example of us changing our tune once we are “in power”.

    So I think the better line would be for us to say that it is clear this call for an in-out referendum has been whipped up in an atmosphere of ill-informed hysteria, with the political far-right in this country (I don’t mean the BNP, which is a left-of-centre party on most definitions of left-right, I mean those who defend the wealthy and privileged and want governance to be skewed even more in their favour i.e. UKIP, those who control most of our press and much of the Conservative Party) behind it, doing it as a smokescreen to hide the failure of THEIR economic policies. When this is the case, we will not get a clear well thought through decision in any referendum, rather we will get one which is more about emotion, with people of this country tricked by the powerful into voting against their real interests. The time for a referendum is when things have calmed down. After all, when WE had big swings to us in local elections in the past, we didn’t get sudden calls for there to be public referendums on electoral reform and other core policies of ours, so why should a big swing to UKIP in county council elections mean suddenly we should have a referendum on one of their core policies?

  • The shorter Matthew Huntbach: “Trust the people – when you think they’ll give the answer you want!”

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st May '13 - 4:48pm

    David, it is not a matter of the answer I want. It is a standard trick of con-men to present misleading information, whip people up emotionally, and use that to get them to make a decision they will greatly regret later. People need to make a decision like this carefully when they are in a position to think straight on it. On balance I support membership of the EU, but I’d happily agree to leaving if the people of the country wanted us to and had made a choice based on a fair presentation of the facts. When there been a big UKIP vote just because UKIP have the filled the gap left by the LibDems as the protest party is NOT the time for it.

  • David Allen 21st May '13 - 6:04pm

    “Trust the people – when you think they’ll give the answer you want!”

    I am afraid that is the principle of all the parties, and the electorate know that.

    UKIP would like a referendum at the point of maximum confusion and Eurocrisis, because that is when they are most likely to win. They can justify that view by arguing that when Europe is in a massive mess, that is the right time to recognise just how harmful the mess is to us here in the UK.

    Lib Dems would like a referendum at the point of minimum confusion, when Europe has taken a clear decision on where it is going. They can justify that view by arguing that when the position is clear, the people can know what it is they are voting for. So they can reasonably argue that when there is permanent financial crisis, when we have no real idea whether the Euro and Europe can actually survive in their present form, we should not be taking an in-out decision. Better to wait until things are clearer, and then take the decision.

    Both sides would like to deny and conceal the extent to which their wishes are governed by self-interest. UKIP can certainly be accused of hoping that short-term panic and confusion will be their ally. However, when Lib Dems and pro-Europeans generally prefer to seek a referendum only when conditions are calm, they too are being self-interested. Naturally, calm conditions make it easier to appeal to reason, to our long term interests in economic progress, peace, and harmonious relations with our neighbours. However, the argument is not conclusive. It could be argued that seizing on a temporary good mood, or the peak of a boom, as the right time to hold a referendum might be just as falsely manipulative as its opposite.

    The great British public (GBP) in its wisdom probably grasps more of these tactical issues than one might think. So what is its judgment likely to be?

    I think the answer is that when there are riots in Greece or banks collapsing in Cyprus, the GBP will turn against UKIP shouting for an immediate referendum. They would rightly recognise that UKIP were playing the system.

    However, when financial crisis drags on for years, and clearly nobody has the wisdom or the will to sort it out, then the GBP will eventually turn against the pro-Europeans for delaying any referendum. They will believe that it is the pro-Europeans who are playing the system, they will say that “enough is enough”, and they will demand a vote to come out. That is the way we are going.

    I don’t say that because it is what I want. On the contrary, I think leaving the EU will be a disaster for us. However, it will assuredly happen if the eurozone do not soon sort out their crisis, either by voluntarily dismantling the Euro, or by making it viable by creating a United States of Europe. It is up to pro-Europeans to help make one or other of these solutions happen.

  • Max Wilkinson 21st May '13 - 8:42pm

    Does the fact that this is classified as an opinion article, rather than a factual piece, suggest that we are confused?

  • David Allen 22nd May '13 - 1:36pm


    Since we have no idea what state Europe will be in in 2017, or at any other date in the future, we cannot possibly say whether it is a good date to hold a referendum.

    As Cameron may find out!

  • Andrew Colman 22nd May '13 - 2:55pm

    Nick Clegg should offer Cameron a deal. He should offer to support an in-out EU referendum as long as its held in 2014, beforee the next general election but fur enough ahead for pro -europeans to put their case.

    As well as giving Cameron a huge dilema, It will put pressure on the Europeans, particularly the Germans to get the EURO mess sorted.

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