Principle and Realpolitik: why the Lib Dems should back an EU in/out referendum

EU Flag at the European Parliament at Strasbourg. Photo credit: Some rights reserved by European ParliamentMy co-editor Caron Lindsay has asked the following question, amid reports senior Lib Dems want the party to commit to an in/out EU referendum in the next parliament: “What do you think? Stay as we are or shift our position?”

My own view is the party has nothing to lose by offering a referendum in the 2015 manifesto. As I’ve pointed out before, the Lib Dem line on an EU referendum has been remarkably consistent over the last few years – far more so than the Tories (remember David Cameron’s cast-iron guarantee?) or Labour (remember 2004 EU referendum U-turn prior to their 2008 U-turn?). Specifically, the Lib Dems have held fast to the line: 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.

There’s a good argument for sticking to that line, not least avoiding the economic uncertainty that a possible ‘Brexit’ from the EU might trigger.

However, as Caron points out, the EU is likely to avoid at all costs any major treaty change in the forseeable in order to avoid triggering hard-to-win treaty referendums in many countries, including the UK. The Lib Dem line will, therefore, increasingly come to be seen as a way of postponing a public vote, not a good look for a party with the word ‘Democrat’ in its name or which has just fought a national election billing itself as ‘The Party of IN’.

Indeed, there’s a very good (if cynical) argument for saying the party should have argued for an in/out EU referendum a couple of years ago. After all, it’s not the Lib Dems who are split on the issue (or indeed Labour) – it’s the Tories who would most likely have torn themselves to pieces , as their Europhobes and Eurorealists waged war against each other. It’s an easier argument to make with hindsight, though – economic concerns rightly dominated, and such a tactic might just as easily have backfired.

One further Realpolitik point… In truth the Lib Dem line on an EU in/out referendum is academic. If there were to be a second Lib/Con Coalition we know we would have to concede a referendum: it will be one of their ‘red lines’.  Indeed, I know some Lib Dems would rather not pre-concede the point, knowing the Lib Dems acceding to a referendum could be traded for a policy we genuinely cared about.

If there were instead to be a Lib/Lab Coalition, however, it’s highly likely Labour would wish to avoid a referendum: Miliband understandably doesn’t want his first two years as Prime Minister dominated by an issue low down voters’ pecking order of priorities. The Lib Dems would be unable to insist on a referendum as the junior party: Labour would get the blame for opposing it.

I don’t pretend either of these last two points are pretty or principled: they are neither. However, they are reality and need to be factored into the party’s consideration.

My personal view is an EU in/out referendum, regardless of its rights or wrongs, is now an inevitability. It is definitely winnable – not least thanks to the Nigel Farage Paradox, which has seen Ukip support rise at the same time as opposition to the UK’s membership of the EU falls – and is the best way to tackle head-on anti-EU arguments… As long as Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems also remember to campaign for reform of the EU, and not for the status quo!

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • But if we had an “in – out” referendum, it should be one we argue on the basis of a political Europe this time. As I remember, it was in the 70s, but the Kippers and their phobic allies try to rewrite history by claiming otherwise.

    Clegg’s big mistake in the Farage debates was to try to restrict it to jobs and other economic benefits. Next time round we should argue more widely. Perhaps we need a few soundbites to show our grounds for referendum are significantly different from Tories?

  • ” As I’ve pointed out before, the Lib Dem line on an EU referendum has been remarkably consistent over the last few years ”

    I assume the remarkable consistency you talk about has been since 2009, or to put it another way the LibDems are remarkably consistent in demanding an EU referendum when in opposition, and remarkably consistent in opposing one when in power. The only remarkable consistency is that the LibDems are remarkably inconsistent in being consistent.

  • jedibeeftrix 18th Jun '14 - 6:28pm

    @ Tim13 – “should be one we argue on the basis of a political Europe this time. As I remember, it was in the 70s, but the Kippers and their phobic allies try to rewrite history by claiming otherwise.”


    “”No important new policy can be decided in Brussels or anywhere else without the consent of a British Minister answerable to a British Government and British Parliament.

    The top decision-making body in the Market is the Council of Ministers, which is composed of senior Ministers representing each of the nine member governments.

    It is the Council of Ministers, and not the market’s officials, who take the important decisions. These decisions can be taken only if all the members of the Council agree. The Minister representing Britain can veto any proposal for a new law or a new tax if he considers it to be against British interests. Ministers from the other Governments have the same right to veto.

    All the nine member countries also agree that any changes or additions to the Market Treaties must be acceptable to their own Governments and Parliaments.

    Remember: All the other countries in the Market today enjoy, like us, democratically elected Governments answerable to their own Parliaments and their own voters. They do not want to weaken their Parliaments any more than we would.””

  • Surely this should be decided by the Lib Dem Conference? What always annoyed me when I was a Party member was the apparent policy being made by ‘senior Lib Dems’, putting the members in a difficult situation on whether it should be supported or opposed.

  • Max Wilkinson 18th Jun '14 - 6:53pm

    I agree with Stephen. In campaigning against a referendum, we’re fighting a battle we can’t win and currently appear (whether it’s true or not) anything but democratic on this issue. Continually putting off a referendum is an untenable position.

    A further point: if we have a one, it might clear some space in public debate for other matters.

  • Liberal Neil 18th Jun '14 - 6:56pm

    I fully agree with Stephen on this.

  • The 1975 referendum pamphlet stated the aims of the Common Market as both political and economic:

    – To bring together the peoples of Europe.

    – To raise living standards and improve working conditions.

    – To promote growth and boost world trade.

    – To help the poorest regions of Europe and the rest of the world.

    – To help maintain peace and freedom.

    I think Tim13 is right in saying ” if we had an “in – out” referendum, it should be one we argue on the basis of a political Europe”. It needs to be crystal clear as to what the shared long-term political vision and economic objectives of the EU are and how UK membership serves the British national interest..

  • Steve Comer 18th Jun '14 - 7:27pm

    Apt that I’m posting this from one of the smaller EU countries!

    The main problem I have with an in/out referendum is that it appears to be predicated on the assumption that the UK is separate, different, and better to the other 27 member states! What if everyone wanted a ‘renegotiation & referendum’ option? It would be a recipe for total inrtia.

    It would be better to agree a new way of working for all, yhen put that to the vote, but err……we tried that with the propsed constitution didn’nt we?

  • Adam Robertson 18th Jun '14 - 7:32pm

    I think Stephen is wrong in just attacking, the Conservatives, in their inconsistency for not holding a referendum, when they said they would. Didn’t Nick Clegg say there should have been one, which was shown by Nigel Farage, during the European Union debates. It seems that the Liberal Democrats, can be seen as ‘illiberal’ and ‘undemocratic’ on this issue, by not allowing a referendum on this. I joined the Liberal Democrats, because I was impressed on their stance on the European Union and Welfare particularly. I still agree with the position on Europe, but we need to have a referendum on this.

    I believe we should be bold in our approach during a referendum, as I believe, the majority of the British people want to stay in the European Union. I think we need to be honest with the electorate, about this and allow them to decide. Currently, all mainstream parties, are out of touch with the electorate, which has led to this paralysis state of affairs. I think by allowing a referendum on the European Union, will allow a healing process of engaging with the electorate with mainstream politics. This is an issue, which is debated within homes, pubs and Student Unions, from my experience.

  • We do not need another ‘pledge’ that we may very well be constrained not to honour.

    Clever-clever policy gambits have a habit of back-firing. Lib Dems, at present, are highly unlikely to command a majority in parliament, so how this unravels (Cameron’s quixotic renegotiation) would be entirely out of our control.

    (p.s. it is also a stupid idea)

  • We absolutely must have a clear commitment to giving people a referendum – in / out. Simple. Can you imagine the reaction of the population – if in a hung parliament situation we are seen to be blocking a referendum? We have to have one – then go all out to campaign to stay in – and if we lose – and we pull out – with all the problems that will create – at long last we can shove our heads 10 feet in the air – and tell our glorious public – told you so! And if we stay in – we win all round. I cannot believe we cannot unite around this.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 18th Jun '14 - 7:53pm

    So, let me get this right. We should call for an in/out referendum because it will screw both Labour and the Conservatives – I paraphrase a bit here. No suggestion that it is in the best interests of the country, which is really rather cynical, at a time when politicians are generally seen as being far too cynical.

    There are some very simple, liberal reasons for offering a referendum – the right of the people to determine the future of our nation being the obvious one. But a cynical gesture is not what I, as a liberal, want to endorse.

  • Jonathan Pile 18th Jun '14 - 8:30pm

    Having read all these postings – such a change should be looked as part as post Clegg election manifesto review. There are pros and cons – if it can portrayed as Clegg style pledge flip flop then no way. If it took place for valid policy reasons such as a wholesale commitment to a system of local and national referenda – such as in Switzerland then perhaps. The current position is too nuisanced and contradictory and really we should be pushing an affirmation vote on a reform package. Clegg first though.

  • Mark Valladares is right on this, as he so fatten is. Referenda should be used sparinglyand never for party political reasons.

    I look forward to an article about the desirability of a referendum on membership of NATO.

    An IN / OUT vote on whether the UK remains in NATO might be worthwhile.
    How much does that organisation costus?
    How often have NATO forces defended the coast of the UK from foreign invaders?

    What’s that you say NATO has never defended us against attack?
    So why do we pay all this money to NATO ?
    It is run by unelected bureaucrats and is full of foreigners, surely we could outflank UKIP on this one.

  • Stephen Hesketh 18th Jun '14 - 9:44pm

    JohnTilley 18th Jun ’14 – 9:10pm

    Hi John
    Another brilliant sidewise look at ridiculous (unquestioned) assumptions that litter our political landscape!

  • It certainly is not a matter of screwing both Labour and Tories – we are a long way from that – it is all about giving the people of this country the chance – once and for all on the issue of staying in Europe or getting out. We need to stop piddling around on our position and give the people a say – let them decide – it is the reason why UKIP are doing so well and garnering the protest vote of so many who feel alienated. And as i said before – if we hold the balance of power and the tories are the largest party – can you imagine the flak if we turn it down? Its not cynical – its liberal and pure common sense – the boil will fester – lance it – for the good of the country, democracy – and yes – our survival

  • Iain Sharpe 18th Jun '14 - 9:50pm

    I agree with Stephen. Over the years the pro-European parties have appeared to duck and weave, hoping that Europe can be ignored as an electoral issue, sometimes trying to appease anti-Europeans with promises of referendums, then appearing to renege. As a result the pro-European case is never made and the mythology of the Eurosceptics takes hold.

    However badly it may have turned out in the short-term, Nick Clegg’s willingness to confront and debate with Nigel Farage at least showed a willingness to stand up and be counted. I suspect that among the reasons that Nick ‘lost’ the debates was an element of cognitive dissonance – Farage was repeating familiar arguments, Nick trying to make arguments people were hearing for the first time.

    This is a question that will not go away. At some point the pro-European camp has got to stop dodging the issue and actually fight back.

  • @Raddidy

    The policy then was that when a treaty was up for signing there should be an In/Out referendum – this is what the leaflet was about. Labour and the Tories didn’t support that idea and it was signed. There should have been a referendum on it, on that I’m sure we agree – though we would probably have voted differently. Once it was signed it was a done deal.

    The policy now is that the next time there is a new treaty there should be an In/Out referendum. This is now law and this was voted for by LibDems so what happened last time cannot happen again. And hurrah for that – vive democracy.

    In short, the view that when there is treaty there should be a referendum – this has been the consistent view.

    If we were to change this policy – as outlined in the main story – then you would be certainly right in saying we were being inconsistent. As it stands our current policy is, to my mind, right. Not a time picked for political reasons, but a sensible practical time when there is a new treaty on which to vote. I appreciate that may not be soon enough for you but at the crux of this issue we both believe there should be a referndum, it just a matter of when 🙂

  • jedibeeftrix 18th Jun '14 - 9:54pm

    @ Steve – ” What if everyone wanted a ‘renegotiation & referendum’ option? It would be a recipe for total inrtia.”

    Only if you believe that the EU represents the sum total of european democracy, and that the nation-states of europe are incapable of continuing to grow their own healthy and vibrant democracies…..

    @ JT – “An IN / OUT vote on whether the UK remains in NATO might be worthwhile. It is run by unelected bureaucrats and is full of foreigners, surely we could outflank UKIP on this one.”

    It is an intergovernmental treaty without any pretensions to political union so i think people are cool with that, but bring it on.

  • There’s no real demand for a referendum.

    Don’t make the mistake of thinking a loudmouthed pub bore and a handful of conspiracy theorists with a sugar daddy millionaire constitute a significant chunk of the population – if they did, then they’d have seats in the Commons.

    Poll after poll shows the EU is low on peoples’ priorities. Our efforts should go elsewhere.

  • jedibeeftrix 18th Jun '14 - 10:22pm

    along with your voters…?

  • Philip Rolle 18th Jun '14 - 10:35pm

    The best reason for pledging an in/out referendum is that, if it happens in the next couple of years, you’ll win.
    But deny a referendum until the 2020-2025 Parliament and the public will be so brassed off, they’ll probably vote to leave.

  • Iain Sharpe 18th Jun ’14 – 9:50pm
    “……Nick trying to make arguments people were hearing for the first time…..”

    Is that really what happened? When Clegg was offered an open goal he fluffed it. When he was given the easy question — ” How do you see thebEU in ten years time? “…… He did not have a clue. He was literally clueless.

    The idea of facing up to Farage was OK. Putting the positive case for Europe was OK.

    Putting up Clegg who had not had one good night “communicating” to the public since April 2010 tiurned out to be a big error and a major own goal for good Europeans and for Liberal Democrats.
    Which is why we should learn from that mistake.
    The myth of “Clegg the communicator” is exactly that — a myth.
    Check back on his poll ratings before April 2010, check out his poll ratings since September 2010.
    He is just not very good at being a political leader. He never has been, even before coalition.

    Clegg may have been great in his university drama club but real life politics, communicating to the voting public, winning elections is a bit more demanding than his student production of ‘Waiting for Godot’.

  • Free vote in the commons. Lynch mob rule applies with referenda.

  • jedibeeftrix 18th Jun '14 - 10:45pm

    and democracy died a little bit just there, with that little statement. 🙂

    bit like stabbing puppies, we are all a little diminished when we trash the people that make the democracy.

  • @John Tilley
    Yes, as I wrote, I do think that ‘among the reasons’ Nick lost the debate was that he was ‘ trying to make arguments people were hearing for the first time’. I didn’t say that was the only reason.

  • This proposal is both cynical and unprincipled.

    We have had multiple general elections in which the public could have returned an anti-EU membership majority. They have not done so. Nor indeed have they returned a majority which campaigned on the holding of a referendum on the issue.

    Why should the who the electorate actually elects to Westminster be ignored?

    Because a party without a single seat in Westminister wants one? Presumably then we should hold one on adopting Communism lest the Communists feel hard done by, right?

  • Paul R

    It was a long time ago but the Communist Party has elected a Westminster MPs.

    In the 1945 general election, the Communist Party received 103,000 votes, and two Communists were elected as members of parliament.
    Willie Gallacher was returned and Phil Piratin was newly elected,as the MP for Mile End in London’s East End.
    Harry Pollitt failed by only 972 votes to take the Rhondda East constituency.
    Both Communist MPs lost their seats at the 1950 general election.

    But you are correct about UKIP — Mr Farage’s party has never elected a single MP to Westminster.

  • “The policy then was that when a treaty was up for signing there should be an In/Out referendum – this is what the leaflet was about.”

    But the policy as presented in the 2009 European manifesto was simply for an in/out referendum, with no mention of a treaty, and no indication that the party would cease to support a referendum in a few weeks time!

    Completely misleading.

  • ” if it can portrayed as Clegg style pledge flip flop then no way.”

    Of course that’s how it will be seen. Most people aren’t aware of the nuances at all. At the moment they see Clegg simply as a Euroenthusiast, and if he backs a referendum it will look like a desperate U turn.

  • We can’t continue in this European Union as that one country that refuses to understand what the idea is all about, incapable of coming to terms with the 21st century reality of its status and led by politicians frightened by the shadow of what they think is a latent europhobic majority.

    We need to face that shadow head-on. I believe that it is just that – an image cast by a particularly loud minority of Nigel and his true believers. But even if not, part of democracy is the principle that the electorate must be allowed to make decisions, even if they are obviously terrible stupid ones.

    The Liberal Democrats should discuss a European referendum motion at conference, and ideally should adopt it as a policy. Not a priority, because as a party we are pro-Europe reformists and would rather spend energy doing that, but certainly as a thing that we would want to do during the next parliament. Europe needs to be able to have confidence in this country as a partner, and this country needs to face down the reasons behind its UKIP problem.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Jun '14 - 9:58am

    I want a tougher approach to the EU, but I’m against a referendum. The public would much prefer us to just reform the EU and make it clear we sometimes believe in walking away from the table, which also applies to the coalition.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Jun '14 - 10:00am

    I mean, I’m not particularly fussed about it, I’m not going to sound like the EU defence attorney, I just don’t think a referendum is the best option.

  • David Evershed 19th Jun '14 - 5:32pm

    Our current policy ……

    “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 ”

    ……is illogical.

    In such a referendum those who are against the transfer of more powers to the EU but happy with the status quo would have to vote to leave the EU to stop the transfer of more powers from the UK.

    So we should keep separate a referendum about a new treaty from an IN/OUT referendum. They are not the same.

    I support the more logical position of an IN/OUT referendum in 2017, giving time to get a better idea of any likely reforms ro which other EU memebers will agree.

  • jedibeeftrix 19th Jun '14 - 6:04pm

    @ DE – “I support the more logical position of an IN/OUT referendum in 2017, giving time to get a better idea of any likely reforms ro which other EU memebers will agree.”


  • Charles Rothwell 20th Jun '14 - 8:00am

    I am against the idea as it would:

    – make the Party look vacillating and irresolute (“We are the Party of “IN” (OR “out” depending on what a referendum brings (or “shake it all about” if …)
    – one man who would be overjoyed would be the Chief Kipper who already claims he is “setting the debate” across much of British politics and would jump on this with alacrity to try and demonstrate “I’m in charge anyway so why not vote for me/Dad’s Army in May 2015 in any case?
    – instead of chasing after possible Eurosceptic votes in a referendum (which I personally think should be used very, very sparingly (as it was no coincidence at all that they were so favoured by despots like Napoleon III in the 19th century), we should recognise that “Europe” has become a red rag term against which very discontented and angry people can rally in order to express a whole host of issues, the primary two being economic fear and uncertainty (for whom “immigrants” (another useful cover-all scapegoat term and Farage (in reality the Deputy Kipper Nuttall) has been able to link successfully to the first red rag of “Europe” and which is THE underlying formula of their success in the past weeks) and also the more or less total DISCONNECT such people feel with all the major Westminster parties, all of whom they* write off as “liars, traitors and ‘un-British'”. (*Remember that when it comes to Kipper voters we are hardly dealing with the most educated and sophisticated sections of the electorate).
    – A referendum promise for 2017 (or whenever) will be holding a gun to the head of any future government and will mean the government, the parties involved in it and the country as a whole will rip itself apart in two years of solid squabbling and debate (PRECISELY as in 1974-75 when, instead of addressing issues such as trade union reform, output productivity, developing an education and training system fit for the 21st century etc etc, the country was distracted by a debate which would “settle the issue for good” (some hope!)
    – ALL the Party’s activities should be focused on developing a “stronger economy” (e.g. by focusing on how the EU is to be REFORMED to this end (with no ‘sacred cows’ left untouched (e.g. the complete disaster the Euro has turned out to be (a primary example of political ideals totally over-riding economics)) while also advocating thorough REFORM of out institutions at all levels so to reestablish the connection with them which has been lost by millions of people in this country. (A good start in the latter direction would also be to NOT go on selecting ex-Oxbridge, Westminster insiders as PPCs as well! !)

  • matt (Bristol) 20th Jun '14 - 5:01pm

    Coming late to the thread…

    I am of the (minority) opinion that we have tied ourselves up in knots trying to have a ‘definitive’ referendum position and then having to move it every time the debate (of which we are clearly not in control) moves. We are more vulnerable to this than the other parties because:
    – our (perfectly reasonable and principled) constitutional commitment to a democratic EU looks out of fashion and is hard to get airtime for right now
    – if we govern at all, we have to govern in coalition right now, so we are not able to deliver ‘tight’ pledges on such a polarising issue.

    Therefore, our policy should be that we are prepared in response to reasoned and evidenced arguments (if they are able to be presented), to discuss a referendum (either on a new treaty or an in/out question) but require reassurances that:
    – a government which proposes a referendum will not seek to manipulate the timing or conduct of the referendum to minimise the side of those who wish to stay in the EU (likely to be the ‘small-c’ conservative majority in the UK who tend to favour the staus-quo but will not always turn out to vote)
    – a agovernment which proposes a referendum will make realistic attempts to secure a more democratic EU both before and after any referendum whatever the result, as a more democratic, less ‘top-down’ EU is in Britain’s national interests whether we are in or out of it.

    We should also make some solid, detailed proposals as to what a more democratic and accountable EU would look like, and push them hard, which I have not seen us do yet.

  • Perhaps I’m missing something here but I have read very little about allowing the people their DEMOCRATIC right to have a say in how their country is governed.It is now almost 40 years since we voted to join the Common Market , a very much different animal to what we have now .For a party that call themselves Liberal DEMOCRATS I really thought that you at least would be a party that would be championing for a referendum.
    All we seem to get from the parties is,”the time is not right” all this moving the goal posts will not wash indefinitely with the people, if you want the trust of the people then you must show your trust in them and commit to a referendum!
    How can we vote for a party that believes it is “dangerous ” to allow the people their say about how their country is governed?

  • The two policy areas where powers are most likely to be repatriated to member states are regional policy and agriculture.

    Poorer areas of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland which have benefited from EU funding in the past would likely not do so to nearly the same extent under a Barnett formula allocation of infrastructure spending. And hill farmers, crofters and other smallholders may well lose out because the big subsidies would go to farmers in the south and east of England.

    This begs the question then -should a referendum be for the UK as a whole or devolved to the individual countries that currently comprise the United kingdom. If England want’s out and the others want to stay in – should they be dragged out against their will or allowed to choose between union with England or the EU?

    Tinkering with constitutional issues can get – well messy.

  • Roger Heape 22nd Jun '14 - 6:45am

    The Lib Dems are great at producing complex policies where simplicity should rule!
    We were right to campaign for” in ” at the Euro elections.However that policy would be stronger if we were to listen to the voters and change our policy on a referendum to a” no ifs no buts” referendum”. Opinion polls and Euro results show overwhelming support for having a referendum- we should listen and change policy
    .The current position of a referendum if more powers go to Brussels sounds what it is- a weasly cop out.We should have the courage of our “in” convictions and be prepared to argue our case in a democratic referendum.After all the Scots are shortly having a referendum on their future and w e support that referendum. but continue to deny the UK and England in a particular the chance of expressing their views on a vital decision.
    The reason for the change in policy is that it is simpler, more democratic and shows we are listening.Carrying on with the current policy will be unsustainable and expose us to continuing derision.

    Roger Heape

  • David Evans 22nd Jun '14 - 9:32am

    The problem with all this debate is that our position on an EU referendum has been all over the place since Nick Clegg became leader. Going into the 2005 Election, under Ming Campbell’s leadership, our manifesto was very clear.

    Membership of the EU has been hugely important for British jobs, environmental protection, equality rights, and Britain’s place in the world. But with enlargement to twenty-five member states, the EU needs reform to become more efficient and more accountable. The new constitution helps to achieve this by improving EU coherence, strengthening the powers of the elected European Parliament compared with the Council of Ministers, allowing proper oversight of the unelected Commission, and enhancing the role of national parliaments. It also more clearly defines and limits the powers of the EU, reflecting diversity and preventing overcentralisation.
    We are therefore clear in our support for the constitution, which we believe is in Britain’s interest – but ratification must be subject to a referendum of the British people.

    Thus we were saying that the EU enlargement meant that a new constitution was needed, and we would have support a referendum on this constitution. Of course a new constitution was being developed at the time for this purpose.

    What happened subsequently was that referenda had to be held in many EU countries to ratify the new constitution and France and Holland rejected it, most others then cancelled their referenda. This was the most fundamental threat to the EU project in many years. As a result the EU hierarchy had to find an alternative way to implement the changes needed and the mechanism chosen was a typical example of pure Sir Humphrey. What happened was that places were found to put the changes in different documents, giving the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union a legally binding status, amending the Treaty of Rome itself, and only making amendments to the constitution. Thus crucially the changes were not called a new constitution and could be spun as not needing referenda.

    This sleight of hand got the EU off the hook in France, Holland and elsewhere, as a referendum was only needed in Eire. This opportunity to avoid a referendum was also seized on by the Gordon Brown, the new Labour party leader and by Nick Clegg the new Lib Dem leader, who ensured that the party in parliament was required to abstain when it was debated in parliament. To their credit, three Lib Dem front benchers, Alistair Carmichael, Tim Farron and David Heath, recognised this for the sleight of hand it was and voted for a referendum. As a result they were required to stand down from Nick Clegg’s cabinet. However the vote was lost.

    Thus Nick, surely the ultimate Europhile, achieved his aim of avoiding any chance of the UK rejecting the treaty, but sowed the seed for the continued growth of UKIP, which led to the debacle in May this year.

  • David Evans – 2005 election under Charles Kennedy’s leadership, of course. It was (allegedly) Charles’s poor performance as Leader, gaining, if I remember rightly, 5 seats, which provoked hand wringing and ultimately rebellion among our parliamentarians. How some of them must want those times back!

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