Opinion: Why won’t Nick Clegg trust the people with a referendum on Europe?

If there is one thing which Liberal Democrats need to be careful about after the tuition fees debacle, it is being seen to renege on any of our manifesto commitments. But this appears to be exactly what Nick Clegg is determined to do with the news that he has imposed a three line whip to vote against an EU referendum.

This is an area where he has a clear and very unsatisfactory track record already. The 2005 manifesto promised a referendum on the EU Constitution but when it came to a vote on the Lisbon Treaty (identical in virtually every respect to the constitution), Clegg ordered Lib Dem MPs to abstain. This led to a large rebellion with three front benchers resigning (Farron, Heath and Carmichael) and 13 MPs voting for a referendum. Clegg’s position at that time was that there should be a vote on an in/out referendum not a vote on the Lisbon Treaty. As he said in February 2008:

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.

This position was carried forward into our manifesto for the 2009 Euro Elections:

Liberal Democrats have argued for a referendum on whether Britain stays in or leaves the EU. We are the only party confident enough to put the pro-European case to the British people on the big issue facing us – and let the people decide.

A slightly nuanced version of was included in the 2010 manifesto which stated:

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.

No doubt the excuse will be made that the Government is not being asked to sign up to a fundamental change, but that is sophistry. There is no doubt that the message we intended to give the electorate in 2010 is that we were in favour of an in/out vote. All that a vote against a referendum will do is reinforce the view that we are not to be trusted to carry out our promises.

There is nothing in the Coalition agreement that would stop us voting in line with our manifesto commitment.

I agree with Nick: there is a strong case for the UK to be in the EU and we should have no qualms about putting that case to the electorate.

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60 Comments

  • Sid Cumberland 22nd Oct '11 - 4:27pm

    ‘… the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.’

    Call it sophistry, call it nuanced – it’s there in black and white.

  • Richard Church 22nd Oct '11 - 4:51pm

    To have a referendum now, at a time of massive financial instability across Europe would be daft.

    If it happened the Euro sceptics would then demand a second referendum, after the EU is fundamentally changed to reflect the collapse/survival of the single currency. Whatever the outcome of the current crisis, there will be more big constitutional changes in the EU.

  • Yes sure, let’s have a referendum. And then another one a few years after that and another one a few years after that. What on earth is the logic of this argument? A referendum is to settle something once and for all and we’ve had one.

    We’ve never had one on the monarchy, or the house of lords, or anything else about our constitutional arrangements (unless you live in Scotland or Wales). But for some reason we’ve got to keep having them about the EU.

    There’s nothing democratic about the call for a referendum whatsoever. We have a parliamentary democracy. Anyone who wanted the UK to leave the EU could have voted UKIP. They came nowhere. Repeatedly.

  • Old Codger Chris 22nd Oct '11 - 5:23pm

    Richard Church is right to point out that now would be the worst possible time to hold a referendum on EU membership – what on earth would be the reaction of the dreaded financial markets? Of course those naughty Eurosceptics are well aware that they won’t get their referendum, they just want to embarrass the Lib Dems and the Europhiles in their own party – and to put down a marker for the future.

    As for the Lib Dem pledge, I’m afraid the parellels with the Tuition Fees debacle are plain to see. In both cases a pledge was made in the knowledge (or so it seemed) that it would never need to be redeemed because we were merely the third party in a two party system. Since we were simultaneously trumpeting the virtues of a Hung (sorry Balanced) Parliament and coalitions, there was a clear lack of joined-up thinking – stupidity added to duplicity.

  • Andrew Suffield 22nd Oct '11 - 5:50pm

    I also note that it’s not really a question of trust – Clegg’s okay with the principle of a referendum on EU membership – but is more to do with the politics of the situation.

    The question you have to ask is: would having this referendum on the proposed schedule be worth the political and economic cost?

    I don’t think it would, and I don’t think many people believe that the EU membership question is a high priority right now.

  • I’m pro EU but how can you say there is “no big treaty change”. We have a treaty that says “no EU bailouts” and the EU is overriding that. The EU and the Euro have fundamental flaws that need to he addressed and this is urgent. The Lib Dems stand for greater democracy. Labour and Tories have no democratic instincts. Let’s see something other than contempt and condescension for the voters.

  • david thorpe 22nd Oct '11 - 7:06pm

    the 2010 manifesto pledge has been delivered with it writtenb into law that there has to be a referebdum the next time a treaty comes up. Its a victory for us in government.
    This motiuion this week……is not that and wastes valuable parlaimnetary time

  • Steve Comer 22nd Oct '11 - 7:43pm

    The trouble is how often do we have to keep asking the ‘in or out’ question, and in how many countries?
    Can you imagine what the effect would be of a rolling series of referendums across 27 member states?
    What price economic stability then?
    I’m not against a referendum for ever, but the problem is the pro-European side of the argument in the UK has run scared of the antis for decades. We keep hearing the old line about “all we signed up for in 1973 was a trade agreement” trotted out by the antis, and it just goes unchallenged. (Its nonsense of course, the Treaty of Rome was about much more than that, but what bis nobody arguing the point?).

  • There is an important yet sadly oft-forgotten principle of referenda: in principle they should be held on broad matters of principle, not detailed matters of policy (like, for instance, treaties) as the general public cannot possibly be expected to read or understand vast bodies of legalese.

    For that reason, the idea of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty was ludicrous, I’m a political anorak and _I_ struggled to get through the thing, no average member of the public would have even glanced at the thing and the referendum would have been a farce.

    Likewise, the AV referendum was a daft idea; Yes2AV spent the vast majority of the time trying to explain the intricacies of that particular system, whereas the referendum should have been on the general principle of whether the voting system should be proportional.

    Unfortunately, this means that the current government policy of a referendum lock on new EU treaties is completely wrong-headed. If we are to have a referendum on the EU, let it be on the general principle of the UK’s continued participation in the European project (which I wholeheartedly support), not the details of some treaty or another which no-one will ever read.

  • Simon McGrath 22nd Oct '11 - 8:40pm

    Just to be clear I have no great desire to have a referendum. We should have had one over the Lisbon Treaty but Clegg reneged on our clear 2005 manifesto commitment on this by switching to saying he wanted an In/Out vote.

    Now he has the opportunity to have a vote and he has changed his line yet again.

    The truth is Clegg doesn’t trust the British people over this and he will do anything he can to stop a referendum.

    This was the ideal opportunity for us to show then when we say we will do something, we actually do it and can be trusted to keep our promises however inconvenient.

  • Stephen Donnelly 22nd Oct '11 - 9:17pm

    This is not the time for a referendum. The EU is undergoing a period of uncertainty which will be followed by substantial change. At the end of that period there will be a well formed question to put to the British people. It is sensible, and in line with our manifesto, to wait until then. Our MPs have got this one right.

  • This is not the time for a referendum. The EU is undergoing a period of uncertainty which will be followed by substantial change. At the end of that period there will be a well formed question to put to the British people. It is sensible, and in line with our manifesto, to wait until then. Our MPs have got this one right.
    This is the ideal time for the electorate to find out where Dave and Ed actually stand on Europe. Do you know? I don’t.

  • what is there to say, there is no democracy in the UK. We bomb Libya to bring democracy but when !00,000 UK citizens sign a petition the three main parties threaten their own member to not even allow a choice. The media hardly touches the subject, even though it is the most important choice the country could make.

  • Andrew Suffield 22nd Oct '11 - 11:21pm

    This is the ideal time for the electorate to find out where Dave and Ed actually stand on Europe.

    I don’t think so. I think that if they were faced with a referendum in the next couple of years, both of them would take up positions rather different to what they really believe, because too many people would be leaning on them for reasons that had nothing to do with Europe.

  • Personally I’d be okay with a referendum (but without the repatriating powers option) just so we could get on and actually be an active party in the EU instead of being harranged by eurosceptics at every turn.

    @Rich – to be fair, I think we’d be in a better position in an EU referendum. The Tory leadership and most of Labour would be on the “stay in” side and the business community is actually the most pro-European community in the UK. What I’m saying is that if there was an in/out referendum on the EU that the LDs and the vested interests would converge, seeing as the economy of the UK is basically totally dependent on trade with the rest of Europe.

  • Personally I’d be okay with a referendum just so we could get on and actually be an active party in the EU instead of being harranged by eurosceptics at every turn.
    Exactly. Within 5 minutes Nissan and 101 other multinationals would explain that they would have to relocate all currently UK manufacturing operations overseas should we leave the EU. Why can’t Ed Dave and Nick be open about this? Lets have a referendum and get this out of the way, the same as AV has been kicked into touch for a generation. Then with the EU boil lanced, and quite a lot of Tory and Labour collateral damage, this country can get on and start shaping the EU rather than just ploughing the opt out furrow that is a dead end.

  • Remember the pro-AV campaign? How we totally failed to counter the anti-AV lies and misinformation? The Pro literature even managed to use illustrative examples whereby AV produced exactly the same result as FPTP, making even sympathetic voters say “there’s no point”.

    Remember that… Then consider the level of public and media obsession with the Human Rights Act. Consider with what level of success we will convey to the electorate that the HRA/ECHR is nothing to do with our membership of the EU.

    And remember that the “out” campaign will favour emotion and lies over justice, truth and accuracy.

    We must keep our manifesto promises, but at the time promised i.e. next major treaty.

    However, the “two generations” argument is facile. Twenty generations haven’t had a say on the Act of Union… but then we probably wouldn’t give a convenient answer.

  • Alisdair Calder McGregor 23rd Oct '11 - 8:57am

    I would be much more favourable to the idea of a referendum on EU membership if I thought there was the slightest chance of the question being decided on the merits of the arguments presented.

    As it is, neither the Tories nor the Labour Party have shown any inclination to fight such a vote on the actual case at hand, so the vote would inevitably come to be dominated by current affairs.

    Just like the AV referendum all over again.

    I begin to see the point of the German constitutional stance against referenda.

  • Surely, if there is, as alleged, a huge public appetite for an in or out vote, then the only democratic course for party leaders is to allow a free vote in the House of Commons on the motion to hold a referendum. It surely wouldn’t harm their interests, for at the time of the General election the perceived view of the electorate was that Clegg and Cameron were generally in favour of an in/out referendum. All this rowing back does their reputations, such as they are, no good at all.

  • If there is a need for anything is a referendum really the best mechanism?

    Everyone having a vote with very little information, because supplying a proper level of information is vastly expensive and time consuming.

    Wouldn’t it be more democratic to elect a Constitutional Convention or empanel a Citizens’ Jury?

  • This is a motion calling for a referendum. Once the principle of having a referendum has been established there’s plenty of time to debate the exact question and set a date depending on what happens in the Eurozone. Saying we should just wait it out smacks of hoping the whole thing will blow over and it will return to business as usual.

    In my view though, we should hold a referendum now so parliament and the government are properly informed as to what the British people want. The euro-zone crisis will fundamentally alter the EU and will require a response from our government. It would be nice to put democracy first for a change rather than seeking approval on a stitch up that’s already too late to change.

  • Old Codger Chris 23rd Oct '11 - 12:18pm

    It’s too early to say what the final outcome of the Greek debacle will be. It’s possible that it may create strong anti-EU movements in a number of member countries. If the UK were to leave the EU (as I’m certain would happen if there were a binding referendum) the economic damage to our country would presumably be lessened if other countries did the same. A return to the long-gone days of a European Free Trade Area outside the EU perhaps?

    Incidentally I love the piece in today’s Torygraph – you can find it online headlined “New Euro Empire Plot by Brussels” – not for its content but for the Freudian slip in the spelling of Lib Dems in the penultimate paragraph.

  • the europhiles will never allow a referendum on in/out because they would lose.
    Too many intrusive, stupid, down right annoying policies have been blamed on the EU directives by weak willed governments.
    The EU has been portrayed as costing the country billions in legal stupidities like the horribly mutated and twisted “ooman rights”.
    Its seen as the reason for the mass euro-immigration that has pushed our population so high its crushing our infrastructure (housing, nhs, benefits, jobs) and necessitating high/stealth taxes.
    Now they want billions in taxpayers money to bail out nations/fix a currency we dont want which would destroy what little competitiveness we have left.
    And if the desperate single EU wide integrated treasury that van rumpypumpy wants is implemented, it turns the UK into nothing more than a small district of greater Europe unable to control its own finances or even tax rates.
    no … there is no fraking way the europhiles win an in/out.

  • If the public want a debate on a topic that neither the government NOR the opposition are normally going to debate then by definition it means that the main parties are all going to be opposed to the idea. Thus if we are going to allow our MPs to have a debate and hence have a vote ALL of these publicly inspired/demanded debates MUST have a FREE vote.

    This isn’t about Europe – Europe is the catalyst for this. Either we the people are to be allowed to asked for debates, or are we going to continue to allow the parties to control what can & can not be debated.

    Government OF the people, BY the people For the people

  • Scary Biscuits 23rd Oct '11 - 1:42pm

    “No doubt the excuse will be made that the Government is not being asked to sign up to a fundamental change…”

    The changes since Lisbon was agreed *are* fundamental, at least in the opinion of the German Constitutional Court. Lisbon explicitly outlawed debt union but this is exactly what is being agreed this weekend. Moreover, even if we don’t directly contribute to it, the €2 trillion mooted bailout fund, financed by China and Saudi Arablia, is hardly trivial.

  • The Lib Dem position isn’t even coherent. If you support a simple in/out referendum in order to settle the matter, as Clegg has stated several times, then there’s no need to wait until the treaties are being renegotiated.

    Still, it’ll be fun watching the Tory party tear itself apart over this for a couple of years.

  • Until we get a proper democracy in which Parliament is actually representative of the way people vote, I think our stance should ordinarily be to demand a referendum on every significant piece of government legislation. So, for example, we should definitely have voted for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

    However, being in coalition means that we need to suspend this approach at least for this Parliament.

    The manifesto does not commit us to an in/out referendum until there is a major change, and we have agreed to drop even that demand (at least for this Parliament) as part of the coalition agreement.

    We remain in favour of an in/out referendum so it is a nonsense to vote against, but the current proposal is a distraction and will be defeated anyway, so why tie ourselves in knots? Abstain.

  • john stevens 23rd Oct '11 - 2:30pm

    I agree with Simon.

  • Old Codger Chris 23rd Oct '11 - 2:49pm

    I can’t agree with Paul K that Lib Dem MPs should abstain. Either they support a referendum or they think it’s a bad idea, perhaps now or perhaps ever. From a purely Lib Dem party point of view, perhaps Nick Clegg should say that now would be the very worst time for a referendum on the EU (which is certainly true) but that the Lib Dems will press for a referendum once the outcome of the current Eurozone crisis is known.

    I don’t agree with those who think that, once a referendum campaign was underway, the momentum would swing in favour of staying in. The media have a strong anti-EU bias (something to do with their proprietors perhaps?) and pleas from the CBI etc are unlikely to prevail against decades of anti-EU publicity.

  • Hampshire Voter 23rd Oct '11 - 3:05pm

    It appears to me the only time the LibDems are pro choice is when they are Pro Choice. They bemoan the lack of democracy in the UK voting system and yet are keen to get the UK further merged with the most undemocratic institutions going. When I can see that I, as a mere voter, can actually have a say who holds office in the EU I will more receptive to the idea. Then there is the “small” issue of EU finances. Please remind me when the EU finances were signed off by the auditors.

  • Antony Hook 23rd Oct '11 - 4:47pm

    Hampshire Voter. The Court of Auditors “sign them off” every year with a qualification that they can’t audit the money granted to the member states to spend themselves.

    The much repeated claim they are “never signed off” is perhaps the biggest Euro-sceptic lie of them all.

  • If certain Lib Dem supporters cared half as much about democracy as they do sentiment, and making sure everyone knows they are not evil “foaming-at-the-mouth” Tories, they’d recognise the EU for what it is: a remote elite, an outdated vanity project; a bunch of self-enriching sociopathic pseudo-intellectual unelected and unaccountable functionaries. Because everything European must be “progressive” some Lib Dems don’t seem to mind having our money taken and our laws made by someone they didn’t vote for, as long as they are doing it from a fashionable country that they have probably never been to.

    How anyone can be rummaging around their conscience trying to find an excuse NOT to hold a referendum is beyond me. Clearly democracy is not a concern for these people.

  • Don Lawrence 23rd Oct '11 - 7:23pm

    Either support a referendum Nick, or be portrayed once again as a serial promise breaker. There goes another 200 councillors next May.

  • Don Lawrence 23rd Oct '11 - 7:31pm

    @Antony Hook. The Court of Auditors “sign them off” every year with a qualification that they can’t audit the money granted to the member states to spend themselves.

    The much repeated claim they are “never signed off” is perhaps the biggest Euro-sceptic lie of them all.

    I think there is quite a bit more to the overall refusal to sign off than just that.

  • Antony Hook 23rd Oct '11 - 8:46pm

    Why is it that the vast majority of anti-European comments are left by people using only a nick name or just a first name, is it all the same person?

  • Antony Hook 23rd Oct '11 - 8:48pm

    @ Don Lawrence.

    Seriously. Apart from from a Statement of Assurance that they cannot apply the audit to EU funds spent by the member states they have been approved by the Court of Auditor ever year.

  • Dear Mr Kennedy,

    This household would like you, as a “backbencher” to support the motion tomorrow that calls for a referendum about our future in Europe.

    For over 36 years you people have, by a combination of deceit and trickery, denied the British electorate a true vote about Europe. Now the tide is turning strongly against those of you that have consistently denied us our democratic voice, the tide is now unstoppable.

    You promised us a simple In-Out Vote in your last Election Manifesto and up until two days ago you were even advertising it on your party web-site. Now is your chance to fulfil your promise or be seen as an untrustworthy hypocrite.

    Please don’t bother to try and placate us with weak excuses why you won’t keep your promise to us, your electorate.

    John & Rosanna Clegg

    Ross-Shire

    (This is the e-mail that I sent to Charlie Kennedy earlier today, I urge you all to please e-mail your MP and make your views known)

  • Andrew Suffield 24th Oct '11 - 1:38am

    Why is it that the vast majority of anti-European comments are left by people using only a nick name or just a first name, is it all the same person?

    It’s an ongoing annoyance. They had to add some new rules to keep it under control.

    (I expect “Hampshire Voter” to disappear shortly, since one of them involves pseudonymous posters making unverifiable claims about who they are)

  • Don Lawrence 24th Oct '11 - 9:49am

    @ Antony Hook “Seriously. Apart from a Statement of Assurance that they cannot apply the audit to EU funds spent by the member states they have been approved by the Court of Auditor ever year.”

    From the 2009 Court of Auditors Report

    X. In the Court’s opinion, payments underlying the accounts for the year ended 31 December 2009 for the policy groups ‘Agriculture and natural resources’, ‘Cohesion’, ‘Research, energy and transport’, ‘External Aid, development and enlargement’ and ‘Education and Citizenship’ are materially affected by error. The supervisory and control systems are partially effective in preventing or detecting and correcting the reimbursement of overstated or ineligible costs.

    http://eca.europa.eu/portal/pls/portal/docs/1/8384724.PDF

    I wouldn’t claim that this was a ringing endorsement of the EU accounts, but perhaps it depends on what you mean by “approved”. No Local Authority in the UK would be allowed to get away with such things. Perhaps there are different rules applied to supra national bodies by some Lib Dems.

  • Paul Griffiths 24th Oct '11 - 9:52am

    As I have said time and time again to anyone who will listen, the party has no problem with its policy on the EU. It is, however, in a complete mess when it comes to referendums. There is a significant and logically defensible view that referendums undermine representative democracy (a view particularly, and rather ironically, prevelant amongst LIb Dems in the Lords). Of course, there are equally good arguments on the other side. Until the party comes to principled, definitive statement on this issue, we will never make any progress.

  • Why on earth is the only part of our constitution that’s actually been approved by referendum also the only part that head-bangers keep on screaming about? Heaven’s sake, I’ve had my say on ‘whether or not we should be part of europe’ every election, and, like the overwhelming majority of the British people, I’ve voted for pro-European parties (ok, some of the parties are only ‘pro’ until they need a convenient scapegoat, but generally, they’re all in favour of being ‘in’)

    Also, surely to fulfill the legal requirements of balance, if we were to have a referendum, we’d need to precede it with about 50 years of daily pro-European front pages in all the newspapers?

  • Don Lawrence 24th Oct '11 - 11:40am

    @Antony Hook

    I presume therfore you think it is alright that the EU is disbursing funds where the people spending the money cannot show that they have spent the money on what it should have been, and that this goes on year after year after year. I have high aspirations for public bodies, the standards (that you appear to accept) in the EU are a shambles and to my mind give internationalism a bad name because politicians are unwilling to do anything about it. Perpetually saying it’s a problem but doing nothing is a dereliction of duty by mainstream politicians of all persuasions, to the European ideal, its nations and most importantly its citizens.

    Ultimately this couldn’t care less attitude will result in/is resulting in a collapse of confidence in the whole thing and it will be people like that who support it, but not enough to actually do anything to improve it that will have caused the crisis. The German people are increasingly unwilling to bail out those who are just exploiting it and so should we.

    We seem to spend our time pretending we care at Election time and then finding excuses the reat of the time.

  • Chris White 24th Oct '11 - 7:39pm

    It’s not about not trusting the people it’s about not trusting the markets. A vote in the House of Commons today in favour of an In-Out referendum would terminally destabilise the euro. This would crash euroland. Which in turn would crash the UK economy. Apart from that this is exactly the right moment to implement the policy on an EU referendum.

  • Old Codger Chris 24th Oct '11 - 11:17pm

    At least one Lib Dem MEP advocates a policy which would undoubedly result in the UK holding a referendum, which would undoubtedly result in our quitting the EU. Check out
    http://andrewduff.eu/en/article/2011/526361/heads-of-government-must-not-miss-federal-moment

  • Excellent piece by someone who admits that LibDems in general (and Clegg in particular) are becomin known as the party of broken promises!

    The key point that some of the posters seem to be missing is that this was a vote on talks about talks. It wouldn’t have been binding and any vote – if one were eventually proposed wouldn’t have been yet.

    But that isn’t even the problem – our problem is that Nick is going round saying there will never be any repatriation of powers from Europe, and that is driving even moderate supporters (if we have any left) into the arms of the Tories!

    I kid you not Nick Clegg is the best weapon the Conservative have got 🙁

  • Adrian Sanders MP 1st Nov '11 - 11:18am

    This is a great article, and I completely agree with the sentiment. Although I am pro-european, I believe we should trust the British public to make their own decision on the advantages and disadvantages of European integration. Furthermore, a referendum scheduled for a few years time would put pressure on the Government to reform the EU and engage with the public on what they want and need from the union. That is why I voted in favour of the referendum and in favour of the first principle of liberalism: trust in the people. I put forward my case in the Guardian Comment section at:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/26/eu-referendum-europe-rebelled?INTCMP=SRCH

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