The flagrant consistency of the Lib Dems’ position on an in/out EU referendum

EU flag - Some rights reserved by European ParliamentAs a follow-up to my post The surprising truth about that Lib Dem in/out EU referendum leaflet — and as a handy guide for journalists in the future — I thought I’d piece together the timeline of the recent history of the Lib Dems’ position on holding a referendum to give the British people a say on our future relationship with the European Union.

As you can see, it’s a picture of quite shocking, erm, consistency…


Lib Dems (under Ming Campbell) commit to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for a fundamental change (the proposed EU constitution) in the relationship between the UK and the EU.

EU constitution rejected by voters in France and Holland, and is abandoned. No UK vote takes place.


Lib Dems (under Nick Clegg) commit to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for a fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.

Government signs up to fundamental change: the Lisbon Treaty. Lib Dems push for in/out referendum in House of Commons.


Lib Dems remain committed to an in/out referendum with the British government signed up for a fundamental change (Lisbon Treaty) in the relationship between the UK and the EU.

Lib Dems commit to in/out referendum in Euro 2009 manifesto. Treaty ratified on 1 December, and Lib Dems confirm position remains: any EU referendum should be on the larger question of Britain’s relationship with the EU.


Lib Dems re-commit to an in/out referendum in 2010 general election manifesto the next time a British government signs up for a fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.

Coalition Government promises in 2011 to deliver referendum on any further EU treaty that transfers any powers from the UK government to the European Union.

* 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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This entry was posted in Europe / International.


  • Euro Manifesto 2009
    “Britain will only win the case for a flexible, democratic Europe in Brussels if we settle our arguments at home on whether we should be part of the EU or not”

    This is where I see inconsistency, in 2009 it was clear that the issue needed to be settled before future negotiations. What is the point of negotiating a treaty if it is felt that the case cannot be won? Clegg also made they’ll advised “cowardly” quote regarding asking the British people.

    Also look at the difference in wording regarding a referendum between the 2010 manifesto, where it is clearly linked to a treaty, and that of the 2009 manifesto. At very best the 2009 one was poorly worded if it was linked to a treaty and could give the impression that it was not.

  • Your comments about the Lisbon Treaty lack rigour, Stephen. As you know, Lib Dems, and NC especially were heavily criticised for their indecisive action abstaining on Lisbon. I think they were justified in the action they took, because Lisbon was NOT a fundamental change. Clearly you take a different and more eurosceptic friendly view of this. But you can’t have it both ways, Stephen 1That it was a fundamental change, and 2 That the Lib Dems have been consistent over the years.

  • “Lib Dems commit to in/out referendum in Euro 2009 manifesto.”

    If you’ve seen the other discussion, you must know perfectly well that no condition was stated in the manifesto. The manifesto simply stated that the Lib Dems supported an in/out referendum. No mention whatsoever of “fundamental change”.

    Perhaps you can comment on that particular aspect. Do you consider that it was an honest presentation of what you say was the policy at that time? Or was it a misrepresentation, designed to attract the votes of those who favoured a referendum?

    If you think it was an honest presentation, would you recommend the party to adopt a similar approach when writing the 2015 manifesto? Will the electorate need to do its own research to discover the “Terms and Conditions” attached to the party’s policies? Or does it not really matter any more what the party’s manifesto says, for the reasons we’ve become familiar with over the last couple of years?

  • Clegg said (wrote the Guardian article!), very clearly saying that it was cowardly, to deny under 51’s, an in/out referendum. Whether he wrote it in 08, 09, 10, 11 is irrelevant. That statement he made still holds true, and trying to conveniently erase it from history is futile.
    You can spin this ‘backpedal’, by Clegg (one of many!), until you are dizzy. The truth is that beyond this rarefied LDV atmosphere, the public have a very different opinion on Nick Cleggs integrity, and by association Liberal Democrats as a whole.

  • Interesting to see Mark Thompson’s comment on this issue, in an article entitled “Stephen Tall is right on an EU referendum. And also very wrong.” He says Stephen Tall is right on the technical point that party policy linked a referendum to a fundamental change in the EU, but wrong because the party now looks as though it is backing away from its previous policy, having produced leaflets calling for a referendum with “no caveats attached”, when it was “clearly trying to neutralise Europe as an issue in order to win votes from those who might want to vote “out”.”

  • Helen Dudden 20th Jan '13 - 8:17pm

    I do believe in the reasons for belonging to the EU, there are many suffering because of the problems with the euro.

    It was to promote peace and a more stable future? The Lib Dems were supporting the EU, where is that support gone now?

    How things have changed.

  • As I recall, the debate 5 years ago (in the context of the Lisbon Treaty) was about whether a referendum was appropriate what any referendum would ask.

    Lib Dems clearly said that only an In/Out referendum made sense. A referendum on a lengthily negotiated treaty makes a nonsense of the negotiation, it also invites negotiators to factor in room for a response to a negative outcome.

    This is all old stuff now, but it looks likely to resurface in the wake of Cameron’s yet to be released speech on the EU. Cameron is likely to go along with the In/Out approach following what he thinks he can achieve ‘repatriating powers to the UK’.

    I rather think that it will never come to this because: Cameron may well be out of power; no other EU leaders will accept UK cherry picking; it would need a new treaty that would likely be refused in other countries if undue special favours were given to the UK. However, Cameron’s stance will raise issues for Lib Dems and Labour.

    In Cameron’s mind he will be able to trumpet ‘concessions’ from the EU which many in the Lib Dems and Labour oppose and then put an In/Out referendum to the electorate campaigning for Yes expecting Lib Dems and Labour to join him. If it did come to that, I sense an ugly and damaging car crash.

  • “Lib Dems clearly said that only an In/Out referendum made sense.”

    Well, not entirely. If I remember correctly the House of Lords was given the opportunity of voting on whether to have an in/out referendum, and most Lib Dem peers voted against …

  • Haha! I see you conveniently miss the part where, after commiting to an in-out vote, Lib Dem MPs abstain and then Lib Dem Lords vote against an EU referendum.

    Clegg – I want referendum (Feb 2008):

    MPs vote – Clegg orders abstain (March 2008):

    Vote in the Lords – Clegg orders to oppose (June 2008):

    To the public – we want a referendum
    MPs – abstain
    Lords – against

    Real consistent!

  • LondonStatto 21st Jan '13 - 6:53am

    “Lib Dems push for in/out referendum in House of Commons. ”

    By abstaining!

    All you need to know about LD European policy is that, no matter what they say to try to win votes, they are arch-federalists to the core. A party more out of touch with public opinion is hard to imagine.

  • @londonstatto
    We are at odds with the right wing Tory press. That isn’t the people. We were calling for the in/out referendum when,, like now, EU membership was opposed by the same people.
    Can someone please explain how it is that Germany, whilst subject to the same ‘stifling regulations’, manages to export 6 x the manufactured good to China than the UK? bThis is a genuine question froma non expert.

  • “I see you conveniently miss the part where, after commiting to an in-out vote, Lib Dem MPs abstain and then Lib Dem Lords vote against an EU referendum.”

    To be fair, the votes referred to in the linked news items were about a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, not an in/out referendum. The whole point of the Lib Dem call for an in/out referendum was to give cover to the party’s opposition to a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

    However, as I’ve said, I believe Lib Dem peers did vote against an in/out referendum subsequently.

  • Sorry – to correct what I said – when a motion for an in/out referendum was put to the House of Lords in May 2008, Lib Dem peers abstained (rather than voting against it, as I had misremembered):

  • jj you are muddling issues. So far as I am aware Lib Dems were always (officially) opposed to a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty specifically, but were for an overall In /Out referendum (read your own links).

    Referendums on lengthily negotiated treaties do not make sense (in my view). Perhaps people would welcome a referendum on Intellectual Rights treaties (I can imagine which way that would go), but whatever we thought about it, it would destroy the negotiation process leaving the largest and most powerful country (US) to ignore negotiation and simply impose its will. Not a good outcome (and not far off what actually happens).

    The Lib Dem position that if there is a need for a referendum, it should be an In/Out issue is quite consistent. The need for a referendum has been clarified as a treaty that transfers more power to the EU decision making processes.

  • “The Lib Dem position that if there is a need for a referendum, it should be an In/Out issue is quite consistent.”

    Obviously the problem there is that the Lib Dems said in their 2005 manifesto that there should be a referendum specifically on the proposed EU constitution, which later metamorphosed into the Lisbon Treaty – the get-out clause being that the Lisbon Treaty was not described as a ‘constitution’ …

    Presumably Stephen is right that since 2007 party policy has not changed in a technical sense – but the claim that policy as expressed in party manifestos and other literature and the actions of the party’s parliamentarians have remained consistent is not tenable.

  • Chris, I think you have to explain yourself. Although personally I am uneasy about any referendum (in practice it is less a judgement on the question than on who is posing the question), the Lib Dem position is very little changed.

    Do I infer that you are trying to say that the Lisbon Treaty is identical to the Constitution? If you think that you never looked at the Constitution. The Constitution agglomerated all existing treaties within a presentation that expressed commitment to an overall vision for the EU. Visionary rather than pragmatic. The Treaty contained none of the all encompassing grandstanding, but addressed issues that largely related to the consequences of EU enlargement (something the UK had particularly pushed for).

    A vote on the EU Constitution was an opportunity to vote on the vision for the EU and this was not at all available in the Lisbon Treaty. Without such an opportunity, the only referendum should be For or Against the EU rather than for or against a lengthily negotiated and bargained treaty. Explain if you think I am wrong, but this is what I take to be the Lib Dem position.

  • “Do I infer that you are trying to say that the Lisbon Treaty is identical to the Constitution?”

    Only you can know what you infer. But I’m neither saying that nor trying to say it.

    However, for the reasons already discussed at length, the party’s literature and the actions of its parliamentarians have often not accurately reflected the policy position of “in favour of an in/out referendum, but only in case of fundamental change”.

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